One eternal problem has been their inefficiency. In 1957, C. Northcote Parkinson, an academic and legendary writer on management, came up with the law of triviality, that “the time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum [of money] involved.” In that same spirit, this columnist would like to propose an even broader principle, applying to gatherings of ten people or more, and immodestly called Bartleby’s Law: “80% of the time of 80% of the people in meetings is wasted.”
Various corollaries to this law follow. After at least 80% of meetings, any decisions taken will be in line with the HIPPO, or “highest-paid person’s opinion”. In short, those who backed a different outcome will have wasted their breath. Perhaps because they are aware of the futility of their input, fewer than half of the people in a large meeting will bother to speak and at least half of the attendees will at some point check their phones.
But perhaps the best solution to tedious gatherings is to have far fewer of them. GE’s new boss, John Flannery, has called for “little or no meetings where possible”. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, messaging groups allow management and employees to keep in touch. Information can be imparted in succinct form and those who are not involved can ignore the messages and get on with their work. Next time a manager is tempted to call colleagues together, they must have a good answer to the question: “Is this meeting absolutely necessary?”