Meetings are the bane of my existence. Have you ever been to a meeting that could have – no, should have – been an email? A meeting that was so disorganized that the only organization to it came in the form of chaos? A meeting where the only person speaking was at the head of the table? A meeting whose only purpose seemed to be to provide as little value as possible? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you know what I mean.

Missing the Magic

Meetings are not complex to organize, but you might think so after just a few. Surely, there’s some form of black magic required to make them even moderately compelling. In which case, I’m sure meetings held before the Salem witch trials were far more interesting and probably very well attended. Because 400 years later, that magic is gone. Five minutes into most meetings today, I’m either looking for a sharp object to stick into my eye or half-joking to the person next to me that I’m going put an Alka-Seltzer into my mouth and fake a medical emergency just so I can leave. 

The 80% Rule for Meetings

It doesn’t have to be that way. But, more often than not, it is. Why? A 2018 Economist blog decried the notoriety of the average meeting: “Most workers view the prospect of a two-hour meeting with the same enthusiasm as Prometheus awaited the daily arrival of the eagle, sent by the gods to peck at his liver.” That’s a fairly grim, but not inaccurate, metaphor. The author went on to coin the term, Bartleby’s Law – meetings waste 80% of the time of 80% of the people in attendance. That’s a harsh indictment of most meetings, but it also underscores an inescapable truth: statistically speaking, the odds favor that your next meeting will be a waste of time.

5 Step Formula to Ruining Meetings

But it’s not black magic. It’s science. There’s a formula to ruining a meeting. Five easy steps.

1. Don’t set an agenda.

Let’s be honest, who needs an agenda? If you accept that a meeting is probably already going to be a waste of time, why commit any time to preparing? Why would you want to think through what you’re going to discuss if it’s all a waste of time, anyway? Meetings should be like a semi-organized mindfulness session: you put on some sitar music, plug in a lava lamp or two, and just let the ideas flow through the room. Everyone will leave more relaxed and in a much better mood.

2. Don’t designate a purpose.

Meetings should evolve as a process of discovery. Rather than designate a purpose beforehand, allow the flow of the meeting to progress naturally. Eventually, a purpose will emerge, and the meeting will take form. Trying to force a purpose onto a meeting only serves to stifle spontaneity and creativity. Meetings should be a journey of learning, not unlike a lieutenant on a land navigation course. Don’t focus on the destination, let the destination come to you.

3. Don’t invite the right people.

Part of what makes a meeting interesting is encouraging the involvement of people who either have little or no interest in or knowledge of the topic of discussion. Uninformed opinions are the nectar that make a long meeting truly satisfying. This ensures the flow of the meeting maintains the deeply random and transcendent nature reflective of a journey of discovery. While including subject matter experts might expedite the discourse, their presence often suppresses freedom of expression.  

4. Don’t facilitate.

There are times when you might feel the temptation to exercise some modicum of control over the flow of a meeting. Don’t. A meeting should flow as effortlessly as sand through an hourglass. Time is not important. If you find the sand running low, simply turn the hourglass and begin again. You need not be concerned with controlling the outcome. When the time is right, the meeting will find its natural conclusion. 

5. Don’t assign accountability.

Too often, we expend valuable time and effort focusing on assigning responsibility for the tasks that sometimes derive from a meeting. Instead, you should allow those tasks to flow freely and not encumber them with personal accountability. In time, like salmon spawning in a riverbed, they will find their destination. There, the natural course of things will take hold and tasks will be accomplished in due time. Life will find a way. 

Ignore the Formula. People Will Praise You

Follow these five simple steps, and you can ruin any meeting with ease. Or, you can ignore them and actually take steps toward not ruining your next meeting. Trust me, people will thank you. Maybe me.  

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Steve Leonard is a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind the defense microblog, Doctrine Man!!. A career writer and speaker with a passion for developing and mentoring the next generation of thought leaders, he is a co-founder and emeritus board member of the Military Writers Guild; the co-founder of the national security blog, Divergent Options; a member of the editorial review board of the Arthur D. Simons Center’s Interagency Journal; a member of the editorial advisory panel of Military Strategy Magazine; and an emeritus senior fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. He is the author, co-author, or editor of several books and is a prolific military cartoonist.