A Meeting to Eliminate Meetings


I was once called into a meeting to analyze our meetings. Stop laughing.

There were over 30 people in attendance, including 10 mid-level managers, three directors, and the Super Director leading the way. The cost of this two hour meeting was significant. 

It was all very exciting. 

Giant pieces of paper were taped along all four walls, each listing the name of a different department meeting. And there were a lot of meetings. 

Monthly All-Hands Meeting, Weekly Manager Meeting, Daily Creative Meeting, Weekly Marketing Strategy Meeting, Monthly Creative Meeting, Bi-Weekly Editorial Meeting, Quarterly Update Meeting, Bi-Annual Self-Improvement Meeting, Weekly One-on-One Meeting.

You get the picture.

Anticipation was high when florescent sticky notes and sharpies were handed out so we could rate the meetings on a scale of 1 to 5 (useless to valuable).

Frenzied, the group attacked the boards. Our voices would finally be heard as we joyfully rated the value of each meeting. There were a few large zeros put up, which drew a noticeable grimace from the Super Director, and a reiteration of the 1 to 5 rating system.

When the frenzy died down, it was clear that several of the meetings were doomed, dominated by lousy ratings. We were informed that the next step would be to tally up the average ratings for each meeting, distribute this list to the group, and decide which meetings to eliminate. 

It didn't exactly play out like that, instead: 

  • No meetings were eliminated
  • The decision was made by the Super Director, behind closed doors
  • The spreadsheet with the ratings was never shared with the group

And thus, a story was born. 

The intentions of this exercise were essentially good: increase efficiency, show respect for our time by evaluating and cutting a few meetings, and give each member of the team a meaningful voice.  

However, the lack of follow-through turned this into a story that had a lasting negative impact.

  • The "Meeting to Eliminate Meetings"  became comic legend within the organization
  • Attrition increased significantly over the next two months, many leaving without another job lined up
  • No meetings were eliminated

I believe that we're all hard-wired to tell stories.

Stories help us make sense of the world, regain perspective, and provide comic relief in a stressful environment. (Just attend an after work cocktail hour and listen to the gossip, worry, and impressions.) 

Actions like holding a meeting to eliminate meetings are the birthplace of office lore. But the story didn't have to end this way. It could have changed dramatically if our main character would have: 

  • Shown some understanding and empathy for the audience
  • Admitted the mistake (there's strength in vulnerability)
  • Apologized
  • Fixed the situation by following the original plan

If the story followed this trajectory, it could have been very powerful. A comedic opening, a little suspense, a climax, and a nice reversal that showed some growth in our main character.  

Not as funny, but a much happier ending for everyone. 

Bobby Wittenberg has been telling stories since he was five. First with a tape recorder, later with a camera. He has also helped major brands connect with internal and external audiences across a variety of media, leveraging his experience as a writer, director, creative director, playwright, and screenwriter. You can reach him at rkwcreative.com.