The basic arithmetic that makes meetings bad

Photo:  This meeting will never end; courtesy Rylee Isitt.

Warning: I sat through a frustrating meeting last week.  And now you’re going to hear about it.

We all hate meetings.  And yet, at the same time, we love calling meetings.  In academia, at least, they’re part of the very foundation of our organizations, which we insist are distinguished from other enterprises by our use of collegial governance.  (I’ve argued elsewhere, heretically, that we try to be quite a lot more collegial than is good for us, but that’s not my point today.)  In universities, we want to govern ourselves from the bottom up, with the faculty rather than administrators making the decisions.  The way we know how to do that is by holding meetings – big ones, and lots of them.

This meeting-loving behaviour is Not Good, because we often seem not to realize the basic arithmetic that Makes Meetings Bad.

Here’s the crux of it.  How many times have you heard “let’s have a meeting to decide that; it won’t take long”?  And the meeting may not, in fact, take very long, by a naïve accounting.  I was in a dull and frustrating meeting last week, but it took only an hour, so no harm done, right?  Except there were 10 faculty members and two technicians at this meeting, and that means that it didn’t actually take an hourIt took 12 hours.  We each gave up an hour, and that’s 12 person-hours, and that’s an expensive meeting.

Once you realize the existence of this bit of basic arithmetic, it changes the whole calculus of meetings.  What did it cost to have my meeting last week?  Well, you could argue that it cost $1,000 (that’s a rough estimate of the combined salary to cover the hour for all the folks in the room).  Or you can think of the other tasks the meeting displaced, and argue that it cost the delivery of 12 lectures, or the writing of 8 reference letters, or two days of benchtop experiments, or the peer review of three grants, or the writing of the Discussion section for one paper.  Anything, indeed, that one person could accomplish in 12 uncluttered hours*.

This calculus gets worse and worse as the meeting gets larger.  A full 90-minute faculty meeting for my department would be 45 person-hours.  A university Senate meeting might be 150 person-hours.  The arithmetic quickly gets mind-boggling.

Now, none of this is to argue that we should never have meetings.  There are functions best accomplished that way – here’s Brian McGill about what those functions might be (and not be), and how to run meetings well when you have them.  But when we’re deciding whether to have a meeting, and who to invite, please let’s remember to do the basic arithmetic.  If we’re proposing a one-hour meeting, we should not ask ourselves “is this issue worth an hour of our time?”.  Instead, if there will be n people at the meeting, we should ask ourselves, “is this issue worth n hours of our time?”.  These two questions will often have very different answers.  Recognizing that could improve all of our academic lives**.

I’d like to tell you that I wrote this post during my dull meeting, thereby salvaging at least something from the 12 lost person-hours. Alas, I was either too polite, or possibly not smart enough, to do that.  I’m not ruling it out in the future.

© Stephen Heard  November 27, 2018

*^And oh, how I would salivate at the prospect of 12 hours of uncluttered time.  Of course, that’s assuming I’m the one of the 12 who gets to have those hours, in this alternative way of accounting.  But I know that if it was someone else, they’d accomplish just as much.

**^Possibly by reducing the number of meetings, but also quite possibly by reducing n for each.  And yes, I know that goes against the spirit of collegial governance.  Collegial governance, like beer, is a great thing; but it’s a great thing one can easily have too much of.  (Yes, personal experience in both cases.)


2 thoughts on “The basic arithmetic that makes meetings bad

  1. Peter Apps

    Standing in queues erodes productivity by a similar inexorable logic – and around here the queues in the banks never have fewer than 20 people in them for an hour each, right through the day, and at government offices you queue for half a day to pick up a form, that you then queue to hand in and queue again to get whatever other bit of paper the form was requesting. Cost all that out, even at minimum wage and it is a huge drain on an economy. Getting back to the meeting – is it still necessary to meet in the same room, can’t it be done in cyberspace ?



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