February 14, 2012
How many meetings did you have today? This week? This month?
Now ask yourself how many of those meetings were worthwhile, versus the work that you could have accomplished in that same time.
This might lead one to wonder why we even have meetings at all.
At GitHub we don't have meetings. We don't have set work hours or even work days. We don't keep track of vacation or sick days. We don't have managers or an org chart. We don't have a dress code. We don't have expense account audits or an HR department.
Now, I'm sure Tom was being facetious when he said that GitHub doesn't have meetings, because I sure as heck saw meeting rooms when I recently visited their offices to give a talk. Who knows, maybe they use them to store all the extra forks.
Although some meetings are inevitable, even necessary, the principle he's advocating here is an important one. Meetings should be viewed skeptically from the outset, as risks to productivity. We have meetings because we think we need them, but all too often, meetings are where work ends up going to die. I have a handful of principles that I employ to keep my meetings useful:
- No meeting should ever be more than an hour, under penalty of death.
The first and most important constraint on any meeting is the most precious imaginable resource at any company: time. If you can't fit your meeting in about an hour, there is something deeply wrong with it, and you should fix that first. Either it involves too many people, the scope of the meeting is too broad, or there's a general lack of focus necessary to keep the meeting on track. I challenge anyone to remember anything that happens in a multi-hour meeting. When all else fails, please keep it short!
- Every meeting should have a clearly defined mission statement.
What's the mission statement of your meeting? Can you define the purpose of your meeting in a single succinct sentence? I hesitate to recommend having an "agenda" and "agenda items" because the word agenda implies a giant, tedious bulleted list of things to cover. Just make sure the purpose of the meeting is clear to everyone; the rest will take care of itself.
- Do your homework before the meeting.
Since your meeting has a clearly defined mission statement, everyone attending the meeting knows in advance what they need to talk about and share, and has it ready to go before they walk into the room. Right? That's how we can keep the meeting down to an hour. If you haven't done your homework, you shouldn't be in the meeting. If nobody has done their homework, the meeting should be cancelled.
- Make it optional.
"Mandatory" meetings are a cop-out. Everyone in the meeting should be there because they want to be there, or they need to be there. One sure way to keep yourself accountable for a meeting is to make everyone optional. Imagine holding a meeting that people actually wanted to attend, because it was … useful. Or interesting. Or entertaining. Now make it happen!
- Summarize to-dos at the end of the meeting.
If your meeting never happened, what would the consequences be? If the honest answer to that is almost nothing, then perhaps your meeting has no reason to exist. Any truly productive meeting causes stuff to happen as a direct result of the decisions made in that meeting. You, as a responsible meeting participant, are responsible for keeping track of what you need to do – and everyone in the room can prove it by summarizing their to-do list for everyone's benefit before they leave the meeting.
It's not that we shouldn't have meetings, but rather, we need to recognize the inherent risks of meetings and strive to make the (hopefully) few meetings we do have productive ones. Let's work fast, minimize BS, and get to the point.
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Posted by Jeff Atwood
Yes! Jeff is back!
"Who knows, maybe they use them to store all the extra forks."
While most meetings (especially "fluffy" ones) should be optional, what about smaller ones to synchronize the team on what's going on? There's the risk that someone who simply doesn't like meetings will happily slog on until it by accident becomes clear that she's working in the wrong direction or is hopelessly stuck?
Either as said in the article, there is a list of points that needs synchronisation for advancing in a project or 'whats going on' is the primary burden of direct management.
-In my view, the manager has to have one to one conversations to catch up with the progress, and if a point of interest arises, schedule a meeting!
-What i have seen (again and again) is that a meeting whose only goal is team 'catch up' is a one to one meeting with your manager, plus a public : the team.
Dont get me wrong there, when summing up topics this kind of meeting can trigger great insights from the public, but you take a big risk of wasting the time of N-2 attendants for a low chance of improvements.
What those 'catch up' meetings always succeeds in producing is a great report that should have been done anyway : thats not worth an hour for 10 persons.
And i'm not talking about out of scope disgressions that happens when no clear bullet point topics are defined.
Those principles are very similar to the rules defined in Agile-development, they just make sense.
I have been in environments where the corporate culture has stratified employees so strongly (strongly typed, har-har) by their titles that meetings were blessings...when they happened. If you work in a place where each "level" refuses to acknowledge anybody lower, even in passing by in the hall, then meetings are the only place a larger picture of your work effort can emerge.
