Who Invented Meetings?


When I was teaching at Loretto in Scotland our staff meetings were dire. For some reason they took place in a half-lit drab classroom. A friend of mine, a gifted maths teacher, spent every minute of these interminable events with two stopwatches at the ready. He saw the meetings not as professional gatherings where issues were openly discussed, which they never were, but as material for research. He timed exactly how long each teacher spoke, leaving out only those who made the briefest interjections. The next day he would send me a detailed breakdown of the total contributions in minutes and seconds made by each member of staff. The point he was privately keen to prove was that the length of the teacher’s contribution was in inverse proportion to his value to the school community.

I have to say the evidence was compelling.

The Learning Game, Jonathan Smith


A committee is a small group of people who get together to dream up difficulties and avoid decisions. Anything that has a budget has a committee attached. In effect, it’s a form of contraception which prevents the budget conceiving anything new and exciting.

Committees have procedures. These are designed to do three things: waste time, cut out any kind of fun, and reduce the will to live. It’s perfectly possible to have a three-hour committee meeting that consists entirely of procedures without any content at all. It is an iron rule that the person who knows most about procedures knows least about anything else. For the really keen there are subcommittees, which are little pools of procedural overspill from the main committee. Minutes are the DNA of a meeting. The first half of any meeting is going through the minutes of the last meeting. This is like having the old meeting again, and it’s a great chance to revisit the circular arguments that made the last meeting last until well after midnight. The person writing the minutes therefore has to be a combination of copywriter, diplomat and marriage guidance counsellor.’

Never Hit A Jellyfish With A Spade, Guy Browning


Benita Preem’s alarm has pinged at 14.00 hours, according to her own notes; it is 14.20 before the meeting has decided how long it is to continue, and whether it is quorate, and if it should have the window open, and 14.30 before Professor Marvin has managed to sign the minutes of the last meeting, so that they can begin on item 1 of the agenda of this one, which concerns the appointment of external examiners for finals. ‘An uncontentious item, I think,’ says Professor Marvin.

It is 15.05 before the uncontentious item is resolved. Nobody likes the two names proposed by Professor Marvin. But their dissents are founded on such radically different premises that no two other names can be proposed from the meeting and agreed upon. A working party is suggested, to bring names to the next meeting; no one can agree on the membership of the working party. A select committee of the department is proposed, to suggest names for the members of the working party; no one can agree on the membership of the select committee. […] Two ladies in blue overalls come in with cups of tea and a plate of biscuits, and place cups in front of all the people present. A proposal that, since the agenda is moving slowly, discussion continue during tea is put and accepted, with one abstainer, who takes his cup of tea outside and drinks it there. The fact that tea has come without an item settled appears to have some effect: a motion that Professor Marvin be allowed to make his own choice of external examiners, acting on behalf of the department, is put and accepted. Professor Marvin promptly indicates that he will recommend to Senate the two names originally mentioned, an hour before; and then he moves onto the next item.’

The History Man, Malcolm Bradbury

14 thoughts on “Who Invented Meetings?

  1. If you’ve ever seen the Pepe LePhew cartoons, where the amorous little skunk pursues a cat painted with a white stripe down her back, you have seen the cat struggling vigorously to escape. Pushing mightily with both paws against that crushing embrace.

    The mere memeory of such meetings from prior jobs, then reading this post, has had me subconsciously leveraging myself away from desk and keyboard.

    I am the cat. I hear the calls. “Where are you? We need a quorum to continue!” I flee, frantically down corridors and into rooms — there waits the smiling moderator.

    Litlove, whatever prompted you to post such, you have my deepest sympathy.

