The Atomic Theory of Meetings. Atoms and Meetings are made of mostly NOTHING.

Atoms and meetings are surprisingly similar. Just like in science, where atoms are the basic building blocks, for organisations meetings seem to fulfill a similar purpose. Organisations wouldn’t exist without them (apparently).

Unfortunately many meetings aren’t as remotely useful (or interesting) as atoms, but there are startling similarities. Let me explain.

Basically there are 3 main parts to an atom; the nucleus, the electrons and mostly nothing.

  • Nucleus. This the concentrated (dense) bit at the center of the atom. The nucleus is the thing around which everything else sits. In the context of meetings, you could think of this as PURPOSE. Why does the meeting exist?
  • Electrons. These ‘orbit’ the nucleus and contribute to the atom’s characteristics. In the context of meetings you can think of the people attending the meeting as being like electrons. ‘Orbiting’ the purpose (orbiting just means going around it). Another interesting point is that electrons are negatively charged and electromagnetic forces means they avoid each other. Anyone detect something similar here with meeting behaviours?
  • Nothing. The rest of the atom consists of nothing. Draw your own conclusions on how this might be similar to meetings. Mostly nothingness…

Mental Models. Well, I don’t know about you, but that has cheered me up immensely. I’ve now got a mental model for what’s going on when I’m sitting in a meeting. “I am an electron, orbiting the nucleus through the vast nothingness”.

However, beyond ‘knowing whats going on’ I do need something else. Just under the surface I’m still an applied scientist, desperate to solve problems.

‘Problem Meetings’ are a well trodden path. Recently Paul Taylor published ‘Death By Zoom: Have We Failed The Mass Home Working Experiment?’ This picks up on how the number of meetings has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. Remote working hasn’t made meetings any better. In fact they are probably worse.

From my own perspective I’ve agonised over this a lot, and I’ve even tried to come up with some things that could help. Here are three that are probably still relevant: forcing people to think about costs and benefits, taking an ‘anti-viral’ approach and some behavioural nudges.

The Meeting Ticker (Costs & Benefits). This is a fairly simple idea. A counter that adds up the ‘cost’ of a meeting. The idea is to share this information so that people can make a judgement, ‘is the cost of the meeting worth the benefits?’

Its a bit of a blunt tool, but sometimes you need that. You can find the detail of the Meeting Ticker in a post I wrote here: Make Meetings Count – Literally, with Meeting Ticker and Clockwork Meetings.

Take an ‘Anti-Viral’ Approach. I was going to say ‘Appeal to Logic’ here, but talking about ‘anti-virals’ is much more in the moment. A while back I wrote; Meetings are a Viral Lifeform. How to Avoid Infection and Practice Sabotage. Most of this focuses on how you ‘break the chain’ of a meeting infection, with various suggestions like:

  • Avoiding meetings in the first place (prevention),
  • Ending when they are no longer useful (treating symptoms), and
  • Using sabotage to slow down replication (containment).

From the ‘appealing to logic’ perspective, it’s worth re-surfacing this handy ‘Should I hold a meeting’ decision tree. It was published in the Harvard Business Review article; All the Charts, Tables, and Checklists You Need to Conduct Better Meetings in 2015.

As lovely and logical as the decision tree is (and all the other charts in the HBR article), it does make me wonder why we haven’t got better in 5 (long) years… maybe we need some behavioural nudges?

Should I Hold a Meeting Decision Tree. Source:

Friends don’t let Friends have Rubbish Meetings. If appeals to logic and economic incentives don’t work, you can always turn to some behavioural science. Considering things like peer pressure and social practice theory, to help your work colleges avoid holding ‘nothingness’ meetings. I wrote about it in Friends Don’t Let Friends Have Rubbish Meetings. Peer Pressure to ‘Do The Right Thing’.

This does reference some interesting things like the ‘Smokey the Bear’ campaign to prevent forest fires and ‘Friends Don’t Let Friends Drink Drive’. If it works for those, why not meetings?

Success is not Guaranteed. I cannot say with confidence that any of what I’ve shared here will work. There’s some longstanding practice and deeply embedded behaviours that drive the ‘need’ to have meetings. Just remind yourself of what Paul Talyor had to say about how online video meetings have quickly replaced physical meetings during COVID-19.

All I can say is that recognising we have a problem is the first step to dealing with it. This is where the Atomic Theory of Meetings might help.

If you are in a meeting and start to feel, ‘I am just an electron, orbiting in a vast space of nothingness’, you might just start to think about doing something better…

Thank you to my colleague Sam Williams for inspiring this post. Sam, I’ve included a link to a video tutorial on Atomic Theory at the end of the post – just because it says you can do chemistry with maths.

So, Whats the PONT?

  1. Atoms and Meetings can be very similar. Mostly because they consist of a lot of nothing (*caveats apply, obviously some people have really great meetings).
  2. Reducing the amount of ‘nothing’ in meetings isn’t easy. It’s a complex challenge that involves changing deeply embedded behaviours. Just telling people, introducing a new process or appealing to logic won’t work.
  3. Having a mental model like, The Atomic Theory of Meetings can help people recognise there is a problem; the first step in trying to fix it.

The History of Atomic Chemistry: Crash Course Chemistry #37

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

3 Responses

  1. Sarah Cole

    I have had many similar thoughts on usefulness (or not) of meetings.
    It does seem that meetings are often about sharing individual points of view without getting to a conclusion on the best way forward.

    Questions I ask are include; What is on the Agenda (including the hidden one)? Plus do I have anything I need to contribute? Do I really need to be there?

    What gets in the way for me is
    1) FOMO. I might miss something when the reality is if it is that important someone will tell me
    2) Presentee ism. Relationships can be hurt if there isn’t respect for each other and not turning up could be deemed arrogant by colleagues. This is probably me overthinking how much I matter to other people.

    A good meeting for me is one that has a clear Agenda, is well chaired, it doesn’t last longer than it needs to, and results in clear decisions and action points.

  2. Ian Phillips

    Hi Chris Interesting blog as usual, thanks. And been in meetings that shouldn’t be all too often! I was just wondering how you feel creativity and innovation, which require interaction, fit into this picture in a Zoom world where normal social interactions and the water cooler conversations are absent? Scheduling time for creativity doesn’t work so, what to do?? How we create post COVID environments for social interaction is going to be a challenge! There was some elements of this in Thimon’s opening talk in this year’s virtual summer school. Just a thought. Hope you are keeping safe and well. Best wishes Ian

    Sent from my iPad


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