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Meetings Suck

Nov 12, 2009 In Web Culture By Nishant Kothary

Is it just me, or has the culture around meetings in the workplace spun out of control? Meetings are like a plague at large companies like Microsoft, and I’ve just about had it. I’m constantly holding back my twitching index finger from clicking “Decline” when someone turns an ongoing email thread into a meeting invite.

Cornering people in a room in front of a whiteboard isn’t going to solve the problem. That’s because meetings don’t solve problems — people do. And they all do it differently.

Solution vs. Consensus

A meeting is supposed to facilitate a solution. Maybe even the “best” solution. Sometimes this process takes a few minds, but let’s not kid ourselves. How often do you think to yourself on your way to a meeting, “This meeting is definitely going to help us arrive at an awesome solution”? Probably not very often.

In fact, most people I know sigh in resignation on their way to meetings. This is because meetings seem to have devolved into a consensus-building and CYA tactics charade, with several participants who aren’t invested in the quality of the solution.

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

There is no generic template for problem-solving. Take design problems, for instance. Your best bet is to articulate the problem to an experienced designer and let him/her solve it on his/her own terms.

I know loads of folks who come up with the best solution iteratively over time. And given the often very technical nature of design problems, they’re best best solved “on paper”. This is why Basecamp messages are often more effective than in-person conversations.

Point is: meetings are not silver-bullets for solving any ol’ problem.

Your Time Starts Now

The meeting template incorrectly presupposes a fixed schedule for problem-solving. I’m constantly in meetings where two problems with completely different complexity levels are scheduled for an hour each. Depending on the crowd, some of these end with a signed-off, sub-standard solution. In others, we punt on an important problem because the group can’t agree on how to fix it. And then there are those that end with a follow-up meeting,because we “didn’t have enough time”.

Get up. Run. Hit brick wall. Repeat.

On That Note

Meetings are useful when they emerge from a natural need; sometimes people really do need to be in a room together to solve a problem. But these types of meetings have become as rare as a hen’s tooth.

In the meantime,we have succumbed to a recurring exercise in futility, accepting meaningless meetings as a necessary evil of our professional existence. I’d love for us to go back to our roots: schedule conversations to solve problems, rather than perpetuate them.

And now, if you’d excuse me, I have a meeting to attend. Sigh.

Meet me in the comments if you have something to say. Or, follow us on Twitter if that’s your thing.

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7 comments so far. You should leave one, too.

Ray Hayes said on Nov 12, 2009

Yup and Scrum/Agile is the biggest culprit of all. Let''s get every one together every day and try to figure out if we''ll actually get done what we said we''d get done and if not, what can we cut and still look like we accomplished something. Then even if there''s a ton of work to do, let''s all get together every week and have a status meeting so the team knows what everyone is working on and oh, let''s watch some PDC sessions on the wide screen just to keep current.

S2 said on Nov 12, 2009

Well...I gotta say, as much as I hate ''em, it is possible for meetings to be effective. They rarely are, but that''s because it''s not often that people approach a meeting as if they WANT to make it productive; neither the chair, nor the attendees.

Sarcasm aside (and you have NO idea how hard that is for me), meetings can be a great place to elicit and observe visceral reactions to ideas; to share opposing viewpoints real-time, and to gain insight into co-workers (regardless of their relative position on the org chart) and their interaction styles.

They can also be good vehicles to get complex ideas across to stakeholders or approval authorities quickly - I mean, who reads a detail design doc or SRS in it''s entirety?

Approach a meeting as if it were any other business engagement - a sales call, a presentation, etc. - prepare for it like you would any other work effort, complete with outcomes and tactics to get there, and exercise some meeting discipline - and you''d be surprised how effective they can be.

Plus, with all that work on the front end, the rate of calling meetings might just drop...;)

But that''s just my opinion. Who wants pie?

Ray Hayes said on Nov 13, 2009

I agree with S2. Some meetings are great; short, to the point and very effective. I think it''s the days when there''s a lot of work on the table and after a day of meetings you realize the work still needs to be done and the meetings started late, were repetitive because late arrivals, had no agenda, and eventually terminated because someone else had the room in the next hour. Those days can be really draining both physically and mentally.

Iggy-mwangi said on Nov 13, 2009

its all about leadership, crappy meetings are a result of crappy leaders. Effective leaders orchestrate effective meetings.

Nishant Kothary said on Nov 13, 2009

@S2 - Couldn''t agree more. I should have been clearer — meetings don''t suck but what they seem to have become does. Pie, please. :-)

@Iggy-meangi - You mean "this": ?

@Ray - Looks like you guys need a new ScrumMaster...

fjpoblam said on Nov 15, 2009

Meetings suk when they become a stage at which to perform, reports justifying decisions which were prepared beforehand.

"Hi! Here''s what we''ve done. Great, huh? Meeting adjourned."

I once worked at a place where we logged our time in various categories, including such things as "productive", "training", "vacation" ...and like that. After an hour-long meeting, I asked the boss, "Should I log this as ''productive''?" You may imagine the glare.

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