But some of the worst meetings are born of the best intentions. In his superlative 1976 treatise on effective workplace communication, “How to Run a Meeting,” the British writer Antony Jay warns against such hazards as being reluctant to exclude someone from a discussion, and waiting for everyone to arrive before delving into business. (“There is only one way to ensure that a meeting starts on time, and that is to start it on time,” Mr. Jay wrote.)
In maniacal detail, Mr. Jay outlined what seems to the reader something like 500,000 possible permutations of gathering type, objectives, leadership tactics, discussion structures, seating arrangements, and so on, the architecture of the hypothetical meetings — whose every pathway leads, unavoidably, to productivity — increasingly resembling something out of a lithograph by Escher. Yet Mr. Jay is not, by default, pro-gathering. A meeting is only warranted, he wrote, if the consequences of not holding it are sufficiently grave.
Tsedal Neeley, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, blamed the modern meeting glut on the assumption that the best way to communicate is verbally.
“All these meetings,” she said, “I bet you, I promise you: 50 percent of it can go away if people have the courage.”
To select a communication format, Dr. Neeley advised considering two criteria: First, must all parties be present at the same time in the same space to exchange the information? Second, will the information be better understood through “lean media” (which is text-based) or “rich media” (which includes nonverbal context)?
Instant messaging apps, Dr. Neeley said, are both “synchronous” (designed for simultaneous participation) and “lean” (primarily text-driven), making them ideal for simple coordination. Whether held in person or via video chat, she said, meetings are synchronous and rich — and they are ideal for tasks involving complex coordination and negotiation.
A meeting can be good, in short — but only if it needs to be a meeting.
Consultative meetings should be small, said Dr. Neeley — no more than six people, to reduce the risk of “social loafing,” in which people attend but do not participate in the meeting.