Andy Grove on Meetings

June 21, 2019 • #

You hear the criticism all the time around the business world about meetings being useless, a waste of time, and filling up schedules unnecessarily.

A different point of view on this topic comes from Andy Grove in his book High Output Management. It’s 35 years old, but much of it is just as relevant today as back then, with timeless principles on work.

Grove is adamant that for the manager, the “meeting” is an essential piece in the managerial leverage toolkit. From page 53:

Meetings provide an occasion for managerial activities. Getting together with others is not, of course, an activity—it is a medium. You as a manager can do your work in a meeting, in a memo, or through a loudspeaker for that matter. But you must choose the most effective medium for what you want to accomplish, and that is the one that gives you the greatest leverage.

This is an interesting distinction from the way you hear meetings described often. That they should be thought of as a medium rather than an activity is an important difference in approach. When many people talk about the uselessness of meetings, I would strongly suspect that the medium is perhaps mismatched to the work that needs doing. Though today we have many media through which to conduct managerial work — meetings, Slack channels, emails, phone calls, Zoom video chats — the point is you shouldn’t ban the medium entirely if your problem is really something else. I know when I find myself in a useless meeting, its “meetingness” isn’t the issue; it’s that we could’ve accomplished the goal with a well-written document with inline comments, an internal blog post, an open-ended Slack chat, or a point-to-point phone call between two people. Or, alternately, it could be that a meeting is the optimal medium, but the problem lies elsewhere in planning, preparation, action-orientation, or the who’s who in attendance1.

We should focus our energies on maximizing the impact of meetings by fitting them in when they’re the right medium for the work. As Grove notes on page 71:

Earlier we said that a big part of a middle manager’s work is to supply information and know-how, and to impart a sense of the preferred method of handling things to the groups under his control and influence. A manager also makes and helps to make decisions. Both kinds of basic managerial tasks can only occur during face-to-face encounters, and therefore only during meetings2. Thus I will assert again that a meeting is nothing less than the medium through which managerial work is performed. That means we should not be fighting their very existence, but rather using the time spent in them as efficiently as possible.

  1. A major issue I see in many meetings (as I’m sure we all do) is a tendency to over-inflate the invite list. A fear of someone missing out often crowds the conversation, spends human hours unnecessarily, and invites the occasional “I’m here so I better say something” contributions from those with no skin in the outcome. 

  2. This shows some age as we have so many more avenues for engagement today than in 1983, but his principle about fitting the work to the medium still holds.