Is never good for you?


Eyebrows 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.

Eric Aside

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.

Eric Aside

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.

Eric Aside

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.

Eric Aside

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.

Comments (3)

  1. oldtaku says:

    I love it, and wish I could staple it to some doors. These are both implied, but I wanted to make two of my peeves explicit:

    1) Too many people - the more people you have the worse the meeting and the less you'll get done per person-hour. Do not include anyone you 'might need'. Three people, really focused on something, can be amazing and fast. Eight people are never focused for longer than a quick standup. This is usually a manager thing, I rarely see devs spam invites.

    2) Digressions. This is one is a favorite of managers since they have nothing else to do. You were all prepared, you blew through it in 35 minutes of your hour block - everyone's feeling good, even pumped to get to work on this. Then, 'Hey, since I have you here (and I have time to kill till MY next meeting)...' Or the guy who wants to turn your very focused discussion into a fundamental product question ('Maybe we should just switch to Java'). Make your own meeting - and keep me out of it.

  2. Eric says:

    I like the overall tone, but differ on a few of the details:

    1) If you have group ownership, updating the board outside the standup is a bad idea. Doing it only in standup is an easy way for people to keep track of what the overall team is doing and give input where they want to give input.

    2) I agree that peer review and decision meetings are largely a waste of time, but your solution of sending out email is nearly as bad, because a) people don't give all their attention and b) what one reviewer says is important to another and c) you don't get "we are agreed that this is the right course" from an email chain. Email is just too low of a bandwidth, and it's easy to miss important stuff in the 300+ emails I get every day.

    What you should do is find the people who matter (and that's a subset of those who are on the review), get them together to agree on the initial design, and then switch to email to figure out the details. It may take slightly longer but the quality of the decisions and the alignment between people is far higher.

    Shiprooms are pretty much an abomination; you take highly-paid individuals from all of your groups and you send them to a meeting where you know they have a very poor signal/noise ratio. You spend a large amount of attention and money on which problems you are going to fix, and my experience is that you seriously underfund spending money on preventing bugs. Ditto for triage; you are spending high-value-asset time to look at bugs rather than spending that same time on prevention.

    My experience with staff meetings is that there hasn't been much valuable activity there, and I would like to shoot all non-team morale events.

    But I have more radical advice. I don't think that meetings are the problem, I think that meetings are largely a symptom of the problem. If you adopt different organizational approaches (combined engineering, shared ownership, integrated marketing, pretty much anything that brings the various functions closer together), you can get by with a lot fewer meetings.

  3. dan says:

    Meetings for some reason tend to always last an exact hour. I doubt that the time needed was exactly an hour no more no less. The default in Outlook is actually 30 minutes. The problem is not being explicit about the goals of the meeting, not staying focused on the goals, and not having the discipline to get up and leave when they've been achieved.

    You didn't mention casual meetings - in hallways, standup areas or offices. They are less evil because they tend to have fewer people, be focused, be necessary, and end when they're done - I guess nobody wants to squash into an office or stand up longer than they need to. Some meetings that can't simply be canceled could be relocated to an office.

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