2023-01-27 (last updated: 2023-01-30) productivity

Meetings which pay the rent

Over the years I’ve been in many unproductive meetings.

I once received a 30-minute meeting invite from a colleague titled “question about user count.” Upon receiving the email, my curiosity was piqued: what could this elusive question be, and why could it not have been asked over email or chat?

On another occasion, I attended a weekly meeting that was now in its second month. There were 8 of us and, contrary to one might expect, there was no expectation for each of us to give status updates. People would instead chat for the first several minutes, after which someone would fire the opening salvo: “Does anyone have any updates?”

Other attendees, including myself, would momentarily flicker their attention back to the meeting, and generally someone would provide a brief update. This singular update was often sufficient for others to respond, opine, and occupy the remaining meeting time.

It was as if everyone was there for the sake of being there - to publicly affirm that “this project is still a thing”, indeed that “we are still a thing.” But there was no plan, no agenda. There was only our stoic and unyielding leader, the automated meeting invite, and its pack of compliant meeting attendees.

I once had a colleague who was very quick to schedule large meetings, a “meeting-phile” one might say. If there remained the slightest evidence you had been related to the project, you would become one of many recipients of his sweeping meeting invitations. It was as though a meeting invitation was dropped into the deep sea in hopes of dredging up whatever it could find.

And during the meetings, this colleague would generally talk the most. In one case I noted that over 70% of the meeting time was occupied by this single colleague speaking. Sometimes I wondered if this colleague truly intended to discuss or, as if performing in front of an audience, merely soliloquize.

Perhaps the greatest irony was that this same colleague would lament from time to time how much time he spent in meetings and how little work he was able to get done. I must confess I was not shocked.

The corporate predilection for meetings reminded me of space-filling curves: the beautiful fractal patterns that, using a simple rule, could expand into all space available. Meetings were intellectual space-filling curves.

Hilbert curve” by Braindrain0000 is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Why meetings should have an ROI

I must clarify that I am a staunch supporter of good meetings. I think any company that were to seriously maim or inhibit meetings would be doing themselves an immense disservice. Meetings are invaluable for communicating information quickly, presenting work products or corporate visions, and building rapport among team members. Few other channels achieve these goals as effectively as meetings.

Nevertheless, it appears to me that meetings over time have grown in scope and have become vigorously defended, even mythologized. Work once expected to be performed individually could now be dressed in a meeting under the guise of “collaboration” and “getting team input.” It seems nowadays that everything can be a meeting - but should it?

Of course collaboration is important, as is securing team buy-in. However, routine operational decisions that could once be made individually are now often deferred to the collective consciousness. Undoubtedly, for important decisions, especially those with multiple dependencies, this is critical. But for smaller, less consequential decisions, this is fantastically inefficient.

Organizations should aim to maximize decision velocity, and - thanks to Metcalfe’s law - this velocity can only decrease as you add more people to the mix.

Clearly, meetings can add value, but they also have a cost. Not only do they absorb staff time (quite expensive!), but they can also engender wasteful work that would otherwise have no business in a clearly articulated project plan.

As a result, meetings can be thought of in terms of return-on-investment (ROI): do the decisions made from this meeting add enough value to offset its cost?

Meetings, by their very nature, are informational, not operational. Sharing information is incredibly useful, the lack of which is perhaps the greatest source of friction within companies as they scale, but it should be clear that sharing information is different from doing. Doing is about building things - about creating persistent assets - be they design mock-ups, technical roadmaps, financial models, software or presentation decks. And this foundational process of creation can only occur outside of meetings.

There are other drawbacks to meetings: you need to get everyone at the same time in the same room; decisions are ephemeral unless manually transcribed into meeting minutes; they are time-consuming; they encourage amorphous, discursive thought; and finally, unless recorded, they do not broadcast well. Writing solves all of these.

Due to these deficiencies, meetings should be preferred only when the alternative of writing is less favorable. If you need to present to a large group, share information quickly, build rapport or brainstorm collectively, you should meet. Otherwise, you should write.

How to run a positive-ROI meeting

I often think of meetings as a “last resort”, which is not to say that I don’t enjoy meetings. As an extrovert, I do. Rather, I only prefer to meet when writing cannot successfully achieve what meetings can.

Below are a few heuristics I generally follow to ensure that meetings do what they do best:

If I were to throw this all into a blender, it’d come out as “be sensitive to wasting people’s time.” If you are taking time on their calendar, you want to make sure they want it.