Creative Leadership

Why Your (*^&%$) Meetings Last So Long

I’ve had numerous clients over the years who have regularly scheduled meetings lasting 8 or more hours.  Usually held with the senior leadership team, they go on and on – often wasting an entire day.  One notorious non-profit’s monthly leadership and marketing meetings extend  literally for 2 solid days at a time.  I’d rather visit the dentist.  So let me tell you why this is a bad idea:

First, human beings simply can’t focus their attention for so long.  After about 40 minutes at a stretch, even the best people start mentally wandering, opening email, staring out the window, and checking out.  Just notice the faces around the table as you near the first hour mark – watch how they start disengaging.  From that point on, anything you attempt at the meeting will only have limited results, and effectiveness starts to quickly erode.

And here’s the reason:  Meetings aren’t for processing – they’re for decisions.

All day meetings happen because people don’t come prepared, and expect to do their processing (or thinking) at the meeting itself.  All that does is waste everyone’s time.  The reason you gather all these leaders together isn’t to watch everyone think – it’s to arrive at a decision.

Here’s what I recommend:  When your time comes to speak, give your recommendation for the subject at hand, provide no more than a 1 minute explanation, and then hand everyone a “fact sheet” with the details.  The fact sheet is the process.  It’s how you came to your conclusion.  You did your homework so you don’t have to bore everyone to death with the details.

For those in the room that need more detail, they’re welcome to read it at their leisure.  For the rest, let’s agree or disagree with your recommendation and move on.

Don’t just try it – make it you working guide.  You’ll see the length of your meetings drop dramatically, and the results of your meetings improve just as dramatically.

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  1. Thank you for this.
    I can’t tell you how many pointless and ineffective meetings I have endured. The money/time wasted sitting in meetings is astounding.

  2. I like the management technique of removing the chairs from meeting rooms. That necessarily limits the lenght of meetings.

    I also like the idea of a cost clock in the middle of the table. You input everyones hourly rate and the clock will continously tally the cost visibly as the meeting goes on. A good reminder of what the meeting is costing.

      1. Chair idea didn’t work. Leader rambles on while everyone else stands in agony. But cost clock- that’s a great idea!

  3. I like your observation that meetings aren’t for processing, they’re for decisions. The problem (in my experience anyway) is that people aren’t taught to prepare for meetings. As you say, rather than showing up with a refined idea of what it is they want to get done, they come ready to banter.

    Another thing that will reduce meeting length: I read once that the one leading the meeting should spend as much time in preparation as he or she expects the meeting to be long. Faithfully doing that alone will cut down on meeting length!

  4. Hallelujah. I love this. There are applications beyond traditional meetings too, such as music rehearsals. Unpreparedness or lack of direction in any of these settings is incredibly frustrating. I sit through lots of meetings wondering “why am I here?” and “what part of this could not have been communicated through an email?”.

    Thanks Phil!

    1. I can relate Scott. This also goes for stage production rehearsals, though I’ve only noticed it in ministry. When the director isn’t prepared it shows. It’s a waste of time to show up and not work any scenes, but to instead play children’s improv games….. I’m a believer in valuing people’s time.

  5. So true. Many times I’ve been in meetings that lasted a couple hours- and just when everyone has hit fatigue, comes the time to actually make the decisions. By then, good ideas risk falling to bad because the advocates are too tired to fight for them. So, good idea to categorize meetings into ‘brainstorming & info’ and ‘review & decide.’ Clearly define the goal of the meeting at the start. Meet the goal in a reasonable time, but resist the urge to kick-the-can-down-the-road if your goal was a decision. Great blog Phil- please hit this topic more!

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