The 300,000-hour meeting

meetingWe’ve all been there at some point: a long, unfocused corporate meeting where half the people in the room are tapping away at their smartphones. As metric-laden PowerPoint slides slip by one after another your mind drifts to everything else on your plate and, inevitably, to a pair of questions: What are we really doing here, and how much is it costing us?

The truth is, most companies have no idea.

As my Bain colleagues Michael Mankins, Chris Brahm and Gregory Caimi write in the May issue of Harvard Business Review, smart companies go to great pains to manage capital, track costs and strive for efficiencies. But when it comes to managing their most precious resource—time—most organizations are largely in the dark.

“Companies have no clear understanding of how their leaders and employees are spending their collective time,” Mankins writes. “Not surprisingly, that time is often squandered—on long e-mail chains, needless conference calls, and countless unproductive meetings. This takes a heavy toll.”

How heavy a toll? You’ll be shocked. By analyzing the time budgets of 17 large corporations, Mankins and his coauthors document that time spent on increasingly dysfunctional meetings has skyrocketed, abetted by the proliferation of communication technology. At one of the companies, employees throughout the organization spent a staggering 300,000 hours a year supporting a single weekly executive committee meeting. In reporting on this finding, the Guardian put it best: “Meetings: Even more of a soul-sucking waste of time than you thought.”

Yes, endless meetings spawned by a large corporate bureaucracy suck the souls of the individual executives and employees forced to sit through them. But they also slowly suck away the soul of the company: its Founder’s MentalitySM. The example above demonstrates why. Although the executive committee expended a total of 7,000 hours on the weekly meeting over the course of the year, that was just the beginning. To get briefed for the meeting each week, the 11 members of the committee met with their unit heads, generating another 20,000 hours of meetings. Those subordinates met with their subordinates who met with their subordinates, and very quickly, the time suck multiplied and cascaded through the organization. The authors noted: “As astonishing as this chart may seem—300,000 person hours to support one weekly excom meeting—it’s important to remember that it doesn’t include the work time spent preparing for meetings.”

There’s no evidence that all this time was wasted. Clearly, companies need meetings to conduct their business, and there are good meetings as well as bad. But as meetings take on a life of their own within a growing bureaucracy, they inevitably focus attention inward and create distance between leadership and the front line. The rise of span breakers and energy vampires—people whose roles interpose them between top executives and the kings of the organization—begins to blunt communication from top to bottom. The time spent gathering metrics and filling templates for the boss takes crucial time away from focusing on the needs of customers. As the customer’s voice recedes behind the cacophony of bureaucracy, the sense of urgency and clarity that is at the heart of the company’s bold founding mission begins to drift away. The company becomes less responsive and more defensive. Its focus blurs and the customer experience fragments.

Mankins argues that managing organizational time more effectively is really just one part of a broader challenge: boosting the productivity of a company’s human capital. A major element of that challenge is identifying great people, deploying them effectively and then getting out of their way. As we turn in these blog posts to how companies can maintain their sense of insurgency, we will be talking more about many of these issues. Building an organization that can support the front line—not subvert it—is essential to preserving or reviving a company’s founding mission. Here are a few key questions to ask:

As companies grow toward scale they become more complex. But they don’t have to succumb to debilitating complexity. Next time you’re in the weekly excom meeting, ask yourself: Are we talking about delighting our customers? If not, chances are the rest of the organization is talking about something else, too.

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