Gather around, everyone, we need to have a meeting.
Ah, yes, that’s the million-dollar question, isn’t it? Because if we can’t define why we need a meeting, then we probably don’t need to meet.
When it comes to evaluating the value of meetings, however, it seems that we—the business world in general, I mean—have gotten a little off track. In some circles, starting with “why” is taking a backseat to starting with “how much?”
The e-commerce company Shopify, for instance, is part of a trend where leaders are asking employees to evaluate the need for a meeting based on what it cost the organization financially. They have even developed a tool that uses compensation data to estimate what it costs the company when three or more people gather. A 30-minute meeting with three people, for example, might cost $700 or it could be $2,000, all based on how much the three people are paid for their time.
The idea is to discourage “unnecessary” meetings, which no one likes.
As a former CFO with an undergraduate degree in accounting, I am a fan of counting the costs of doing business. But I see some problems with using financial costs as the main factor in deciding whether to have a meeting. In fact, I’m not sure it should be a factor at all.
For starters, the decision not to hold a meeting doesn’t create any saving for the company. Employees are paid regardless of whether they are meeting together in a conference room or searching for vacation deals online while alone in their cubicle. The bigger question is how to support them so they are making the most of their time wherever they might be.
Also, the financial cost of the meeting doesn’t tell you if a meeting is valuable. It tells you how much you are about to spend, but not how much you will get in return. It would be great to know in advance that a 30-minute meeting would lead to a decision that would save the company $10,000 or result in a new customer worth $500,000 in annual revenue. But you seldom know the financial return on a meeting prior to holding it.
Indeed, it might be months or even years before you know if a meeting had much value. And in many cases, you can never really quantify the value, because the real value isn’t something measured on a balance sheet.
How much is a 30-minute meeting worth if it produces no good ideas but causes a team to struggle with the issue in ways that eventually result in an idea that solves a business problem? How much is an hour-long meeting worth if a team develops better chemistry or leaves better informed about the company’s vision for the future?
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On the flip side, there are non-financial costs of a meeting that are worth considering. If a meeting is unnecessary or poorly run, it can cost way more than the average price of the salaries for the people involved. People leave frustrated and the culture suffers. That’s expensive.
No titan of American business was more conscious of keeping expenses down than Walmart founder Sam Walton. When he was alive and running the company, for instance, executives stayed at least two to a room when they traveled. But Walton also was known for holding mandatory Saturday morning meetings at company’s headquarters. These were lively affairs where a great deal of information was shared and where leaders at all levels gathered, got to know each other, challenged each other, and laughed with each other.
Not everyone was a fan. Walton’s wife, Helen, told him it was “a shame” to make mothers and fathers miss weekend time with their families to attend the meetings. But Walton believed that if the people in his stores had to work on Saturdays, so should the managers and executives at the home office. Plus, he said, “If you don’t want to work weekends, you shouldn’t be in retail.”
Clearly, he believed the value of those meetings outweighed the cost. Or, more likely, he never considered the cost. He just looked at the value they provided.
In time, Walmart outgrew these mandatory weekly meetings at their headquarters. They have changed the format and now hold them monthly, all in an effort to ensure they remain valuable to the people who came and to the future of the company.
So let’s end this meeting with some non-financial factors to consider when deciding if a meeting is needed.
- Is there a clear purpose for meeting – a challenge to solve, an issue to address, information to share?
- Is it clear who needs to be in the meeting – who will benefit from being there or add value to the results?
- Can the meeting be held in a place and in a way that respects the time and other obligations of the people who need to be there?
- Will the meeting serve the greater good of your organization, its employees, and its customer?
Most leaders don’t need a cost calculator to know if a meeting is necessary. We just need to spend a few minutes thinking about whether it’s necessary to meet and, if so, for how long and in what ways that will be most valuable for everyone. That doesn’t cost very much.