It's time to end meeting cultures


You're sitting in a conference room with a dozen expensive and exhausted people. You're trying to solve an extremely complex problem in 55 minutes. Everyone has different context. No one gets more than six minutes to speak. And you leave with a subpar answer that will require dozens of 1-on-1s, decks, follow-up meetings, and more. 

Few of us have our best ideas in a meeting. In fact, one study in Germany found that working on your own produces 3.5x more ideas and a whopping 6.5x more good ideas.

Given that organizations are so reliant on meetings, how can this be the case?

  • First, many people find meetings to be pressure cookers. As shared in the worldwide bestseller, Primed to Perform, when people feel emotional or economic pressure, they are less able to solve problems. One study demonstrated that when under pressure, people produce less than half as many ideas in team meetings as they could alone.
  • Second, inspiration is hard to control. Think about your own experience. Do your best ideas come in meetings, or rather when you're relaxing in bed, or going for a walk, or taking a shower?
  • Third, meetings are inefficient. Because only one person can talk at a time (or at least, only one person should talk at a time), the exchange of ideas takes a long time. Also, live discussions tend to go in a random order - or in order of who's most willing to speak up - not in the order of idea quality.

And this is all just a small part of the story. As you'll see in the rest of this article, the future of work is clear: companies that can minimize their dependence on meetings will have a significant advantage.

Why it is time to dismantle meeting culture

When it comes to driving performance, play is the most powerful motivator. Someone who finds their work interesting is going to significantly outperform someone who finds their work boring.

But at any given point, teammates might have different preferences for what kind of work or ways of working would be most playful. This is why leaders must understand the play profiles of their teams. 

A play profile describes the kind of work and ways of working that would most motivate a colleague right now. For example, my profile right now is Explorer. I prefer open-ended, creative work (like writing these kinds of knowledge pieces), and I prefer working alone or asynchronously.

The data below comes from the Factor platform. Factor helps leaders build motivated, high-performing, problem-solving teams. One of the hundreds of tools in Factor is the play profile. Here's how Factor's userbase breaks down in their play profiles:

Click here to take the Factor self-diagnostic and learn about your own play profile.

Based on the above, roughly half of employees prefer to engage collaboratively through team meetings - and the other half prefer collaborating asynchronously or 1-on-1. So why should organizations continue relying on live meetings for 100% of employees?

Aside from play profiles, there are five other reasons why companies must curb their meeting addiction to build high-performance cultures:

  1. Adaptive work: Tactical work is getting automated. What's left is the kind of adaptive work that isn't managed best in meetings, as discussed above - namely, ideation and problem solving.
  2. Leader burnout: Leaders are burning out at extremely high levels. Meeting overload is a major contributing factor.
  3. Hybrid work: To benefit from hybrid work, employees need to shift work to the times when they will be most productive or least distracted. This means less calendar overlap from employee to employee, and thus less time for meetings.
  4. Cross-time zone talent: Because of differences in the distribution of skills and the cost of labor around the world, teams are increasingly located across many time zones.
  5. AI requires writing cultures: The more writing available to an AI, the more useful it becomes. Therefore, the more that an organization's work is written (rather than spoken), the more they can make use of AI.

How to end your meeting addiction with two commitments

Think about amazing open-source software projects like Linux (13,500 developers) and Apache (8,400 developers). These projects have thousands of developers. They don't share office space. They don't even share companies. While they might have group meetings, it is the exception, not the norm. And yet, they can be so effective that they have produced software that has blown away competition from giant, well-funded companies. 

So what can your organization do to tap into this kind of performance magic?

At a high level, it comes down to two commitments:

  1. Reduce meetings down to the minimum effective dose.
  2. Invest in asynchronous collaboration.

Let's unpack these below. It's simpler than you might expect!

Commitment 1: Implement the minimum effective dose of meetings

For the past decade, we and our clients have been experimenting with how to minimize meetings. Not having any meetings isn't ideal - after all, half of your colleagues will prefer to work this way. But spending a ton of time in meetings - not to mention all the prep time - clearly isn't working.

After ten years of experimentation, here's what we've found is the ideal meeting schedule for most teams:

After implementing the above schedule, the typical colleague will participate in 3-5 hours of meetings per week. Leaders will have a few more depending on how many teams they directly manage. Even in the most extreme cases, this is a significant reduction in meeting time.