I work in an organization where we have daily status reports, apart from weekly, monthly and quarterly status reports. And all these happens for all the applications we work on. On an average, we spend 2 hours a day in a meeting. When I tried saying no to such status meetings, I was told by upper management that there is a process so you should follow it. How can I ask them to stop acting like a sheep and be a bit of an human being?
Just the other day, there was a highly relevant tidbit on Freakonomics about the perverse incentives at play in meetings:
To summarize: in general, people judge the competence of others at meetings based on how much they talk, rather than the quality of what they say. The consequence is that people have a strong individual incentive to waste time on trivialties, which degrades the usefulness of the meeting. Additionally, groups tend to strongly favour the first thing which is suggested, without properly considering alternatives, which leads to a tendency towards poor decision making.
I have mixed feelings about meetings. I used to hate them with a passion, prefering to code instead. Over time, I came to understand that if you don't have regular meetings the organization will fall apart. People still need to see one another to get a coherent picture of the organization and where it's headed. At my girlfriends old workplace they had "monthly meetings" that happened about once every three or so months. The result was that the organization became dysfunctional because the only source of accurate information was the rumors in the hallways.
It probably is a question of discipline just as you say - but I would prefer a disorganized meeting that at least kept people informed instead of the alternative that no meeting was held and no-one has a clue on what to do.
You know, every single developer I've ever known has railed against meetings, how they're a waste of time, etc. Then, the moment they find themselves in need of information from their team, they fall right back into the same patterns that they railed against.
It amazes me how astonished my developers are when I call a meeting that has an agenda, that sticks to the agenda, and usually ends early. It's not that hard... really.
A friend of mine's old boss had a statement:
"Make the meeting worth the money the customer is paying."
Take everyone in that meeting and (assuming the meeting is an hour) add up their hourly rate. That is how much this meeting cost the customer. Does the team get that much benefit from the meeting? If no, then you are doing the meeting wrong.
I'd add another: Never have a meeting to pass out information.
Wow, I got a meeting just like that in 10 minutes. Ohhh the irony...absolutely nothing gets done in these meetings!
Some people treat meetings like they're a place to catch up on work that they didn't get done because they had other meetings to go to. I think it's disprespectful to the meeting organizer and makes a potential waste of time an ~actual~ waste of time.
My rules: You can't leave a meeting unless you've made a decision, and it can't be a decision to have another meeting.
Excellent post, Jeff. I will send it to my boss and peers, as every meeting we have brings pain to me. I am sure I am not alone.
I literally haven't sat in a meeting room since 2005 or physically seen anyone from my company in a business capacity since 2005.
At our company we all telecommute. Ninety percent of stuff can be dealt with by agreement over email or work tickets.
The remaining 10% is handled by highly focused conference calls and Goto Meeting sessions which is at most around 90 minutes worth of business spread over a week.
I do sometimes miss the free tea and biscuits though.
At Lucid Meetings we (well, @EliseID8) have been writing a series of posts about meeting cost vs. meeting value. We care deeply about well run meetings that are valuable for people and organizations. I think you'll find good information for sharing with bosses in there :)
Nick Hodges has a great point. I've seen that abused at a lot of companies. "Wow, they somehow managed to squeeze 2 minutes of information into one hour!"
If they can't start a meeting without you, well, that's a meeting worth going to, isn't it? And that's the only kind of meeting you should ever concern yourselves with. (the movie: Swimming with Sharks)
I hate meetings as well but I don't have another solution to replace them. Today I had the following meetings:
- 1 hour with new product managers to explain how we do things in Engineering, the development teams we have, and how to work with us effectively
- 1 hour with a customer advisory board to get feedback on how our product is or isn't serving their needs and to preview upcoming enhancements
- 1 hour to review new feature plans from the product team and estimate their level of difficulty
- 1 hour presentation from a third-party vendor whose functionality we may integrate with our product
- 30 minutes to get a bunch of people from different parts of the company together who seem to be independently trying to solve the same problem, and make sure we're not wasting effort
Maybe we don't have the kinds of meetings people complain about. None of the above were, as a practical matter, optional for me.
But it's something I don't think it will work.
I have to get requirements from who I'll call "end clients." Not being in a position of authority my choices become pull this information from THESE clients or not have a job.
The end clients do not have enough respect for what we're trying to do (or apparently, us) to do their homework before hand.
