The One Question You Must Ask Before Calling a Meeting

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There’s a famous quote often attributed to Abraham Lincoln that goes like this: “If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend the first four hours sharpening the axe.” Good advice — sometimes. When it comes to a large tree, a hulking sequoia for example, spending time optimizing the effectiveness of the chopping is well worth it. But what about when you’re trying to take down a small birch? With all due respect to our 16th President, don’t waste your time. Even a dull blade should be more than enough to chop that sucker down. That preparation and planning comes with a cost, sometimes not worth paying, is a lesson we all need to be reminded of often. Especially when it comes to meetings.

According to management expert Peter Drucker, “One other meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.” It’s a simple yet profound point. If you think about it, meetings are generally where we talk about the work, discuss the work, plan the work, coordinate the work, but it’s almost never where we do the work itself. When we hold a meeting, we’re not swinging the axe, we’re sharpening it. These group sessions are supposed to enable us to perform the actual work more effectively later on. And meetings often do, which is why it’s no surprise that leaders are so quick to call them. But good decisions aren’t made based solely on the expected benefits, they also take into consideration the costs.

And when it comes to meetings, the costs are extraordinary. Just think of the last meeting you went to. Go ahead and estimate the hourly salaries of each attendee and add them all up. Now multiply that sum by how long the meeting took (don’t forget to add time for transition and prep). The result may shock you. But that number, as surprisingly large as it may be, won’t even reflect what is likely the biggest cost of all: the culture of interruption that that meeting has contributed to. As venture capitalist and essayist Paul Graham points out, for makers — people who thrive on long stretches of time to get work done — just one meeting can derail an entire day’s productivity. And because practically anyone in an organization can call a meeting at any time for any reason, they do. The result is an epidemic of over-meeting. Days are spent constantly traveling to and from conference rooms preventing people from ever building the momentum they desperately need to do their best work. Let’s face it, the meeting has become a weapon of mass interruption.

So considering the high cost of meetings, it should follow that we only hold them when their expected benefits are great. This means that the issues we should meet about should be of relatively high importance. It’s simple math really. If a meeting is likely to improve the outcome of some issue by 20% for example, it means we earn only $20 discussing a $100 matter, whereas we earn $2,000 for discussing a $10,000 matter. It’s much more difficult to justify the former than the latter. Therefore, we should reserve meetings for relatively high-stakes issues. Important issues that if we get right, we stand to win big, and if we get wrong, we risk losing big.

But meeting only for important matters doesn’t happen very often. In my experience working with Fortune 500, non-profit, and governmental organizations, just a quick look at a random executive’s schedule will almost invariably reveal a stunning number of meetings called for relatively inconsequential reasons. Of course the executive doesn’t think so. To the leader, every meeting feels highly consequential. But that doesn’t mean it actually is. And when time and attention is scarce — and in organizations it is — it’s a leader’s responsibility to focus that group’s finite time and attention where it is most needed. In other words, leaders have to prioritize. And we all know the first rule of prioritization: if everything is a priority, nothing is.

And that is why when deciding whether or not to hold a meeting, it’s not enough to ask whether it will be beneficial. (The answer to that question will almost certainly be yes.) Instead you should ask whether the meeting is essential? Ask it honestly and you’ll begin to notice how many of your meetings were called out of convenience, tradition, or formality. You’ll become highly skeptical of meetings with vague euphemistic purposes like “alignment” or “weekly check-in.” You’ll consider whether a memo, a couple of quick one-on-one conversations, or just making the darn decision yourself without any further consultation might be good enough. Again, it’s not that a meeting wouldn’t provide any benefit in any one of these cases, it’s just not clear it would provide enough to justify a meeting. And when there’s any doubt, you should err on the side of cancelling it. When I’ve had managers perform this exercise, they’ve realized that as many as 70% of their meetings are non-essential. And when they have the courage to get rid of them (they don’t always), they and their team are rewarded with an unusual amount of time to do the real work.

Here’s your chance to earn those same rewards. Go through your calendar right now and look at every one of your upcoming meetings. For each one, ask yourself, “considering the costs, is this meeting absolutely essential?” Be prepared that many of your favorite meetings won’t survive this triage. But take comfort in the fact that the ones that do will revolve around discussing, debating, brainstorming, and coordinating truly consequential issues. Issues that really matter. Issues that warrant the group’s precious collective time and attention. Big sequoias, not little birches.