The Zero-Based-Budgeting approach to meetings

“What do you think?”

Ever had someone ask you those words and you can immediately feel the blood rushing to your cheeks as you have to admit that you haven’t been paying attention as well as you should have? If so, you might be a victim of being in a meeting that’s not running as effectively as it should be.


We’re living through a time where meetings are more common than ever before. Chances are you attend a bunch of meetings. Chances are even higher that you don’t need to attend all of those meetings.

How many of you have standing meetings in your diary? Perhaps they’re called a “weekly check-in” a “monthly review” or a “Project XYZ team meeting”. I’d bet that we all have something like this in our diary. And, I’ll bet that of those who do, the vast majority have one meeting that follows the same structure every single time — often in the name of efficiency.

Sometimes this is helpful, oftentimes however, it’s not.

In these instances it’s easy for meetings to become stale, repetitive, boring, or worst of all — pointless! If they’re pointless that means they’re a waste of time. And, if they’re a waste of time that means they’re a waste of money.

The concept of Zero Based Budgeting is that every dollar spent or cost incurred must be justified. There is no ‘base’ money…everything is up for play. You start with zero as the base and request money as it’s needed as long as it’s justified. I think the same should apply for meetings.

Here are some ways that you can take a Zero Based Budgeting approach to your meetings:

  • Scrutinise if every person attending really needs to be there — there shouldn’t be anyone sitting in who doesn’t have something to contribute or add. If they’re there ‘for context’ or ‘to get updated’ it’s often easier just to send them the outcomes in bullet form afterwards and allow them to catch up in their own time. Start with a blank list and only add those attendees who really need to be there. Be strict with yourself.

  • Scrap the ‘standing’ agenda items — if you are running the same meeting week after week be really brutal and start with a blank sheet of paper. Starting with a blank sheet of paper you should ask yourself the question “what outcomes do I need as a result of this meeting?” Only those things that answer the brief should be included. Everything else is superfluous.

  • Don’t fill time, achieve outcomes — the amount of times I’ve seen people feel under pressure to fill 2 hours because that’s the amount of time that’s been allocated is shocking. You shouldn’t feel compelled to fill time or add ‘filling’ activities or agenda items. Your meeting should be long enough to achieve the outcomes and no longer.

  • Analyse your current meetings — as you’re attending current meetings notice what is left unsaid. Do people seem engaged throughout? Is everyone contributing? Did you achieve the objectives early on and continue for the rest of the allocated time just for the sake of it. Looking out for these practices will allow you to make the meetings that you design more effective.

  • Allow people to ‘opt-in’ and ‘opt-out’ — chances are you work with some super smart people but they aren’t given the freedom they need to control their time and maximise what they can achieve. I’ve sat in countless meetings where I’ve been needed for 50% of it or less. It should be acceptable to leave when I’ve contributed everything I can. You might need to ‘recontract’ around how meetings are run before people feel comfortable staying only as long as they’re needed.

Making meetings more effective certainly requires more planning and investment from the meeting organiser but it will release wasted effort from those attending poorly planned meetings thereby wasting the time of multiple people.

Taking a Zero Based Budgeting approach to meetings has the potential to make everyone more effective, to make meetings more enjoyable, and to use time more effectively. Who wouldn’t want that?