The truth about meetings

I’ve been talking about meetings recently at work (I’m still giddy that have far fewer meetings to attend these days). I’ve had discussions about meetings for at least a decade, and they’re all about the same.People grumble about ineffective meetings, while others grumble about too many meetings. Some grumble about who should be in the meeting, while others grumble about the meeting they should have been invited to.

imageHere’s the deal (according to me at least). Meetings are necessary and a good use of time (as long as you don’t screw them up). Try as you might, you can’t get a team aligned as well or as efficiently over email. Some problems (and solutions) won’t be put on the table in email or over IM. As introverted as many software people are, sometimes you need to talk to other humans to make the most efficient progress.

Think, for a moment, what a good meeting looks (and feels like). Good meetings are engaging – you want to listen and participate (rather than type on your laptop or phone). In good meetings, you learn something new (or help someone else learn something) or you reach agreement and have a plan of action by the time you walk out the door). After a good meeting you should have a feeling that progress has been made.

Then, there are the other kinds. We’ve all been there – half the room is typing on laptops, looking up once in a while to ask the presenter to repeat the last five minutes of their presentation. People talk, but no decisions are made, and most people are more confused about what’s going on than when they walked in the door. When you leave, you don’t know what to do, or at best, you are assigned to go back to your office and come up with a plan of action on your own.

We can all recognize a good meeting vs. a bad meeting, but how do you change one into the other? You have few options. One is to cancel all of the “bad” meetings. Then, you’ll only have good meetings left and life will be great. The problem is that you may actually need most of those meetings – you just need them to be more effective. Another option is to ensure that each meeting has a flow (I didn’t say “agenda” on purpose – I believe that meetings with out agendas can be effective if you have a consistent way to let the agenda emerge (scrum daily stand-ups are a great example of this (unless you consider an “everyone talks about their stuff” an agenda)). Also make sure that every meeting has a facilitator (who may or may not be the owner of the meeting). The facilitator’s job is to keep the meeting on track, stop “rat hole” conversations, and to assign action items as they come up.

Another suggestion is to reduce the meeting length. My hunch is that most 60 minute meetings can be done in 30 minutes, and 90 minute meetings can be completed in 45 (or less)). Meetings are gaseous entities that expand to fit the available space, and I believe that if you reduce the meeting time, that within a few sessions you will be getting just as much done (in half the time). If it works for you, please send your checks to me – I accept paypal.

More collateral for you on the subject


  1. Scrum has these cool terms- Pigs, Chickens and “Fly on the wall”

    so one of the factors for an effective meeting is about the participants. those “laptop typers” they are probably categorized into Flies.are they required for meetings. It is good to eliminate most non-required individuals from the invite list and hold the meeting with only pigs and to some extent chickens –> this would turn out with active participation and action items nailed down

    Agreed, if we don’t invite everyone, we may miss out on a valuable information they may bring in, but we need to draw a line somewhere between productive meetings smaller active participants and non-productive meetings larger flies in the room.

    …just my observation.

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