I think that the new business reality is that it is the rare event when something actually gets done without first having a meeting. We need to know who will be Responsible for the action to be taken, and who will be Accountable for taking it, and who will need to be Consulted before it is taken and who will be Informed of its being taken. We will spend hours in meetings in this type of analysis before we actually do anything. We seem to have evolved the business approach that having a meeting about something is the same thing as taking action.
With all this time being spent in meetings trying to decide how to split the accountability and responsibility for doing anything, it got me to thinking: What would be the optimal length for a meeting, not just one of these deciding how to take action meetings, but any meeting?
I looked. There is any number of books available on line purporting to help people run efficient and effective meetings. I was in a meeting when I Googled that so I really didn’t have the time to read any of them. Who knows some of them might actually hold the key. But since we are in the here and now I will take my kick at the can (and utilize some of my own web sleuthing) to come up with what I think is the optimal length for any meeting.
There will be a few meeting ground rules.
• For it to officially be considered a meeting it must be visual in nature. That means that you either have to be there in person, or attend via video. Audio attendance at a meeting only is a phone call / conversation regardless of how you want to describe it, and it enables everyone associated with the call to multi-task doing email, play solitaire, or any other distraction they may so choose.
• If it is a real meeting it will have an agenda. If you don’t have set topics, speakers and time frames it is not a meeting. It is an unstructured discussion, or lunch. Without an agenda you should not expect to get anything done.
• The only computer that is to be open during the meeting is that of the person presenting. Open computers enable everyone to multi-task (see the first bullet above) instead of paying attention to the topic of the meeting. It’s also discourteous to the presenter.
• There should be no refreshments of any kind at the meeting. No bagels or muffins for a morning meeting. No coffee or soft drinks. The object of the meeting participants should be to get something done, not get fed and watered. If you really have to bribe people with food to get them to come to your meeting, maybe you don’t really need to have a meeting.
• Finally, there will be no leaving the meeting and coming back for any reason. No taking phone calls. No smoking breaks. And lastly, no bathroom breaks. Get that done before or after the meeting. Don’t disrupt it by having to go.
I understand that these rules will take a lot of the fun out of meetings. People will actually have to show up and pay attention. I know this is a lot to ask, but I do think it is critical that we get back to the old outdated ways of actually getting things done. Show up. Do your work. Then go do something else.
Now when we are talking about meetings, we are talking about the internal gathering of company employees. They can be called reviews, or updates, or deep dives or just about any other euphemism that you can come up with for having people get together for a business purpose. I will refer generically to all these events as “meetings”.
I am also going to specifically exclude meetings with customers from this discussion for the time being, since those types of meetings are held only with the consent of the customer and at their discretion. Many of the ground rules I have laid out would and should apply, but some (such as food and refreshments) may not.
With the ground rules in place and the meeting defined as not including customers we can get started on how long a meeting should take, or should last, depending on how you want to look at it.
Research (Google) shows that the average person goes to the bathroom about six times a day. That same research also shows that the average person stays awake about seventeen hours a day. Using simple math that means that the average person goes to the bathroom on average once every three hours or so (actually a little less than that). I think this is a good upper bound for a meeting’s length.
Now if we use a little probability theory, because not everyone goes to the bathroom at the same time, we will find that on average for any meeting of two or more people someone will have to go within half the average time frame. That means that our maximum meeting length is now slightly less than an hour and a half.
Now on to other research (Google) topics. Estimates for the length of human attention span are highly variable and depend on the precise definition of attention being used.
• Transient attention is a short-term response to a stimulus that temporarily attracts/distracts attention. Researchers disagree on the exact amount of human transient attention span; some say it may be as short as 8 seconds.
I think it is safe to assume that senior management is more Transient Attention oriented.
• Selective sustained attention, also known as focused attention, is the level of attention that produces the consistent results on a task over time. Some state that the average human attention span is approximately 5 minutes; others state that most healthy teenagers and adults are unable to sustain attention on one thing for more than about 20 minutes at a time, although they can choose repeatedly to re-focus on the same thing. This ability to renew attention permits people to “pay attention” to things that last for more than a few minutes, such as long movies.
Attention span, as measured by sustained attention, or the time spent continuously on task, varies with age. Older children are capable of longer periods of attention than younger children.
It doesn’t say anything about executives or managers. Insert your own experience based limit here, however my experience has taught me that they tend to align with younger children.
I have been writing this for an hour or two and I think I need to take a break. I’ll be right back….
Okay, if we accept that people can pay attention to a single topic for up to twenty minutes, but that they can continue to “refocus” on interesting topics in order to stay engaged for longer periods of time, the question now becomes; how many times can they refocus? This is where true science comes into play.
In baseball its three strikes and you’re out.
Asking people to maintain their attention, and refocus multiple times while limiting the number of bathroom breaks is a lot to ask. Asking people to refocus their attention three times for a total of sixty minutes seems to be about the limit of reasonable expectation.
There you have it. A scientific explanation. No meeting should be more than one hour long. If you can’t get it done in an hour then you probably need to re-look at what it is that you are trying to accomplish in the meeting.
I think we all knew this is where I was going with this topic. We seem to have broken our lives down into hour intervals starting with our classes in school. If you can teach Einstein’s Theory of Relativity to twenty five disinterested teenagers within a one hour class, you should be able to have far less than twenty five adult business people come to conclusion on just about any topic within the same interval.
By the way, time does indeed slow down, the closer you get to the speed of light.
This interval sits comfortably within the average need for a bathroom break, and it is short enough that it doesn’t require too many refocusing events. It is the optimal length for a meeting where the objective is to actually get something done. It enables the meeting attendees to get in, get out and move on to the next topic. By limiting the time one would expect (hope) to drive the attendees to come to a conclusion within that time.
If there are more topics to be covered they need to be broken down into other multiple one hour meetings.
Of course, none of this one hour meeting logic applies to how long a luncheon meeting should last.