BUSINESS
12/23/2014 02:14 pm ET Updated Dec 24, 2014

Did Boring Business Meetings Kill Barbie?

ASSOCIATED PRESS

While Barbie was busy becoming a tech entrepreneur, the company that makes her was mired in old-school business bureaucracy.

Mattel Inc., which owns the iconic doll, has seen Barbie sales plummet 18 percent this year. Sales of other big Mattel brands have also fallen recently, including Hot Wheels and Fisher-Price, according to the company's financial statements. To explain the fall in popularity among once-desirable toys, Monday’s Wall Street Journal points to an unusual target: boring business meetings.

The WSJ article, which was based on over a dozen interviews with current and former Mattel employees and executives, describes how excruciating the company's meetings could be:

[D]ecisions on everything from marketing to product features dragged on through multiple sessions -- often with no final decision being made. Employees would spend weeks putting together elaborate “decks,” or PowerPoint presentations, that could run to 100 slides or more, detailing the minutiae of every upcoming product for a brand and every facet of a marketing campaign.

Even a seemingly simple decision like creating a school crest for one of Mattel’s fashion doll brands took eight meetings, WSJ reports, with the crest undergoing no fewer than 30 iterations before a final decision was made.

It’s no secret that business meetings are a productivity killer. In both 2012 and 2013, employees named meetings as the No. 1 time-waster in Salary.com’s annual “Wasting Time at Work” survey. Part of the reason meetings may be so mind-numbing is that they’re simply too long. Adult attention spans are only about 10 minutes, psychologists say. After that, people need to be re-engaged or else they lose focus.

Studies have shown that shorter meetings (as well as “standing meetings”) can be more productive than drawn-out conference room sessions. An analysis of more than 10,000 meetings hosted by the online meetings platform SalesCrunch over an 18-month period beginning in 2010 found that meetings lasting 15 minutes were 50 percent more successful than meetings lasting 45 minutes or longer.

But workplace calendars like Outlook often default to 30-minute time chunks, encouraging managers to schedule longer sessions. At Mattel, meetings got so bad that some employees scheduled fake events in their Outlook calendars so they could skip the meetings to get real work done, WSJ reports.

Monotonous meetings are probably not the only reason the company lost more than one-third of its market value in 2014. WSJ also attributes the decline to factors like the falling U.S. birth rate and the competition that traditional toys like Barbie face from iPads.

But the company seems to be focusing on meetings as one way to revamp itself. “There should be no more than a TOTAL of three meetings to make any decision,” said Mattel’s head of human resources in an August memo to employees, according to WSJ.

Depending on how long those three meetings are, that could be a step in the right direction.

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