North Americans spend about 55 per cent of their working hours on meetings, administrative tasks, and other “interruptions” from their primary responsibilities.
I came from a company that spent a lot of time in meetings – planning meetings, to be more specific. The company encouraged a high-level of involvement in internal meetings to better the organization.
I was responsible for a team of managers who were tasked with creativity. They needed to bring together new and innovative ideas on a daily basis. I often received complaints from my team about a lack of focus time, which made it difficult to come up with good ideas and create new things. They felt like they were spending all their time planning the next project or catching up on existing ones. To stay on top of things, many of them had to do their ideation outside of working hours.
I asked my team to write down all the meetings they had with their own teams and provide me with the list. I wanted to see the extent of the problem. The list confirmed that we certainly had a big problem. The managers spent about 15 hours a week on internal meetings.
The Three Meeting Motivators
Why is it we often feel we need to do our best creative work outside the nine-to-five workday? Why are those hours so much more productive, so much more creative? The truth is they’re not. We’ve trained our brains to no longer see these beautiful eight-hour stretches of time as a chance to do anything meaningful.
Instead, we see our days as cesspools of interruptions and meetings. We pack our calendars with redundancy: meetings where we kick a project down the road or talk about what we’ve got to do next.
I believe there are a few reasons why teams meet so much, and none of them are good:
Doing the actual creative work is difficult. We meet because it’s often easier than putting in the work to create something new.
We want to avoid personal responsibility for the work. When we meet, a group of people can talk about doing something rather than actually doing it.
We believe meetings lead us to better results. This is very debatable.
Imagine if you took all that wasted time and turned it into creative thinking and action instead. If I told you that you could have eight hours of time today, all to yourself, to think, create, and innovate, it would probably be a dream come true.
Bad Meetings Are a Plague on Companies
Unproductive or prolonged meetings can become a virus that affects an entire organization. It infects the organizational culture and becomes especially difficult to overcome in large companies.
Ironically, advances in technology have arguably made meetings harder to avoid in the contemporary workplace. We can theoretically be contacted 24/7 by local and international colleagues and clients. And we can attend meetings remotely using our smartphones and video conferencing technology.
Being out of the office or traveling in another time zone are no longer convenient excuses to skip meetings. The modern employee can waste time from anywhere.
Meetings Can Become a Crutch
Some organizations (and some staff members) can become so used to a meeting culture that they believe their company cannot function without regular meetings. If this is the philosophy of the senior management of an organization, it can become impossible to shift the mindset of the staff.
If you or your team are constantly distracted by this type of bureaucracy, your creativity will inevitably suffer.
You need to truly value your time and the time of your team. Not in a financial sense, but using the economic principle of Opportunity Cost:
Any time that you waste in unnecessary or prolonged meetings is time that you could potentially spend doing more creative and productive tasks at work.
Completing important tasks outside of work hours is not a viable alternative. While the after-hours approach might enable you or your team to temporarily stay on top of workload, it is unsustainable for creativity and innovation over the long term. Your creativity will drop. Or you’ll burnout. Or both of those things will happen.
Procrastination Is the Core of Meeting-Heavy Cultures
I remember sitting in a meeting to discuss a campaign strategy that the creative and accounts team were going to be putting together. The meeting had been scheduled for 60 minutes and required a group of six people.
We spent the first 20 minutes talking in circles about the tasks that needed to get done. It took the equivalent of two hours of combined brain time.
We figured out what we needed to hold a 30-minute, deep-dive session into a client strategy, and then come up with a solution for the client’s challenge.
Then we started to plan our next meeting to do the deep-dive session. I was thrown for a loop. Our one-hour meeting had started at 2 p.m. It was now 2:25. Instead of cracking the whip and using the remaining 35 minutes to do the deep dive, we were planning to schedule another 30-minute meeting to solve the problem later!
At this point, I spoke up. I asked the group, a) What the hell? and, b) Why were we doing what we were doing? The response I got suggested that, at the core, we were procrastinating.
I am not saying meetings don’t have a place in creativity. They absolutely do. They can be amazing tools for planning, brainstorming together, and getting a team on the same page. But they need to lead to action. They can’t allow people to talk in circles and waste time. Unfortunately, in most companies, that’s exactly what happens. Meetings delay progress.
The importance of a “doing philosophy” is summed up perfectly in this quote from Leonardo Da Vinci, one of the greatest creative minds of all time:
Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Being willing is not enough; we must do.
Planning to Come Up with Ideas vs. Coming Up with Ideas to Plan
We kick creativity down the road when we schedule a meeting, bring a group together, talk about projects goals, and then schedule another meeting to brainstorm ways to achieve the goals. If you’re an in-house marketer, does your annual calendar look like this?
April: Develop sponsorship concept for summer
July: Develop fall campaign concept and begin production
October: Brainstorm ideas for winter campaign
Chances are good that you populated this calendar during an annual meeting to plan the marketing year. As marketers, we tend to kick creativity down the road. We create a calendar with small boxes of time and opportunity, and when the scheduled brainstorm rolls around, we force our ideas to fit into the box we created months earlier.
How would your marketing year change if you used that annual meeting to brainstorm bold new ideas for your brand or product? If you could pursue any idea– not just the one that fits into the predefined box– could you create more effective campaigns? We bet you could.
We need to shift our mindset to one where we make brainstorming great ideas our first priority. Planning to execute those ideas can come second.
Our book, The Proximity Paradox, dives deeper into this topic, and provides practical strategies of how to stop it from killing your innovation.