Meetings - Some Opinionated Guidelines

Arrange all the necessary evils of the world by time spent and I suspect meetings in a corporate environment will come out in the top three. I’d go so far as to say that these communal time sinks and waiting in line are probably the top two. It’s rare that I’ve been in a line that I find intolerable. I can’t say the same thing for meetings. As an introvert and a programmer, my dislike of meetings surprises precisely no-one. Even so, it’s not that I find the social aspect tiring. It’s that many of them are so obviously wasteful bordering on useless (if not outright destructive to productivity, patience or just faith in humanity).

In an ideal world of conscientious people that care about value, focus and effectiveness, the following norms would be supported.

  • Meetings should not be the first tool of coordination, collaboration or communication. Try some asynchronous, written communication before pulling everyone into a conference room.
  • Meetings should either be 25 minutes long or 50 minutes long. Shorter if possible. Save the small talk for the hallway or the water cooler and get this done.
  • Invitations to meetings should include a clear agenda (and clear means clear to everyone).
  • If a meeting does not have a clear agenda by 9:00 a.m. then it should be cancelled.
  • If you’re going to cancel a meeting, do so well in advance (hours or even a day) instead of the minute before it starts. Side note, if you don’t remember you’ve scheduled a meeting until the reminder pops up a few minutes before then you should probably re-evaluate your productivity system. Or get one.
  • Do not waste a third of the meeting setting up context or background, especially if everyone in the room already knows it. If you’re attempting to solve a problem that requires setup then explain the problem in the invite or the documentation.
  • If you are attending a meeting that has documentation, do not wait until the meeting to read it. To put that more succinctly - it is your job to be prepared.
  • The meeting starts at the start time. Waiting for late people to show up demonstrates a lack of respect for the time of those who were punctual. If you follow the 25-50 minute advice outlined above this becomes easier.
  • Respect the difference between maker and manager schedules. Protect your makers by establishing large blocks of time during which no one can drag them into meetings.
  • If notes and action items need to be taken and shared after the meeting then appoint someone as the scribe.
  • There should be at most two people in the room with devices in use. The presenter and the scribe. If there’s an agenda and attendees are prepared then everyone should be on point and paying attention.
  • In many cases our days are not perfectly aligned. Some people are in the office early. Some take a late lunch. Avoid scheduling meetings before 9:00, after 4:00, or between 11:30 and 1:30.
  • If you schedule a meeting over lunch and don’t plan on providing food then make that clear in the invite. If you do this then you should expect declines, no-shows, or low levels of annoyance. People don’t usually give up their time without some incentive (and yes, the lunch hour is their time).

Obviously some of these guidelines won’t apply to certain types of meetings. One-on-ones, for example, probably won’t have an agenda. Status meetings for large groups are more like lectures than meetings. Negotiations are a different beast altogether. Sales meetings with a vendor are a lie-filled scourge upon the earth and anyone that attempts to include me in one should be pulled down into the unfathomable depths of Tartarus by hooks and chains of white hot steel where they - … Sorry, it seems I dislike some meetings more than others.

In the interest of improvement, kaizen, or whatever you call being a learning organization, try asking the following questions about each meeting:

  • Was I more focused on what was in the room or things outside it?
  • Did I listen more than I spoke?
  • What did we accomplish and what did we not accomplish?
  • Is there something we can we do better next time?

Maybe all of this sounds like overkill. Perhaps it is, but following through on it has a few effects. First, it becomes more difficult to have a meeting. Good. Adding friction to the process means that there will be fewer pointless meetings. The meetings that remain are more likely to be high value. Second, the setup helps to clarify your thinking. It’s possible that documenting what a meeting is about might eliminate the need for the meeting. Maybe it even improves written communication skills. Third, you are collectively wasting less time in your organization and not eviscerating everyone’s schedules into worthless half-hour slices. Finally, it brings a level of mindfulness to how the group does things. And how your group does things defines the culture.

Please do not schedule a meeting to talk about this.