Friday, May 8, 2009

Meeting Hell

How many of us need to endure an almost endless procession of pointless meetings? Tools like email and calendaring were meant to make us more productive, but now seem like a ball and chain, holding back innovation and deep thinking

One of the biggest issues is unproductive meetings, and the biggest culprit being email.  We've all sat in the conference room, bored by the speaker, and started doing email. Pretty soon everyone in the room is doing email or using their PC/Blackberry for surfing the web.

Have you been on the other side?  Presenting important material, only to look at the audience typing away on their notebooks or Blackberry? Frustrating eh? All of a sudden you say something interesting to one of the attendees and they stop, look up, and rewind the conversation.  Or after the meeting you get a call from someone mad that they weren't aware of a decision (or course they were in the meeting but not focusing).

The facts here are most people think that they can multi-task, listen to the meeting and do email - but they can't. In a study by Eric Horvitz and the University of Illinois, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They often strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment web sites.

These findings are similar to those of David E. Meyer, a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan. “Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes,” said Meyer. “Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information.”

Meyer identifies three types of multitaskers. Some people do it out of desperation, for example talking on the phone while reviewing papers. They view it as the only way to be competitive. Others multitask impulsively without even realizing they do it. They will stop mid-sentence to do a quick check of their e-mail or listen to voice mail. Hop scotching from one task to another; they don’t realize how their behavior leads to their lack of accomplishment.

The third group multitasks with pride. “Many people delusionally believe they’re good at this...” he says. “The problem is that we only have one brain and it doesn’t work that way. In reality, nobody can effectively do more than one remotely complicated thing at a time.

By allowing email distraction in meetings we're contributing to the massive email overload - how many less emails would there be if people didn't email in meetings? And by allowing attendees to work on something else in the meeting, we are increasing the number of meetings required to get a message across or make a decision - a vicious cycle.

There is an answer - ban email/Blackberrys/IM/notebooks.  When the meeting starts ask everyone to close their notebooks or leave the meeting.  At one offsite we had a second room just for people who needed to go and work on something else.  The message was - if you are in the room then participate in the meeting, and if you want to go and do email then leave. This wasn't nasty - everyone knew that there was no problem if they ducked out, but the meeting would continue without them.

This often is not a popular move (you'll get many dirty looks), but over time everyone will start to see some productive effects:
  • less email
  • less meetings
  • shorter meetings
  • smaller groups in meetings
  • better decisions 
  • better communication
Remember that the aim of meetings is to communicate as a group, and doing email is completely an individual activity. Take control, ban notebooks, and make your meetings instantly more productive.


  1. I totally agree, Phil. I'd actually go beyond your suggestion of banning e-mail in meetings and ban wireless LANs in offices.

    Sure, WLANs are necessary for the ever-improtant Nintendo Wii in the conference room. But, I challenge anybody to tell me how the WLAN has introduced real productivity gains within the office.

    The WLAN was one of the principle enablers for the sin of e-mailing in meetings (the others being the notebook and the BlackBerry). While there are tremendous productivity and mobility benefits which the notebook and BlackBerry created, I think the WLAN has created more problems in the enterprise than benefits.

    In fact, when I think back to the days before broad WLAN adoption, I distinctly remember shorter, crisper, and more actionable meetings since nobody was distracted with their e-mail or focused on Web browsing while the speaker was talking.

  2. Thanks Shin

    Interestingly, here at Mocana we have no wifi, and the effect is that there is no point in bringing notebooks to meetings (there is a single cable in the conference room for the presenter).

    So I agree with your comment - let's ban wifi use in business. If you are feeling really sneaky you can build a wifi jammer from a 2.4Ghz phone. Check out this link

  3. Solid advice. The "gains" you list at the end of the post will not take long to appear, if only we put our foot down and made meetings 'respectable' again.

    I loved the "second room" idea as a subtle yet polite way of balancing the email addicts with the genuine meeters. Almost like the other sin: a smoking room :-)

    Email/Blackberry/IM have made rude distractions the norm even in social meetings. How often have we met someone over drinks, only to see them twitter away while we speak? As the world becomes more connected, we MUST find a way to balance the ability to "look busy" with the right time and right place to for such display.

  4. I met with Marty Cagan from Silicon Valley Product Group last week, and he wrote a similar post Take a look at Marty's post - he gives solid advice.