If you work at a large or growing company, you’ll eventually face the problem of too many meetings. It’s a common, yet tricky villain. Too many meetings will quietly suck away productivity by breaking everyone’s day into little chunks and robbing everyone of deep work. Worse, when people feel their time is being wasted in meetings, they can become disengaged. Before you know it, that fun collaborative workplace culture has turned into a drag of constant meetings.
Trying to fix a meeting-heavy culture is like playing Whack-A-Mole. No matter how many meetings you whack, they keep popping back up! By now, you’ve heard all the tips: make sure every meeting has an agenda, have no-meetings on Wednesdays, etc. These all provide temporary relief, but they don’t get to the heart of the problem. Meetings always come back. 😈
The trick to getting meetings under control is to stop fighting them head on. Instead, consider excess meetings a symptom that points to underlying problems in your organizational structure and culture.
When you have a headache, an aspirin can help, but it’s far better to find the root cause. Are you hangry? Did you just quit drinking coffee? Are you slouching over your laptop? When we consider meeting overload as a symptom of something deeper, it frees us to uncover root causes and plan interventions.
I have worked closely with dozens of startups of all sizes. Over the years, I’ve put together a short list of underlying causes for meeting overload. So if you have too many meetings at your company, consider the following questions.
Are roles and responsibilities clear?
A big reason people bring up topics in meetings it to ask for input, feedback, and approval. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle. But we’ve all been in meetings that feel like a waste of time because everyone is weighing in on some small detail. You might wonder, “Why are we even talking about this?”
Teams waste time talking about unimportant topics because they haven’t agreed on how decisions get made.
Let’s say you’re facing a tough decision on a project. Do you get to make the decision yourself, or is someone else responsible? Who else needs to be consulted and informed? If these answers are unclear, you’re likely to bring up the decision in a meeting with everyone who might have a stake in the outcome.
This is a common situation in “flat structure” companies, where teams are hesitant to assign responsibilities. Although it sounds good that everyone could lend a hand when problems come up, the result is that people often feel like they can’t move a project forward unless they get input from other people first. When people’s responsibilities are unclear, they can feel disempowered to do work on their own. That leads to too many meetings. And worse, it leads to people not feeling in control of and engaged in their work.
A good way to start clarifying responsibilities is is to assign a DRI (Directly Responsible Individual) for each project. Make it clear that the DRI is responsible for making decisions on the project, and that she can use good judgement to involve other people in decisions as necessary.
If you want to clarify responsibilities even further, you can use a responsibility framework like RACI for each project. These more detailed frameworks help reduce meeting load by clarifying who needs to be consulted for major decisions, and who just wants to be informed of the outcomes.
Do people know what’s happening?
It’s human nature to be curious about what’s happening around you. And people actually need a lot of context in order to do their job well. For example, if you’re planning a conference, It’s incredibly helpful to know if finance is tightening budgets, if design is updating the brand, or if the engineering team is on track for launch dates.
Imagine that you are planning this conference, but you have a problem. There’s no good way to find out what’s happening in the areas that affect the project. You’ll need to ask some questions in email, or schedule meetings with people who know what’s up. That’s fine for one project, but when everyone in the company does the same thing, we end up with overflowing inboxes and jam packed calendars.
Status meetings are a big red flag. When you have a lot of status meetings, it’s probably because there’s no other way to figure out what’s happening.
Status meetings are particularly tricky because they become entrenched in the culture. When meetings are the venue where people find out what’s happening, meetings also become the place to showcase accomplishments and be seen. If you notice teammates are giving long verbose speeches about their work, then you have a problem with status meetings.
The best way I’ve seen to solve this situation is to set up a regular cadence of written communication. On small teams, you can have individuals write a daily update, much like a standup meeting. When you grow to several teams, each team can send out a weekly newsletter. And at a larger scale, leaders can send an update to the whole company. These levels of communication cadence will lay a groundwork of context that helps to reduce your overall meeting load.
Are you doing too much at the same time?
Every project has communication overhead. When your company tackles too many projects at the same time, the coordination overhead grows, and it can start to to take all your time just staying in sync.
If you’re spending more time talking about work than actually doing work, you’re probably juggling too much.
One sure sign of this problem is a status meeting where no one has substantial updates. You might suspect that teammates were so busy running around to meetings that they didn’t have any time to make progress on projects.
I sympathize with this root cause the most because I love saying yes to projects. I like telling people I can help. I like feeling busy. But when I take on too many projects, I end up being less efficient. It often pays to finish up one project before starting the next. And the same is true for organizations.
If your company is juggling too many projects, call out the inefficiency, decide how many projects you can handle at the same time, then make some tough calls prioritizing what projects get done first, and what projects will have to wait. When you limit work in progress, you’ll lower your meeting load.
Do people trust each other?
Having a problem with trust doesn’t mean you’ve got a Jerry Springer situation where people are screaming and throwing chairs. It’s usually much more subtle. I like to visualize a sort of cold war situation, where everyone is cordial, but secretly gathering information about each other and playing the angles.
Working on “trust” might sounds fuzzy, but it’s essential for high-functioning teams. Trust has been in the spotlight all along, from the classic management book 5 Dysfunctions of a Team, to the latest research from Google’s Project Oxygen.
If you’re discussing the same things over and over again, and people don’t follow through with commitments, then you’re likely suffering from a lack of trust.
When people don’t trust each other, they tend to hoard information instead of sharing it openly. You get more misunderstandings, and more meetings to untangle those misunderstandings. When project teams don’t trust each other to follow through with commitments, you get more meetings to make sure everything is still on track. And when managers don’t trust their team to do quality work, you get more meetings to micromanage.
If this sounds like your problem, look for ways to build trust on your team and throughout the company. There are volumes written on this topic. But one of my favorite ways to get started is to add a check-in round to the start of your team meetings. It’ll help everyone understand each other better, see each other as full human beings, and over time, it can build a foundation of trust.
Why this stuff matters
Some people think of their workplace culture as static. They assume that things will never change. But workplaces are remarkably flexible, and you can create change on your team.
Although I’ve written mostly about getting rid of meetings, it’s important to remember that meetings can actually be amazing!
Meetings let us play with ideas, solve tough problems together, and feel like a team. That’s basically the entire reason I come to work in the first place!
When you reduce the number of excess meetings, your create more time to truly work well together as a team. And as an added bonus, by tackling causes of organizational dysfunction, you make your workplace more empowering, inclusive, and fun.
One last thing…
For me, this exploration of meetings was at total accident. I started a company, Range, that helps teams build trust and know what’s happening. At first we weren’t even thinking about meeting overload. But along the way we’ve run into companies struggling with a meeting heavy culture, and looking for ways to change.
So if the root cause of your meeting overload is a lack of trust, or people not knowing what’s happening, there’s a good chance Range can help. If you’d like to learn more, check out Range. We’re nice people and would love to chat.
Also, I’d love to know what you think about these root causes of meeting overload. What other root causes have you seen? What other ways have you dealt with meeting overload in your workplace? As always, you can find me on Twitter at @kowitz.