Prepare for meetings – death by meeting

In his essay, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule Y Combinator’s Paul Graham points out that managers’ schedules and makers’ (i.e. programmers’ or writers’) schedules are quite different:

  • Each day, managers’ schedules are cut into one hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.
  • On the other hand, makers generally prefer to use time in units of at least half a day. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

As Graham points out, each type of schedule works fine by itself. Problems arise when they meet.

Experience on both sides of the aisle

I’ve been in the position of both maker and manager throughout my career, so I can certainly relate to what he’s saying. Meetings are hard, and as a maker I dreaded meetings. As a maker you can either do or talk, and talking seems wasteful. As a maker, meetings suck. They’re terrible. But as a manager, I can see that meetings do have their place. There’s specifically a need for meetings because there are certain things you need to talk about. It’s hard to be strategic if you can’t sit down and talk about stuff. Although I still don’t love meetings today, I realize they need to happen.

The problem I see with meetings is that they’re often done poorly. For the amount of time people spend actually sitting in the room talking about stuff you’d think they’d actually get better at holding them. People don’t take meetings seriously, so how are you going to get better at conducting them?

I admit, I’m not great at meetings either. Death By Meeting by Patrick Lencioni is essentially a fable about a video game company with really good people who have really bad meetings. Lencioni saw two primary problems with meetings:

  1. They’re boring (they lack drama)
  2. They’re ineffective (they lack contextual structure)
Does this meeting have a purpose?

Inspirational meetings, where you actually kick around ideas or resolve conflicts can be fun, interesting and productive. But informational meetings are far less interesting, so I have to question why they exist. If you don’t have conflict, you should ask yourself why you’re having a meeting in the first place. If everyone’s going around the table agreeing with each other, why do you need to sit down and talk about it? Couldn’t this just have been emailed? The typical rebuttal to that question is that things can get done urgently in person. But if everyone’s in agreement, where’s the urgency?

Time is the enemy

People have a habit of using all the time allotted to a meeting by expanding what they do to fit in the timeline. So if you have a one-hour meeting scheduled and you’ve already covered what you needed to cover with time to spare, the pace of the meeting slows down and everybody thinks they have to fill the entire hour. A better practice is to end the meeting early so people can get back to work.

Most people think 30 minutes is the minimum for a meeting. They don’t often do quick meetings. Agile uses “standup” meetings – which I think can be powerful. In real life I’ve seen 5-minute standup meetings every day actually do work. Standup meetings have to be on time and because you’re standing (like a huddle): they’re not designed to go long.

Why in the world would you set a minimum time for a meeting?

Recurring meetings are usually unnecessary

As manager, I don’t like recurring meetings. In my opinion, there should be very few recurring meetings. Have a meeting as something comes up and the need to have a meeting arises. Don’t just have a meeting because it’s scheduled. The most wasteful meetings are those that occur weekly or monthly to talk about XYZ, although it may depend on time frame. For example, board meetings happen every quarter and they’re not wasteful as the group hasn’t been together for an entire quarter.

What’s missing is great facilitation

Meeting facilitation is a lost art. I’ve gone to way too many meetings where somebody called the meeting who didn’t create the agenda and doesn’t actively run the meeting. If no one runs the meeting there’s no way the meeting can be functional. If everyone has a different agenda and no one is running it, the meeting can’t be functional by definition. Someone should always be designated to run the meeting – ideally the person who set the agenda whenever possible.

A meeting alternative

Instead of meetings, I get a lot accomplished with “drive-bys” (see my post Management by walking around). A significant part of my calendar is blocked throughout week. I have a backlog of things I want to talk about with each of my direct reports. So my “drive-bys” involve walking by and chatting with them. If they’re busy and need to be in the zone, I don’t bother them. But I can knock out 5 or 10 drive-by discussions in an hour’s time or less. And I cover a lot of small topics, which might have led to meetings in a less disciplined world.

While I got into the habit of doing drive-bys out of necessity as the number of my direct reports has grown, I’m a big proponent of doing them as you can nip things in the bud just by stopping by someone’s desk for 5 minutes. If you can’t accomplish what you have to in that way, then it’s okay to eventually do a meeting.

Leave a Reply