If you asked me a few years ago about my biggest issue at work, chances are I'd mention "too many meetings". A lot of things improved since then, but the theme seems to be popular, especially since useless meetings are known to occupy a large part of the 4th circle of developer hell.
Let's look at some reasons.
Meetings weren't my favourite part of the workday. I intuitively graded workday quality based on how many meetings there were in the calendar. Scale: 0 = perfect productive day; full calendar = I'm going to brag if I even make it through.
I can think of several reasons why I had this attitude:
Meetings interrupt focus. They happen at a specific time by definition, and no matter what how focused and productive I felt at the time, I had to stop. Best case was when i had an alarm 10 minutes before to park my work properly!
Meetings take away from the time I'd otherwise spend on regular work. Rejecting a meeting is not cool in some environments, but the more I accepted, the less regular work I'd end up doing. This is a source of stress.
But most importantly, there's this phenomenon where after a meeting people walk out of the room thinking "we accomplished nothing" or "if I didn't come, it wouldn't matter and I'd so something productive instead".
I would like to frame Point 3 as "lack of clear purpose". Common symptoms: frustration and lack of attention during the meeting.
Here's what changed for me over the course of a few years: We solved point 3 and the rest suddenly stopped being an issue.
When I walk out of a meeting satisfied, I don't regret the time and I'm willing to pay the price of an interruption. In practice, I'd just put a little extra planning effort so that the interruption doesn't happen.
Step one: know your own purpose
The first turning point I remember was a piece of advice from Mel Lang who was kind enough to help my team out at the time:
- know why you are there and what you want
- if you're not getting what you want, make a request
- if you don't know why you're there, find out or don't go
This checklist stuck with me for a long time. I started removing meetings from my calendar one way or another, and for the ones I kept, I began to develop a habit of deciding what exactly I'd like to walk out with .
Step two: role of the meeting driver
There are two general flavours of meetings:
- some look like a group of people talking about a topic,
- others would have a single person driving the discussion.
Either type can be efficient or not, but I noticed a small pattern: meetings with drivers I attended seemed to feel more consistently efficient. Let's explore this.
Meetings with a driver often have useful properties:
- There's a person (or a group) who has a particular objective (solve a problem, make a decision, design something)
- The objective is understood by all participants before they come
- The attendees arrive with the intention to help with achieving that objective
- When the objective is reached, the meeting is over
- The driver's best interest is to ensure the meeting stays on track
- The driver specifically picked the attendants based on expectations how they can help
If the above is in place, it's ensured that each participant has a strong sense of the meeting's purpose (and it's the same purpose so everyone). It's not likely that the meeting will cause frustration or feeling of wasted time.
Why things can go sideways
A calendar makes it easy to book time in advance. This is dangerous because it can easily lead to meetings happening because they're scheduled, not because there's a need. This causes curious situations where the goal of the meeting appears late:
Welcome everyone to the weekly meeting of [group], what do we have for today?
Booking time in advance is not bad on its own, but it helps to establish the goal in advance anyway and cancel otherwise.
Multiple meetings at once.
In one of the teams I worked, we had bi-weekly planning meetings which easily took half a day (sometimes more). I remember dreading them, feeling tired afterwards, and even writing off Mondays as "meeting days" where no productive work gets done. It took us a while to find a better format.
I attribute the chaos to the fact that each participant had a different goal for the meeting: Devs wanted to agree what goes next and write implementation plans, PO wanted estimates and commitment, devs wanted to review long term roadmap, PO wanted to check how realistic a new idea sounds, designers wanted to make sure we agree on UX and QA wanted to contest the spec and figure out a test plan.
If a meeting has say 8 people with 5 distinct goals total, there's only 20% time to address every single goal. This also worsens focus: Compare YouTube party phenomenon (substitute discussing for movie-watching).
Different objectives call for different drivers and often different audience. I believe most large meetings could benefit from splitting: define clear sections, make a short break in between, or go all the way and schedule each section independently.
Status (reporting) meetings
A meeting where each participant in turn reports the status of something (progress or success metrics) doesn't typically feel productive. This is surprising because it has a clear objective: ensure everyone is informed. However, it's not given that every participant actually wants to be informed in this specific way. There are more ways to do a status report and many of them don't require everyone to be physically present at the exact same time.
My observation is that presence of a well-defined meeting objective has strong correlation with whether I walk out of the meeting with the feeling of accomplishment. However obvious that sounds, there's a surprising amount of potential reasons why the objective can end up diluted.