When we look for opportunities for improvement, at some point every team will bring up meetings as being an ongoing problem for them. When we dig into what the actual problems are, we find they always fall into one of three categories:
- Number of meetings
- Efficiency of meetings
- When meetings are scheduled
Let’s look at each of these.
Number of meetings
In general, we should only be attending meetings if we’re either learning or contributing. Any meeting where we aren’t doing one of those two is a waste of our time. Open Space events have an explicit Law of Mobility that states that if we aren’t learning or contributing then we are expected to go somewhere else. Make effective use of your time.
Sometimes we get vaguely worded meeting invites and attend because we’re really not sure if they’re important. I worked once with a team that was getting many of these kinds of requests. They decided as a group to decline any meeting that didn’t clearly explain what the purpose was and why they were needed. Whenever they declined a meeting, they would paste in a quick explanation of that policy and very quickly, they found that they were only being invited to meetings that actually mattered. A clear, well communicated policy, that the team followed was enough.
A related issue is that sometimes we attend a meeting because it sounds important but once we’re there, we realize that we’re really not needed. Social pressure would have us remain in this meeting even though we’re now failing the test of learning or contributing. I encourage teams to execute the law of mobility in these cases and leave. I’ve stepped out of meetings many times with a quick “I don’t think you need me here anymore. If that changes, call me and I’ll come back.”
Sometimes meetings are called just to disseminate information. Always ask “could this have been an email?” and if the answer is yes then we have an opportunity to remove yet more meetings.
Occasionally, we get a case where you feel that you have to attend every meeting because everything really does depend on you and if you’re not there, nothing gets done. In that case, you’re a Hero, and that’s a bad thing. Take steps to fix that before you burn out, or the rest of the team loses all motivation.
Lastly, some meetings are by very definition a waste of time. We’re having a meeting to satisfy some part of our process that doesn’t add any value? Let’s change our process to eliminate that. As Peter Drucker says “There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.”
Efficiency of meetings
Assuming that the meeting really does have some value and that you need to be here for the discussion, we need to look at the effectiveness. Some meetings are so poorly facilitated that we take two hours for something that could have been done in twenty minutes.
First we should consider whether we have everything we need. If people were supposed to come prepared, did they? Are all the key people present? Are we able to come to decisions?
If we’re missing key elements then perhaps we should just reschedule. All too often a key person is missing so it doesn’t matter what we discuss because we can’t move forward without that person. Reschedule when they’re available.
Is the meeting rambling off topic? Some groups have a tendency to get easily sidetracked by conversations that are unrelated to the topic at hand. A strong facilitator will help keep the conversation on topic. We need to normalize calling out that behaviour. Some teams use ELMO (Enough, Let’s Move On) as an agreed upon protocol.
Is there a lack of focus? We often see people show up in a meeting but then spend all their time doing something else on their laptop. If you’re not paying attention, why are you there? You’re not adding value. See the law of mobility again.
Lastly, recognize that there’s an intention behind every meeting. There may be a different way to satisfy that intention without a structured meeting. For example, the daily standup is all about coordination. Teams that are using mob/ensemble programming are never out of sync so they don’t need a formal meeting to collaborate.
When meetings are scheduled
People doing creative work, which is just about all knowledge work, need large blocks of uninterrupted time. If we schedule a short meeting in the middle of the morning and another in the middle of the afternoon, we’ll get almost nothing done all day.
Conversely, if we scheduled those two meetings back to back at either the beginning or end of the day then the rest of the day would be one large block of time and we’d be able to get good productive work done.
Most teams have some kind of a standup/coordination meeting once a day. If we have to discuss another topic then doing it right after standup is an ideal time. We’re already interrupted so it’s not disrupting anything else.
Many teams will block off time on the calendar for that focused time. No meetings in the afternoons or no meetings on Fridays. They’ll push as many meetings as possible into contiguous chunks so that when they are back doing their creative work, they have the time to really focus on that.
It’s up to you to manage your time effectively. If the current meetings are getting in the way of doing your work then fix the meetings.
One last tip: Once you’ve decided how you want to deal with meetings, add those decisions to your team working agreements. It’s easier for one person to say no to a meeting, if everyone says no.