Thus we are stuck in the meeting, for however long it takes, to get all the information we need. It may take a couple hours. It may take more than one multi-hour meeting. On one project, it took three 2-hour meetings -- just to grab the initial requirement descriptions. But we can't do our project without the information, the clients are unable or unwilling to provide the information when we ask for it unless we are there interviewing them. Even at the meeting, if there is more than one representative (and sometimes that is inescapable) they will argue about the requirements. We have to guide them through the conceptualization of the project.
Yes, it sucks, but yeah, nothing I can do. I believe wholeheartedly that your principals are good and ideal. But they're ideal in an almost Platonic sense. Unless EVERYONE signs on to the principles and adopts the appropriate work habits, they are unachievable ideals.
@AskDrSe you are right in that it is easier to have good meeting practices for internal teams than it is for people over whom you have no direct influence. This is where great account managers and project managers shine. The really good ones can work magic w.r.t. requirements gathering. And yeah, sometimes it bites.
As a humorous aside, anyone familiar with Frank Herbert's Dune sequel Messiah might remember this commentary on meetings:
"The convoluted wording of legalisms grew up around the necessity to hide from ourselves the violence we intend toward each other. Between depriving a man of one hour from his life and depriving him of his life there exists only a difference of degree. You have done violence to him, consumed his energy. Elaborate euphemisms may conceal your intent to kill, but behind any use of power over another the ultimate assumption remains: 'I feed on your energy.'"
-Addenda to Orders in Council
The Emperor Paul Muad'dib
It is amazing how much can be accomplished in 25-minutes with a good agenda, a stop-watch and someone to smash tangents. Your 5th point is really critical. Nice post.
I love getting dragged into my clients meetings, especially the long ones with no purpose
...But only because I'm a contractor and get paid by the hour.
I had a hour-long meeting that overran by over half an hour. Seemed like a failure to me until I checked the action items, and realised we'd covered everything we needed to, and that everyone was now aware of flaws and broken sections that they previously hadn't been.
The true curse is the "Regularly Scheduled" "Team" meeting. It's a way of updating the managers and provides *NOTHING* for anyone not involved in the project.
Never has a blog post resonated more with me. I very rarely attend meetings these days - if I ever go in to a meeting room, it's for 5 minutes to sort out an issue that I don't want to discuss in a public forum.
Saying that, I'm a ruthless contractor, with very little patience for politics, and I put very little stock in the likes of project management and middle management. Middle management should only get involved if someone isn't pulling their weight, or consistently take a long time to achieve goals or complete work.
It's very rare that anyone will gain anything from the meetings that are held at many of my client's offices. I usually politely decline, and provide a concise update via email or verbally.
What makes me laugh more than anything is seeing a middle manager who spends their entire life in meetings, who achieves very little except maybe make themselves feel "in the loop"... when in fact, the information gained is relatively useless to them. Honestly... I see people in meeting after meeting, who still can't answer questions presented to them relating to the supposed subject matter discussed.
You haven't gone back to 9 till 5 world, have you?
I found our weekly team (IT) meetings essential. We use this time to split up tasks for the week and discuss details of longer term issues. We have very few meetings otherwise. Also our team is split over two buildings and a telecommuter, so once a week we get to actually talk through issues rather than relying to heavily on our already overfull email systems.
On the other hand our once a month company wide meetings take no less than 2 hours, and mainly serve to spread information such as new hires and job changes (after the full office tour and the series of emails related to new hires and job changes), announce board meetings and agendas and remind us of the company mission statement and associated company "commitments". Then there is usually some long winded diatribe status update. Last week we got a treat though. At our annual retreat (like an all company meeting but 2 days long) we realized that we didn't know what every other person in the company did. Never mind that you know who does the things that relate to your own work... Anyways, we all wrote down the "3" things our job consists of, then we presented them to the group. There are over 50 in our organization and in an 1hr 45min we made it through 10, before they cut us off and decided the we would pick up where we left off at the next meeting. I was one of those 10 and let everyone know what I did in less than 1 min.
"At GitHub we don't have meetings. We don't have set work hours or even work days. We don't keep track of vacation or sick days. We don't have managers or an org chart. We don't have a dress code. We don't have expense account audits or an HR department."
GitHub is not based here in Italy, I suppose...
One other point I'm surprised you missed:
Meetings should not recur. As if a meeting wasn't costly enough, some folks think it's efficient to incur that same cost every week (or every day!) whether you need the meeting or not.
Stories seem obligatory in this thread. So: I successfully campaigned last year to be the guy who didn't go to recurring meetings. If it wasn't worth your time to invite me to each meeting individually, how was it worth my time to attend each meeting individually?
