There’s a famous New Yorker cartoon with an executive arranging a time to meet with a colleague. He says, “Is never good for you?” You know what? Never is great for me. I’m good with not wasting an hour I could have spent delivering value to customers; I’m good with not subtracting an hour from my life and our business.
As I walk the halls of buildings around Redmond (and when I visit friends at their businesses), I witness conference rooms filled with highly paid professionals wasting their precious time. Many are staring at their laptops or phones instead of engaging—desperately trying to stay productive or, at least, awake. Some would say that we need to ban devices in meetings. I say, why not skip a step and ban the meetings!
Sure, meeting face to face in person or online is invaluable, even indispensable. However, it’s not inevitable or inescapable. Most meetings that folks attend are with people they already know and understand—do they really need to meet, as often as they meet, for the duration they meet? No, never is good for me.
Why do you shamelessly waste my time?
More than a decade ago, I wrote “The day we met” (chapter 3) about running efficient meetings. Today, people still run terrible meetings—they don’t share a focused agenda in advance, they invite too many people, they schedule too much time, and they don’t share an actionable recap with everyone impacted. I’ve concluded the only sure way to reduce bad meetings is to reduce meetings.
Meetings are often incredibly evil and inefficient. They suck away life and the will to live. They break up blocks of time that you could use to be in flow, delivering value. They are meant to get people aligned and excited, but often achieve the opposite.
Yet some meetings are invaluable and indispensable. Which meetings are worthwhile and which are waste? Let’s review, and (hint) we won’t need a meeting for that.
You aren’t gonna need it
In my experience, the most common meetings are standups, peer reviews (including decision meetings), status meetings, and staff meetings (including one-on-ones and morale events). Two of these shouldn’t exist, and the other two should last half as long.
- Daily standup meetings are invaluable. They give your team a chance to adjust to changes, swarm to blocking issues, and reprioritize. They’re also typically twice as long as necessary. Update your board in advance, defer the design discussions until after the standup, and stick to issues and prioritization.
- Peer review and decision meetings are an enormous waste of time and money. Instead, send the docs to reviewers; get clarity on feedback via email, IM, or drop-in; resolve the issues; and share the result. Unfortunately, people don’t read documents and don’t provide feedback in a timely fashion, so meetings are used as a forcing function. I get it, but desperation is a poor excuse for wasting everyone’s time. See the next section for a better solution.
- Status meetings are worse than peer review meetings—there’s no reason and no excuse for holding these. Put the necessary status online and/or in email, and move forward. And don’t confuse status meetings with Shiproom (aka, war room, box triage, and triage). Shiproom is a standup meeting for leaders, and like standup, it’s length should be cut in half.
- Staff meetings, one-on-ones, and morale events are invaluable. They encourage co-workers to understand each other, work out issues, and drive team culture and alignment. They too are often twice as long as necessary (aside from morale events, 30 minutes is sufficient). Have an agenda, enjoy the time, and then get back to work.
Actually, there are two kinds of peer review and decision meetings. The first kind is about understanding each other’s viewpoint— the decision makers and the context behind the situation. These meetings are valuable and, ideally, should be done in person to best learn from each other. The second kind is about working through the document or decision. These meetings should cease.
You want it when?
Peer review and decision meetings are often used as forcing functions. Attendees must draft, read, and review the documents in advance to avoid appearing unprepared at the meeting. It’s an effective strategy that I’ve used and seen used incessantly over the years. Unfortunately, it’s also a crutch that enables slackers to avoid prioritizing, ignore communication, and waste everyone else’s time. It’s unacceptable.
You don’t need a forcing function if your co-workers are responsible and responsive, treat timely feedback and communication as essential to their business, and think of their work as a business instead of an entitlement. You know—if they are professionals.
Wasting everyone’s time with meetings only enables slackers to get by without addressing the root issue. Instead, insist that people be responsive. Provide a deadline for feedback, and make it clear that no feedback means acquiescence and complaining later admits incompetence. Set the standard, and hold yourself and others to it.
Sure, there are exceptions. Sometimes approvers are above your paygrade and don’t acquiesce to your terms, and sometimes the urgent trumps the important. However, those are exceptions, not cowardly reasons to support slackers and punish professionals.
I.M. Wright is being a bit harsh here, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong. When working across groups, being flexible at first and setting clear expectations over time can effectively reduce your reliance on meetings.
What good are you?
Why are standups, Shiproom, and staff meetings useful, but other meetings wasteful? Because meetings are essentially social, interpersonal experiences. They create connection between people by literally bringing them together.
You don’t need a meeting to review a document or make a decision, but you do need a meeting to understand each other’s goals and concerns. You don’t need a meeting to share status, but you do need a meeting to build trust, establish team culture, and drive alignment.
Other good reasons to bring people together are to generate ideas, resolve conflicts, and learn from one another (like retrospectives). The farther people are apart in their ideas and mutual empathy, the closer you must bring them together. The closest you can get is an in-person one-on-one meeting (good for conflict resolution), and the furthest is a conference call (useful to gain shared understanding).
All other meetings are a waste of time, and banning devices won’t make them better.
I don’t ban device use at my meetings. Instead, I use them to assess focus and engagement. If attendees who should be engaged are not, the problem is with the meeting, not the people.
Stop wasting my time
I hate unnecessary and inefficient meetings—stop wasting my time and Microsoft’s money. Cancel peer review, decision, and status meetings—hold people accountable instead. Shorten standup, Shiproom, and staff meetings—have an agenda, and if the meetings don’t need to be daily, make them biweekly.
As for other worthwhile meetings, like requirements gathering, brainstorming, and conflict resolution, have a focused agenda, invite only the people necessary, keep the meeting short, and share the actionable outcome with everyone impacted.
Consider blocking out time for meetings each day, like from 10 a.m. to noon, and then leave the rest of the day open for teamwork and flow. (This assumes your feature teams sit close together so impromptu communication is unencumbered.) Every minute you save is a minute that can be spent creating more value for customers and more satisfaction for co-workers. That is time well spent.
If your team has blocked-out time for meetings, how do you handle meeting requests from other teams that fall outside your meeting hours? Redirect those requests to your management. It’s their job to keep you productive, and their calendars are already ruined with meetings anyway.