The Real Tragedy of Nearly Meeting

In Will There Be Donuts?, David Pearl explains the concept of nearly meeting (p22):

Nearly meeting is any meeting where the participants fail to get real value out of their coming together. They are the ones which offer a poor return on the time and effort invested – for the individuals taking part and the organizations they work for.

Nearly meetings are the ones where problems are half solved, the issues are partially understood, the right things are almost said. They come that close to being useful. If you ever stagger out of a meeting wondering where the day went and what you did with it, you’ve probably been nearly meeting. You’ll have semi-resolved problems, almost discussed what truly needs to be discussed and practically decided what to do about it.

Does any of that sound familiar?

The Monetary Costs of Nearly Meeting

The monetary costs of nearly meeting are staggering. Once again, Pearl does such a great job that I’ll just use his words (p23):

Imagine you are in a role which requires you to attend three hours of meetings a day. And let’s say you’d score those meetings 70 percent effective. Let’s also imagine there are 100 people like you in the company and that your average wage is, say, $100k. None of this is particularly far-fetched, you’d agree? OK, then.

You just wasted 82 days in meetings this year, costing your company a pretty significant $2m. What’s more, if you were to continue at this rate for a conventional career, you’d be burning a total of nine years, six months, and three days of your working life.

Now, maybe you disagree with some of the facts as presented, but the main point still stands: nearly meeting is a colossal waste of money.

My Own Schedule

While reading Will There Be Donuts?, I decided to assess how much time I spend in meetings (whether nearly or real). To avoid any skew that might invariably favour a particular period, I looked at an entire fiscal quarter. Below, I’ve grabbed a 13-week chunk of my calendar and listed the hours of meetings per week for which I was a “required” (i.e., not an “optional” invitee) attendee:

  • Week 1: 18
  • Week 2 10.5
  • Week 3: 15.5
  • Week 4: 19.5
  • *Week 5: 7.5
  • Week 6: 12.5
  • Week 7: 17
  • Week 8: 15
  • Week 9: 18
  • Week 10: 15
  • *Week 11: 8
  • Week 12: 18
  • Week 13: 15.5

*denotes a four-day workweek due to a public holiday

To add further context, there are two caveats:

  1. The numbers listed above represent the meetings still in my calendar; that is, they don’t include meetings that were declined or deleted
  2. The numbers listed above do not account for meetings that went over (fairly frequent) or came in under (infrequent) the scheduled time

Two conclusions are obvious from a cursory glance at our data:

  1. I’m required to attend too many meetings
  2. People don’t schedule meetings during short workweeks

Normalizing the short weeks and averaging the whole quarter reveals that in an average week, I’m required to attend almost exactly 15 hours of meetings per week – and remember, this figure is artificially low on account of the caveats listed above. It’s probable that the real number is closer to 17, although I must admit it feels closer to 25.

Daaaaamn.

The Real Cost of Nearly Meeting

However, wasted money isn’t the saddest thing about nearly meeting. Pearl reminds us of a much greater – a much more real – cost (p41): “Nearly meetings are not just unproductive, they are counterproductive because they undermine our trust in the power of really meeting. And really meeting can change the world…”

When we get together, we’re doing so to solve problems, to advance causes, to share information, to work together – and nearly meeting wears us down, tricks us into thinking that there isn’t a better way, and prevents us from changing the world.

“Nearly meetings are not just unproductive, they are counterproductive because they undermine our trust in the power of really meeting. And really meeting can change the world…” – David Pearl

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Posted in Management
3 comments on “The Real Tragedy of Nearly Meeting
  1. […] starts by explaining the real tragedy of nearly meeting: all those missed opportunities to change the world, that, instead, ended up wasting time and even […]

  2. […] I’ve spent a couple of posts complaining about meetings. With those little rants out of the way, let’s turn our attention […]

  3. […] Nearly meeting is a colossal waste of time and resources, and – most destructively – it turns us off the real potential of really meeting. […]

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