Five ways meetings suck and how to make them rock!
Meetings are a double edge sword. On one hand they are very useful for brainstorming, communication within and between teams and in general when used appropriately it sparks collaboration; moving projects forward.
The problem lies when meetings are misused or abused which sadly sometimes tends to happen more often than not. And that’s why I want to tell you 5 reasons why meetings suck and how to make them rock!
#1 People use them to keep busy vs being productive: I’ve seen many times how people set up meetings because for them going to the meeting is the work. Even worse, a lot of meetings end with “let’s set up another meeting to continue the discussion”. This is very common among Project Managers or Product Managers. Just as a fun mental exercise, take a couple of minutes and think if you know a few. I do.
How to deal with it: Make sure that every meeting that you attend or control over has a real and very clear objective. Even more, make sure that it is important that this meeting takes place. If the objective is not important or required, then simply defer it until it is the right time.
#2 A 1 hour meeting is not a 1 hour meeting: Have you ever been in a 1 hour meeting with 15 other folks and wondered how much work you actually have to get done instead of just sit there waiting for the 1 hour mark or your 2 minute turn to talk. Also, they guy next to you seems to be thinking the same while playing Candy Crush or in the best case answering emails? Well it is much worse than that. A 1 hour meeting with 16 people is actually 2 man days of work lost forever, gone in time. I shiver just to think of how many dollars are wasted because of overcrowded meetings!
How to deal with it: Not everyone needs to be invited to every meeting. Make sure each person has a clear and known reason of why they are there and (friendly) kick out of the room anyone that doesn’t. Also, as the old adage says, “divide and conquer”. A very broad topic where too many people are involved can be broken down into smaller chunks with smaller groups. You only need one person to coordinate among the teams, and 1 is always much better than a committee. This is very common with Scrums that get abused and end up looking more like office parties. Bonus points if people bring food as that distracts even further!
#3 Meetings without agenda: Another reason why some meetings take much longer than expected is that there isn’t a clear agenda and objective. This leads to endless talking, going on tangents and again scheduling new meetings to continue the conversation. People also confuse a meeting agenda with just the subject of the meeting. For example, “Discussion on data” is not clear, it is broad and subjective. This scenario goes hand in hand when overall project vision is not very clear or there are many unknowns.
How to deal with it: Create a clear agenda with well defined points and if possible, use my favorite feature of Scrum: timebox. Parkinson’s law is the adage that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion” and this applies very well to meetings. If you don’t have a limit, people will use all time possible for a discussion. Timebox in a reasonable way and you may see wonderful results. And if the issue is overall project vision, try planning shorter term until there is a clearer view of the road ahead.
#4 Interruptions break flow for makers: If you work hard on improving yourself you are probably familiar with the concept of “flow”, but if you are not then interiorize this: “flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity”. This is when you get a lot done. Developers usually experience this without knowing when “time flies”. But in reality what happened was that the brain was fully focused and engaged in a task with potentially wonderful results.
There is something else that you should be familiar with that is the “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule”. Now let me explain. If you are a maker, i.e. programmer, you work most likely in large chunks of time, for example from 8 am to noon. During that time you focus on solving a problem and if you are interrupted, it may take up to 15 minutes to pick up where you left off. This means that if there are multiple meetings throughout the day, your maker’s schedule gets broken down into many small chunks that do not allow for focused full involvement into a task. I worked on multiple projects in Microsoft’s main campus in Seattle and it seemed like everyone in this particular division worked in 1 hour intervals which wreaked havoc on development work. Culprit: too many (project) managers in the same building. Real development took place somewhere else.
How to deal with the managers’s schedule:
Manager’s usually have smaller chunks of work that can be broken down into 1 hour slots, hence their impulse to “book meetings with the team to catch up”. They may have the best intentions, but this usually has a negative impact. Even worse, managers are higher in the food chain so let me ask you this, when was the last time that you simply cancelled a meeting with your boss because he was interrupting you?
How to deal with the maker’s schedule: The first step is for the manager to understand the impact he is having on his whole team with constant interruptions. This sometimes requires the maker to approach the manager and explain the implications of the constant interruptions. Then the manager should aim to schedule (required) meetings when they cause the least impact, which can be near start, noon or end of day. Also, use asynchronous communication. This sounds complex, but it is basically email, chat or even better, something like Jira to manage the makers progress.
#5 Another chance for talkers to take the stage, not doers: This is a very tricky one as it requires a leader that is aware of the capabilities and responsibilities of the team members attending the meeting. The problem usually lies in that human personalities are extremely different so some people tend to talk a lot while others prefer silence. And talking is not directly proportional to doing. Someone might talk a lot and do very little and the actual guy doing the work will just sit there and listen. This creates then an unbalanced and biased view as not all of the involved parties will communicate appropriately and the outcome of the meeting might not be the best.
How to deal with it: It is the meeting organizer’s responsibility to understand what is the involvement of each one of the parties invited to the meeting in respect to the meeting agenda. Then ask questions specifically on each one of the topics to get the correct information and help obtain the best possible outcome for the meeting.
In summary meetings can help your team leap forward. Just remember to schedule meetings only when absolutely required instead of as a way to keep busy, inviting only those that are definitively required, with a very clear agenda and objective, at times where they don’t interrupt the maker’s schedule and guiding the meeting to make sure that everyone contributes their share.
Any other recommendations?