Why Meetings Fail

iStock_chessWe’ve all be in our share of badly run meetings that leave us scratching our heads about what the point was or why you wasted your valuable time attending. It can feel like one giant “Fail Whale“. (Remember Tweeps? The early days of Twitter threw a “Fail Whale” graphic every time it got too much traffic!) This article is a round-up of my tips about why meetings fail and how to avoid it.

This tip sheet assumes that you’ve got the mechanics of meetings straightened out…how to plan for them (agendas are not optional), how to get the logistics right (place and hand-outs) and how to follow-up (minutes work wonders).

The three factors that I think are too often overlooked:

  • Do you know what type of meeting you are in?
  • Is the meeting necessary?
  • Was the timing of the meeting right?


failwhale_smI’ve seen more misunderstandings and dysfunction grow out of this easy to fix problem than perhaps any other: what meeting are you in? Answer this question at the top of a meeting and you’ve guarded against friction on your team.

We’ve all seen it. One person sits at the meeting and makes pronouncements about what they want done. Others throw out ideas from right and left field. Someone else scribbles notes. Depending on what the person in charge does next, all three participants will have different ideas about the success of this session. A week later you’ve got bruised feelings and a lack of trust, and no traction on your project.

The key to avoiding disappointment – especially from the person who left thinking you were taking their idea and running with it – the convener of the meeting has to carefully establish at the top of the session the point of the meeting. There are five types of meetings you can be in:

  1. A brainstorming meeting – this is a skull session to identify options and ideas – let a thousand flowers bloom and document your idea list
  2. An options meeting – sometimes merged into brainstorm sessions, here options are winnowed to tackle a specific problem; narrow the range of solutions up for debate and list the pros and cons
  3. An action/decision meeting – here the purpose of the meeting is to take action and make a decision
  4. A status update briefing – Here the purpose is to keep abreast of the current situation across a group and gain group inputs, coordination and clarity about who is doing what on a specific activity
  5. A staff briefing – if the agenda covers the landscape of activities across an organization it is a staff briefing, with the same goal of gaining group inputs, coordination and clarity


Do not be afraid to cancel a meeting if it is not needed. Perhaps a key participant is unavailable which can make it pointless for others to attend. Or perhaps the communication is really one-way, not two-way. To confirm a meeting is needed, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do you want advice or not?
  • Do you want involvement in decision-making or is this an executive decision?
  • Do you need coordination across diverse business units that will need face-time?
  • Do you want ownership clearly established?
  • Do you want or need clarity across the team?

Sitting in a meeting to consume information that could have been more quickly and efficiently communicated in another channel is frustrating to all participants and unproductive for the group.


Timing always matters. Savvy change agents know the timing of your initiative is one of the critical success factors. But there is another way to use timing to your advantage when your job involves scheduling the team meetings.

Spoilers alert: this is the most Machiavellian part. You can influence the outcome of a meeting depending on what time of day you call it for. As detailed in the USAF ultimate communicators guide called the Tongue and Quill here’s the run-down of how to time your meeting:

  • If you want people fired up – call the meeting for the morning when there’s an abundance of energy;
  • If you want those in the room impatient and anxious to get it done – call the meeting right BEFORE lunch;
  • If you want an agreeable session – call the meeting right AFTER lunch;
  • If you want people asleep (this seems sneaky but you’ll be on the record for getting the info out) – call the meeting in the mid-afternoon;
  • If you want the opposition to collapse and agree with you – call the meeting just before quitting time


So did I miss any meeting types? Which ones?

I’ve explained why I think many meetings fail and some tips to engineer ones that work. Are there any other tips or success stories to share on a SUCCESSFUL meeting out there?