Commitment 2: Embrace asynchronous work

With 35+ hours freed up per week outside of meetings, what's the best way to work together? The answer: asynchronous collaboration.

If "asynchronous collaboration" is a new term for you, don't worry -  you're almost certainly familiar with the most basic version: email. Asynchronous means "not at the same time". When you and a colleague email back and forth, you're engaged in asynchronous collaboration - working together without being together.

Over the past ten years, asynchronous collaboration has evolved far beyond email. Email's first successor was instant messenger, initially in the form of AOL, then Skype, then more capable apps like Slack. Then came specialized work apps like JIRA and Salesforce, where colleagues in the same team or department could share tools, set up a process, and move work items forward with a common structure.

We are now in the age of full-fledged work platforms, where every colleague in an organization can share the same digital space, manipulate the structure of that space, and collaborate with any other colleague on any process, priority, or task - all without the need for email or instant messaging.

For example, using a work platform like Factor, a team can solve a problem without ever talking about it out loud. Imagine a week like the following:

  • Monday morning: The team leader shares one to three paragraphs explaining the next problem that the team needs to tackle.
  • Monday afternoon - Teammates read and digest the problem on their own time. They ask questions, share context, and share ideas whenever they come to mind. An idea can range from a few words to a paragraph. Keep it simple.
  • Tuesday - The team leader takes a few minutes to respond to the questions and ideas and organize them into themes or options.
  • Wednesday & Thursday - The team weighs in on the options in writing, a few sentences at a time. What are the downsides? What are the upsides? Often, the team builds on the options to make them even better. It usually becomes clear which ideas will and won't work.
  • Friday - The team aligns on the best idea. One colleague volunteers to flesh out a plan.

All of the above happens within the context of a strategy board, where every priority owned by the team is organized and broken down into smaller pieces.

When you work this way, you're not just meeting less - you also produce higher-quality work. For example:

  1. Colleagues take their time to think methodically and answer thoughtfully, rather than giving check-the-box answers, because they don't feel called out to defend their thinking.
  2. Colleagues engage more cross-functionally on problems that require a diverse range of expertise.
  3. Colleagues can engage directly with one another without escalation, provided they do so transparently.
  4. Colleagues properly modulate their time between short, medium, and long time horizons, not just focusing on hyper-urgent needs.

Up until recently, this flow wouldn't have been possible. Trying to manage a problem solving process in email, instant messenger, or a specialized work apps is like traveling around town on a pogo stick. It might technically be possible, but you'll waste a lot of energy, risk injury, and look silly in the process.

This is in part why forty years into the information age, we have the highest levels of burnout and disengagement on record. Teams are trying to use the exact wrong tools to collaborate.

The time is now and the ROI is incredible

The benefits of reducing meeting time and improving asynchronous collaboration are tremendous. In our pilots, we've seen productivity and motivation skyrocket. And colleagues report feeling less rushed, more creative, and more focused - with a feeling of "lightness", as one leader put it. The benefits are even more enormous in orgs who work remotely, where meetings are even more inefficient and fatiguing over video.

Too many people are stuck in the old, meeting-heavy model. The most commonly cited statistic for how much time employees spend in meetings is 15%. More recent estimates put that number closer to 20%. For middle managers that number balloons to 35%. Another study found that executives spend a whopping 75% of their time joining or preparing for meetings.

Worse still, as the Wall Street Journal reports, even with all this meeting time, leaders still estimate that companies lose 15% in productivity from poor collaboration.

Colleagues are so overwhelmed with meetings that multitasking in meetings has gotten out of hand. This multitasking makes meetings less effective, resulting in more meetings.

It's time to end meeting cultures. When organizations reduce meetings to a minimum and embrace strong asynchronous collaboration, they can unlock their people's full potential.

Originally published at:

Neel Doshi

Neel is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Neel was a Partner at McKinsey & Company, CTO and founding member of an award-winning tech startup, and employee of several mega-institutions. He studied engineering at MIT and received his MBA from Wharton. In his spare time, he’s an avid yet mediocre woodworker and photographer.

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Lindsay McGregor

Lindsay is the co-founder of Vega Factor and co-author of bestselling book, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation. Previously, Lindsay led projects at McKinsey & Company, working with large fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, universities and school systems. She received her B.A. from Princeton and an MBA from Harvard. In her spare time she loves investigating and sharing great stories.

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