Fixing bad meetings isn’t enough: it’s time to reimagine them

Written by 
Jim Kalbach
August 14, 2023
A graphic with a yellow background and black text saying 'Get the team on board'
Fixing bad meetings isn’t enough: it’s time to reimagine them
Written by 
Jim Kalbach
August 14, 2023

You’ve no doubt heard all of the gripes about bad meetings before. “Meetings are a waste of time” and “Meetings suck!” are headlines du jour. Heck, Patrick Lencioni even wrote a full-length book called Death by Meeting. In short: Yikes!

To be sure, poorly run meetings drain productivity and team outcomes. Report after report shows things like:

So logically, a good place to start is to make bad meetings good. For instance, our good friend and Mural partner Douglas Ferguson of Voltage Control wrote an excellent book called Magical Meetings. I highly recommend it! 

This is all fine and well, and I’d never recommend not trying to make your meetings better. I’m just saying that’s only the first step. There’s more to it. 

How Shopify changed its meeting culture

Consider Shopify's drastic measure. The online shopping service company recently banned all meetings. That’s right: Overnight, they just killed all meetings across the company with only a few exceptions. 

While Shopify’s decision feels extreme, it really reflects a sign of the times: In the post-pandemic world of work, there's an urgency like never before to get collaboration right. The key takeaway is that leaders need to make teamwork a strategic priority at the highest level. 

The question I’m sure it brings up in the minds of Shopify employees now is, “do we really need this meeting?” There’s something to it: Research shows that having fewer meetings increases cooperation: employees feel less micromanaged: and trust increases — all of which contribute to improved employee engagement and well-being.  

Teams don’t want meetings — they want connection

But here’s the thing: While people don’t like meetings, they do like to meet. Meetings are a time for teams to negotiate their understanding of the work in front of them. And real-time interactions with colleagues help bring a team together. Going “meetingless” might save employees time, but without a substitute, team alignment and connection will suffer. 

To reiterate: Yes, strive to make meetings better. And yes, question whether a meeting is needed (or at least how you might make it shorter). But I think the future of work will lead to a new way of working in which the very notion of a “meeting” will be different. 

It has to be. 

How did we get here?

Where do we get our current understanding of what a meeting is? From the idea of a “forum” in ancient Rome to town hall meetings during early U.S. history, a gathering of people is a key aspect of teamwork. There’s something natural and obvious about meeting. 

In a work context, however, our dominant mental model of a meeting comes from the physical office. It’s a block of scheduled time to stop your own work at the desk and go to a different room to be with colleagues. And we schedule, hold, and attend meetings without intentionality. 

Just recall the last time you needed clarity on something at work — an upcoming project or a last minute assignment. You ask your boss, but, she’s too busy to answer right away, so she suggests putting some time on her calendar. You think nothing of it — this happens all the time.

That’s because meetings are the “default” communication channel for many organizations. Got ideas for a marketing campaign? Let’s connect. Want a status update? Put something on my calendar. You get the idea. Meetings dominate our collective mental model of what teamwork even is.

But now, with multimodal work — work that happens anywhere, anytime, both synchronously and asynchronously —  it’s time to free ourselves from the meeting-dominated metaphor of collaboration. 

Focus on getting the job done

Each team is unique, but from our experience working with hundreds of teams across industries and around the world, we’ve broken it down into two large jobs to be done that every team needs to consider. 

  1. Solve problems together. Of course, teams also need to focus on productivity and delivering business outcomes. This perspective sees the team as a problem-solving body — whether resolving small issues together on a daily basis, or innovating to create value for customers.
  2. Connect with each other. The other perspective concentrates on the connection between team members. To come together, we have to embrace each other’s humanity. “Team building,” as it’s often described, happens as a result of problem-solving together. But there’s also a deeper relational intelligence between team members that must be nurtured. 

In other words, teamwork is a balance of affective collaboration — how groups feel towards each other while interacting and the relationships they create — and effective collaboration — how well they accomplish tasks productively and reach the desired outcomes. 

Your mileage may vary. But whatever approach you take to reimagining meetings, you need to start with these needs first.

The key: Don’t start with a meeting as the default approach. 

What if it wasn’t a meeting? How might the team solve problems and/or connect as a group of individuals? ‌How might you solve problems together as a team? How might you connect and create a sense of togetherness? 

Knowledge of technology helps, and being able to run structured methods gets you even closer. But ultimately, it comes down to imagination. As Aaron Dignan writes in A Brave New Work, “We know the way we’re working isn’t working, but we can’t imagine an alternative.” 

The question, then, is: Can you imagine doing something completely different and getting the same or better results? 

Change the meeting mental model

If you are going to meet, we need to address some problems in the language itself. What if we shifted away from the noun, “meeting,” to the verb, “to meet.” Then, it becomes a time to get actual work done together, rather than just building a new list of to-dos. 

This reframing can have a significant positive impact on how a team approaches working together. As we learn new ways of working, how we collaborate starts with a different mental model.

Let's look at some of the differences.

Meeting (noun):

  • Scheduled block of time
  • Usually synchronous
  • Requires a leader to initiate
  • Agendas are best practice
  • Often one person talks at a time
  • Ends with notes and to-dos that create follow-up work

To meet (verb):

  • Flexible timing
  • Sync or async
  • Anyone can initiate
  • People share ideas freely
  • Everyone participates
  • Ends with a work product and fewer follow up items

Attending a meeting is passive. When instead you meet, you actively participate in solving problems.

What's more, from the perspective of ‘co-creation’ (a process outlined by Sarah B. Nelson of Kyndryl for actively working together to build solutions to complex problems), we can also imagine generic "meetings" fading out in favor of more specific labels that indicate a purpose. In Agile development, for example, each team gathering has a specific function and is named accordingly. 

Agile teams don't just meet. They do "sprint planning," or hold "grooming sessions" and "retrospectives," for example — these are often called "Agile rituals" or "Agile ceremonies."

For sales and marketing or HR teams or other parts of the organization, this would result in gatherings titled "decision making session," or "creative ideation," etc., each with unique but clear formats and rules of engagement, just as with Agile.

Reimagine meetings to unlock better teamwork

The workplace has changed and continues to evolve with uncertainty. The effects on teamwork have been dramatic: Productivity, creativity, and innovation suffer in distributed teams, not to mention feelings of disconnection, loneliness, and concerns about employee mental health. 

But this is our opportunity, not our burden. Let’s reimagine teamwork through the lens of the individual team member, putting the individual at the center and working back to the best solution — not the other way around.        

Next up: Learn how visual collaboration empowers every team member, strengthens communication and retention, and helps you innovate faster. 

About the authors

About the authors

Jim Kalbach

Jim Kalbach

Chief Evangelist
Jim is a noted author, speaker, and instructor in innovation, design, and the future of work. He is currently Chief Evangelist at Mural, the leading visual work platform.