  2. Oh, those are wonderful. Having just gotten back from a meeting, I can appreciate them particularly well. I tend to be quiet in meetings, and the first quotation makes me feel much better about it …

  3. Oh, I remember spending hours in meetings right before I left my corporate job. We had morning meetings, staff meetings, lunch meetings, how can we make things better meetings, meetings to stop having meetings. Great quotes. A good reminder – I’m glad I left that job. I don’t miss the meetings. 8)

  4. This reminds me (if I needed reminding) why I am so glad I have left work. I spent 23 years in and out of meetings – committee meetings, sub-committee, departmental, group and team meetings – not to mention external meetings, liaison meetings, specialist professional meetings, etc, etc. All involve tedium, repetition, circular arguments, and often dominated by one opinionated person who can speak louder and longer than others. Then there are those meetings where you look to see who has nodded off, and who is doodling. Of course, as time runs out – the room is booked for the next meeting – most things are deferred until the next meeting, or a sub-committee is set up to look into the item and then report back, so that we could all go over it again. Wonderful!

  5. Litlove,

    I hate meetings. About the only thing I like about meetings is calculating exactly how much time is wasted. 1 hour meeting with four people equals four hours etc.
    Great fun and all they are useful for.

  6. God, I needed this today. Too many meetings and not enough work getting done here, I believe…I sometimes feel I’m being meetinged to death. And no meeting, no matter what, should ever go past two hours! Tell that to this place, though!
    Loved this!

  7. Ben – I must get a look at those cartoons, they sound so funny! And I love the thought of you fleeing down the corridors… I have to say that I was just reading the Jonathan Smith and it put me in mind of these other quotes, but I’ll take the sympathy anyway! Dorothy – clearly you have the right strategy for meetings! You must be looking very enigmatic and intelligent! Quoinmonkey – well done you for leaving that corporate job. I do like to hear stories of people who have left the rat race and found it the right thing to do. Booksplease – 23 years is a long, long time. You are clearly due some kind of sainthood! Eoin – now that’s a fun thing to do. I will be making calculations the next meeting I’m in! Courtney – I absolutely agree that there is no reason ever for a meeting to last more than 2 hours. If I’m ever in charge of a meeting (and this is very rare) I do it like I’m against a stopwatch. We had the shortest part 1 examiners’ meeting in history when I chaired it, and I didn’t hear anyone complain! Shall we send an anonymous blog post to your firm??

  8. I wouldn’t mind meetings so much if anything ever really got accomplished. When I run one myself, I always try to make sure everyone leaves with some small piece to do in the hopes that once all the small pieces are put together, the big task is complete. The worst are meetings that just happen because they happen, you know, first Tuesday of every month, we must get together for at least an hour to discuss the Blah Blah Project, even if there’s absolutely NOTHING to discuss.

  9. Interesting and thoughtful post. A good portion of my days are spent in meetings- just checking my next 2 workdays I have 10 hours of meetings. The corporate world has been struggling with the value of meetings for many years. My experience has been that the usefulness of a meeting is indirectly proportional to the number of people attending. Thus the most is accomplished when I am the only one that shows up. 🙂

  10. My favorite quote on such a topic is this:

    “A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.” (Bernard Cocks)

    Although I must say, Dilbert cartoons are brilliant on this topic…

  11. After 40 years of meetings on all sorts matters (mostly cricket matters) I can but agree with your commentators. I have been guilty of using procedure to gain success when I appeared not to have the numbers to win a vote. Now I am allergic to committees.

    A couple of committee thoughts –
    A committee is a cul-de-sac down which ideas are lured and then quietly strangled.
    Sir Barnett Cocks (1907 – 1989)
    A committee can make a decision that is dumber than any of its members.
    David Coblitz

  12. Emily – what a good idea to make everyone leave with a task ahead of them! That sounds like something good may come of the whole thing! Brad – 10 hours?? I do hope then that some of them see you happily and productively solo! Purple Dragon – hello and welcome! That’s a lovely quote you have there, and one I will commit to memory. Archie – I really do think committees might be something you become medically allergic to! Love the quotes. I vaguely remember another I liked which ran along the lines: if Moses were a committee, the children would still be in Israel. I also like the joke: why did Jesus spend 40 years in the wilderness? Because he wouldn’t ask for directions. But that’s got nothing to do with anything.

  13. Three is the number beyond which the efficiency of a meeting decreases. It then gradually approaches the function 1/n as the number of attendees increase: the efficiency of the meeting is in inverse proportion of the number of attendees.

    Conclusion: if you want to stall a project on which you are working, call large meetings.

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