The Cost of Meeting Lurkers

A simple way to improve team productivity is to stop inviting “lurkers” to meetings.  I was introduced to the term “lurker” in 2000 when I was active in IRC chat rooms. A lurkers is someone who doesn’t provide any value to the group chat.  Their participation is very minimal and usually not helpful.  In meetings, a lurker is someone who similarly doesn’t participate in any meaningful way.

I was recently in a meeing with nine people, but only two participants.  Seven of the attendees uttered zero words the entire meeting.  This seemed completely normal to the client.  When prompted as to their value in the meeting, the client said they wanted everyone “to be informed”.  On the surface, this seems to be an okay response.

However, when we talked about it a bit more, and did some math, that one hour meeting with seven people cost him an entire day in his delivery. Then I found out that same seven people had five one hour meetings a week. The math is simple:

  • 7 People * 1 hour meeting = 1 day
  • 7 People * 5 hours of meetings per week = 35 hours ~= 1 week

They are losing entire employee’s worth of productivity by having these people attend meetings. They would need to hire an eighth man to cover the loss.  Alternatively, they need to extend their deadline by 1.125x.  What should be a 12 week project is now 13.5 weeks. That’s about $7,500 for an average-priced consultant.  For this client, they were not budgeted to hire additional staff for their year-long project.  They were left with two options:

  1. Extending the deadline by 6+ weeks.
  2. Reduce the number off meetings lurkers.

Given those two options this client made the correct choice.  But, what about wanting to keep everyone informed?  A status email will suffice just fine. Or better yet, announce the result of the meeting during the scrum meeting.

Typically, I only invite two people to meetings:

  1. Those who are assigning tasks
  2. Those who are accepting tasks

Anyone else in the meeting is a lurker.  Their cost for attendance is not cheap.  Anyone not providing value in a meeting should not be invited.  Collaboration is highly valued.  However, the end goal is high-quality software delivered on-time. Lurkers should have their hands on the keyboard producing.

Wm. Barrett Simms
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