My New Year’s Resolution: No More Passive Meetings


 

One of the biggest changes I noticed when I became a manager five years ago was an increased amount of time spent in meetings. As someone whose title includes the word “Optimization,” I have always had a nagging feeling that all that time in meetings is inefficient. Certainly there are many time-management books and blogs that recommend “guarding your time” and saying “no” wherever possible. Peter Drucker is famous for saying, “The fewer meetings the better,” and recommends spending less than 25% of one’s time in meetings each week.

However, I recently read Andy Grove’s “High Output Management” book and was pleasantly surprised and relieved to see him acknowledge that meetings are important: as the medium through which a manager’s work is performed. They allow managers to supply and obtain information and to “impart a sense of the preferred method of handling things” to the team. They also allow problems to be identified and fixed while they are still small. Grove’s concern then, is not with the volume of meetings, but with their inherent inefficiencies.

Reading Grove’s book made me curious. How many meetings was I attending, and were they efficient or inefficient? Being a data scientist, I turned to the data for my answer. I analyzed the meetings in my calendar for a typical 28-day period, barring any travel or offsite events. My analysis only considered “official” meetings on my calendar, not informal hallway discussions and other conversations over Slack or HipChat. It also does not account for the productivity losses that come from “chopped up” days that contain numerous context switches.

The data shows I spent about 53 hours in 89 meetings in this period, including in engineering scrums. This is about 33% of a 40-hour week, and about 27% of a 50-hour week. So however I slice it, I came in above Drucker’s 25% “recommended” time spent in meetings. At least the meetings were short. The median length of a meeting was 30 minutes.

The number of meetings and time spent was quite consistent each week, with 12-14 hours of meetings per week spread across 21-24 total meetings. Wednesday had the most meetings (five on average), and Mondays and Fridays had the fewest (four and two on average respectively). The time spent each day in meetings ranged from between about two hours on Mondays and Fridays to 3.5 hours on Wednesdays.

But were those meetings efficient? To dig deeper, I broke the meetings into five categories: Decision Making, Problem Solving (“working/innovation”), Information Sharing (including training), Status Updates and Team Building. The allocation of time and number of meetings in each category is shown below.
Dr. Beth Logan Meeting Experiment

I clearly spent most of my time in “Status Update” meetings… and apparently no time at all in “Team Building” meetings. However, at least five of my meetings over the 28-day period I analyzed had a secondary or tertiary goal of Team Building—the prime example being our weekly team meeting. However, it’s also true that we rarely meet “just” to team build. Admittedly though, my team sits and frequently eats lunch together, so perhaps formal team building isn’t necessary.

My biggest conclusion was that I felt a little unhappy to see so much time devoted to Status Updates. I optimistically expected I would spend more time making grand decisions or solving big problems in meetings. However, it is true that many meetings scheduled with the goal of updating the team on current projects’ statuses resulted in decisions big and small; many also contained elements of Team Building.

Still, the large amount of Status Update meetings stands out as a number that could be reduced. Thinking back to many Status Update meetings, I would be untruthful if I claimed I was actively engaged during every minute of them. I and others are frequently guilty of doing other tasks during Status Update meetings while projects that we are only tangentially involved in are being covered.

The question is: does this matter? Does listening with half an ear still have benefits greater than not being in the meeting at all? Somehow I doubt Andy Grove would agree. As managers, we owe it to our employees to replace unnecessary meetings with other communication methods, and to hold engaging meetings only when absolutely needed. We also need to decline (or offer to improve) meetings called by others that are superfluous or inefficient.

My New Year’s aspiration is now “No More Passive Meetings.” I will set an example of active attendance whenever I do show up for a meeting. I will be vigilant for process improvements that remove the need for inefficient meetings. I plan to repeat my meetings analysis in six months and will post those results as well. If successful, I may still see a lot of meetings in my calendar, but I will no longer be filled with the nagging fear that my time could be better spent elsewhere. Stay tuned for the results of my experiment!

Further reading

If you are interested in this type of analysis, I recommend reading High Output Management. If pressed for time, there are other great summaries online like this one.