The truth behind why meetings fail

Written by 
Brianna Hansen
June 23, 2022
Computer screen with video icons crossed out.
The truth behind why meetings fail
Written by 
Brianna Hansen
June 23, 2022

Take a moment and think about all those not-so-great meetings you’ve attended over the years. Why didn’t they work? Most likely, lack of planning, unclear action items, poor processes, etc. played a part. 

Jim Kalbach, Chief Evangelist at Mural, believes at the core of all of these reasons for meeting failure is one key factor: inertia. 

If you remember your high school science classes, you probably know that inertia is a term used in physics. Basically, it means that an object at rest tends to stay that way unless acted upon by some other force.

Inertia (physics): The tendency of an object to resist changes in its velocity. 

Most knowledge workers and teams have probably experienced “meeting inertia,” or a lack of desire to engage or take part in a meeting without some serious prompting. The rise of video chat has compounded the problem, making it feel like collaboration is happening “on TV,” leaving attendees feeling more like observers than actual participants.

Meeting inertia: The tendency of meeting attendees to resist changes in their activity level and degree of participation.

Meeting inertia is the foundational force behind meeting failure, and it can have serious consequences for collaboration and innovation within your organization. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to combat it and get your team moving forward again. 

How inertia leads to meeting failure

Failed or “bad” meetings are generally missing two important pieces: 

1. A clear outcome or plan

2. Space for interpersonal connection

Inertia has a hand in both of these, and can come into play even before the meeting begins. 

Take planning, for example. Creating an agenda and deciding on a meeting purpose takes effort. It’s simply easier to send out that invite and hope for the best. 

Even if the facilitator DOES create an agenda and or even pre-work, inertia produces another roadblock. Some participants will do the pre-work, others won’t. Some will complete it in detail, while others will skim.

Learn more: Pre-work: your guide to before-the-meeting action items

This uneven involvement continues during the “meat” of the meeting, with some attendees chiming in regularly and others staying silent. Without measures like meeting ground rules, check-ins, or energizers in place, some may not speak at all. By the end of the meeting, many participants leave feeling bored, defeated, and disconnected. 

Meetings like the one described above aren’t just annoying — they’re expensive. Research puts the bill for ineffective meetings at close to $542 billion globally. And since the average knowledge worker spends approximately 4.35 hours of their day in meetings, the opportunity costs are huge. 

Plus, these failed meetings simply don’t produce results. At the end of them, there’s no multi-million dollar idea or innovative project to pursue. Often, the initial purpose of the meeting isn’t even served. 

5 strategies for fighting meeting inertia

So, how do you keep your team from falling into the inertia trap? The following steps can keep your participants engaged, focused, and driving forward. 

1. Make sure your meeting should be … a meeting

“Could this have been an email?” 

If you’ve ever thought this after a pointless meeting, you’re not alone. Not everything needs to be discussed in real time. In many situations, asynchronous work can be just as effective. In fact, many failed meetings are simply status updates in disguise — something that’s better accomplished asynchronously.

Not sure if the meeting you’re planning fits into this category? Use our handy meeting decision tree to help you determine whether you really need to schedule that meeting.

2. Set reminders for pre-work

Let’s go back to that prework example. How do you get those stragglers to overcome their inertia? Remind, remind, remind — preferably with a calendar block adjusted for timezones. Simply creating a calendar invite that reminds attendees to do their prework greatly improves the chances of it getting done. 

Another option is to set aside time in your meeting agenda for async completion of prework. In content meetings at Mural, for example, the first 15 minutes of the scheduled hour are meant to be async, so participants can get their bearings and review any prework before joining the discussion.

You can also use prework as a way to get async-appropriate tasks like project updates and administrative must-dos out of the way, freeing up meeting time for real collaboration and imagination work. 

3. Prime the discussion

Sometimes beating inertia is just about getting yourself in the right headspace to contribute. 

During workshops, for instance, facilitators can encourage this by getting the topic at hand on participants’ minds before the meeting even starts. A facilitator might post an icebreaker question in the meeting chat for attendees to answer as they’re arriving. Then, they can ask attendees to post a question they have about the topic we’ll be discussing. This typically gets the mental juices flowing, with the additional benefit of helping the facilitator tailor the presentation to attendees’ needs. 

4. Make room for imagination

At Mural, we’re huge advocates for including fun and play wherever possible in meetings, whether that’s through guessing games, get-to-know-you exercises, or a little healthy competition. These kinds of activities also drive creativity and imagination, fostering innovative ideas and a-ha moments later on.

If these opportunities for humor and fun can involve visual elements, that’s all the better. There’s something about visual collaboration, such as drawing something together or organizing sticky notes, that promotes greater participation and livelier discussions. 

5. Connect and reflect

As mentioned before, the human element is key to a successful meeting. Ice-breakers, warmups, energizers, and check-ins are all tools in your arsenal of building interpersonal connections. A team based on camaraderie, trust, and even friendship is one that can work well together and solve the big problems. 

And don’t forget to look back! There’s a reason why our retrospective template is one of our most popular. It’s helpful to reflect both on how a project went and on how you’re working together as a group. 

Getting back in motion

Inertia is part of human nature — we can’t simply get rid of it. What we can do is minimize its effects. To make the most of your meetings, everyone should be energized and ready to contribute, which makes fighting inertia a high priority. 

The suggestions above can help you do just that, while also creating positive changes in team mood, productivity, and connection.

👉🏾 To discover how asynchronous work can help you combat meeting inertia, check out our guide, How to Change Your Team’s Approach to Meetings. ✨🗓️

About the authors

About the authors

Brianna Hansen

Brianna Hansen

Sr. Integrated Content Manager
Brianna is a storyteller at MURAL. When she's not writing about transforming teamwork, she enjoys swimming, cooking (& eating) Italian food, reading psychological thrillers, and playing with her two cats.