Of course, the campaign involved days' worth of talking to various folks -- covering every possible aspect of the meeting's alleged mission in detail, until everyone finally agreed they'd survive without me or invite me to individual meetings. But, the time cost of that campaign was worth it, right?
Then, a few months later, someone else took over the meeting, gave it a new name, and that invalidated my exemption.
Meetings are quite a beast.
At lest in the US you do not need a work permit to attend business meetings, you do for real work. What does this tell you?
You are right on almost 90% time regarding meetings but that 10% is crucial. if you really need to discuss or make some decision keeping all in same page, meeting can help you.
Yes, meetings are the amplifying component of the small mind.
Good article with great points. However...
"For C#, on the other hand, it has worked really well to formalize: every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 1:00 to 3:00, we have a regularly scheduled meeting. We have a living agenda. Issues bubble to the top, and we knock them off. We have a wiki now on the internal web with the issues list, resolutions for them, and so on." - Anders Hejlsberg - http://www.artima.com/intv/csdes.html
Have a clear purpose, come prepared, and end the meeting as soon as possible by summarizing action items, but don't force a productive meeting to stop just because 60 minutes have past.
Well put, Jeff.
For anyone interested, Merlin Mann gave a great talk at Twitter HQ about this very subject.
Check it out at http://i-0.us/fix-meetings
Too many meetings is bad, but zero meetings isn't good either. Programmers need to exchange info beyond the need-to-know bases, and meta-communication serves a purpose for creating teams, sharing inspiration and creating a a primodial soup for future feature ideas. It's not nice to be treated like a code producing robot that receives just the minimum info, gets assigned issues and delivers them and that's it.
But I wonder what really makes the difference, do teams create the tools or do the tools create the teams. What do you think?
The weekly team meetings at my last job used to get me down, 90% waste of time.
I read somewhere that these types of meetings should be held in rooms with no chairs - people aren't happy to waffle away the day if they're standing up. I like the idea, couldn't get the employer to implement it though.
I think you could take #4 (Make it Optional) a step further and even say "Decline Meetings". Not enough people decline meetings they shouldn't be in. Glad you also pointed out at the end that the solution isn't to not have meetings. Meetings are important, as long as they're run well.
I've incorporated many similar principles as yours in a meeting tool I built - www.LessMeeting.com. I'd love your feedback. Does it help you run your meetings better?
You can pretty much tell how big the company someone works for is by their comments here. Remember the n-squared communications problem? Big companies, with thousands or tens of thousands of employees, tens of product areas, and lots of non-development staff (marketers, writers, sales, long-term strategy people, etc) need meetings to make certain everyone stays in the loop and everyone is working towards the same goal. If they try to keep everyone up-to-date on everything all the time no one has time to do anything but read project updates. So you have meetings where you communicate with other groups on the project you're working on, you have meetings for high-level updates on other projects that aren't expected to affect you, but may in ways other people haven't noticed. You have meetings with your internal stakeholders to make sure that what you're doing meets their needs. You can get rid of the meetings, but you're only going to increase the communications overhead by forcing people to constantly be ready to discuss any of those topics, rather than confining it to a 1-hour timeslot that people can prepare for.
Oh how the public sector could stand to follow this advice. Hours upon hours of meetings over a single project, and 2 years later we are still discussing the same thing.
A couple of months ago, I read a book called "Read This Before Our Next Meeting: The Modern Meeting Standard" (see my review on Goodreads here: http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/197394213). It's right in line with what you're saying here, with more details/suggestions for moving your organization to a culture of only having meetings that are meaningful.
One of the critical suggestions from the book is to not have a meeting when a conversation will suffice. I like that -- conversations are active and not nearly as disruptive to my schedule as meetings are.
It's not meetinsg themselves that are bad.
It's unnecessary meetings or long meetings. Long, unnecessary meetings are the worst (and, unfortunately, the most common).
Agile practices (Scrum, in particular) proposes daily stand-ups - but even they can degenerate.
I was just reading about an interesting technique to counter that:
Ugh! Two typos in one short post.
It must be a weekend.
I never could get the hang of weekends.
I loved this article. It was so great.
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Jeff, what are your thoughts on systems like LastPass? I guess without knowing how they really store their passwords it's hard to judge but in general do you use systems that store your passwords for you?
That infographic is hilarious. Nice article.
I built something over the last few weeks that aims to kill long meetings by visualizing time and money burned in your meeting: http://killlongmeetings.com.