Sign 1: The solution/outcome for that meeting is available to everyone before the meeting happensOften meetings are just rituals. The results are known in advance. Perhaps the manager just wants to get everybody's "buy in". In the end the meeting did not generate any insights or brought up a point of view that was not previously considered. If you exit the meeting with a decision that was made before you entered the meeting you know you have just wasted one hour! (or more...)
Sign 2: When different ideas are presented, the goal is to chose between the different ideas instead of...Some times, however you are on the verge of an insight. A new idea - not previously considered - is presented, but then the conversation changes from approval for a pre-propsed decision to an argument about which idea is the better option. At this point the conversation turns into a debate, and typically the manager wins that debate, because after all he is the manager.
Sign 3: You feel less energized at the end of the meeting than you did at the startIn the rare times when you actually want to attend a meeting, you often leave that meeting with less energy than you started. If you feel like this you know that meeting was purely a waste of time (or worse...)
Sign 4: Someone asks: "who will document the results of this meeting?"Meetings are often decision points in the process of getting some work done (more on that below). But the problem is that the decision is not really made in meetings, as stated in Sign 1, those decisions are pre-made. Even before the meeting starts. Because of this, the "owner" of that decision knows that there will be debate and discussion in the future. In preparation for that future debate he asks: "who will write the meeting minutes and document this decision?". A sure sign the meeting was a waste of time. If not yet, it will become clear when the decision is contested in the future...
Sign 5: You had a meeting to make a decisionWhat are meetings for? If you answer: "to make decisions", you know they are a waste of time. Meetings are very poor choice for a decision making process, however they could have a productive use: "to generate possible decision OPTIONS". Yes, in a meeting you have intelligent people together in the same time-space, if you don't plan to use their creativity, ingenuity and imagination why do you even have them there? If you don't plan to use their creativity, ingenuity and imagination then you can be sure the meeting is a waste of time!
Meetings: The silver liningFinally I wanted to leave you with one sign that tells you that a meeting was NOT a waste of time: When you leave a meeting with more questions than you started with. If that is the case you can be sure that the meeting was NOT a waste of time. When was the last time that happened? Photo Credit: Celestine Chua @ flickr