Frustrated student in empty classroom.

Photo by Alex McCarthy from the fine service Unsplash.

Meetings and some alternatives

I’ve been thinking a lot about meetings because I hate them. My co-workers don’t always feel the same way, though. I find them very problematic and anxiety provoking because they don’t actually result in any work being done. I find them costly and inefficient.

Here are some problems and possible solutions to meeting culture.

whom should I invite?

This is a difficult decision with any meeting. You want to ensure the right people are there to get the input that you need, however, the more people you invite the more expensive they are in terms of person-hours. Also, the more people involved, the more likely some will hide, and others will dominate. Conversely, the fewer people you invite might give the impression that you made the decision “behind closed doors”.

solution: asynchronous discussions in public channels

I am a huge proponent in creating public spaces where discussions can happen. Meetings aren’t these. I love to use Slack channels with lots of attendees to brainstorm on issues or ask questions. You do introduce the risk of distracting people unnecessarily, but with well aligned Slack practices you can avoid this.

Making decisions in public is a huge thing for company culture. Public channels allow participants in a conversation to pull in the right people as necessary and there will always be an artifact to refer to, even if it’s just a Slack thread.

example

In engineering, we use tools like Jira to manage projects. Today, I had a meeting specifically about a ticket. We made some decisions and came up with some ideas, however no one outside meeting is privy to that without us updating the comments on the ticket (which we did).

Instead, we could have held the entire discussion in the comments of that ticket, and held certain people to do so within a given timeframe. This would be harder than a meeting, but in trade-off we wouldn’t have required anyone to break their workflow, find time on a calendar, etc. We’d also have an artifact to point to with the decisions made. Anyone could chime in if need be and correct us or point something out.

alignment needed

Employees would need to know which channels to pay attention to and that it’s their duty to be responsive to those channels.

meetings beget meetings

I often rely on meetings as placeholders for dedicating time to thinking about a problem or topic. This has a snowball effect, though, as the more meetings I have on our calendar the more I tend to do this. It’s a harsh truth, but meetings are typically most convenient for 1) the organizer, or 2) the person who already has a lot of meetings on the calendar. Back to back meetings also leave no time for context switching. I am often late to meetings because a prior meeting ran over.

solution: make meetings harder on the organizer

Meetings are really costly for the company depending on the people involved. They need to be costly on the organizer. Seth Godin has some drastic ideas here.

Specific requirements around agendas are crucial. Organizers also need to understand that meetings are not a good place for establishing the context for a topic but that really has to happen beforehand to make the most out of the time. We should feel freedom as attendees to tell meeting organizers that we are not prepared if we just couldn’t do it in time. Meetings shouldn’t be used just to create arbitrary deadlines for thinking about something.

example

I gave a presentation to some new team members a couple of weeks ago about the digital side of our business. Kind of like an onboarding meeting. There was no agenda. I prepared for it 10 minutes in advance. I relied on my ability to wax poetic about Lonely Planet for an hour and I did so somewhat successfully. We at least recorded it to potentially use later. But, this is not really acceptable. I chose a meeting/presentation because it was the simplest way for me to disseminate information to a large group of people at the same time.

What could I have done instead? Created resources, documentation, etc that could have been pre-reading for a shorter, optional Q&A session with the new employees. Allowed folks to submit questions prior to a Q&A session. Or, have even shorter Q&A sessions with each person individually, or folded their questions into something like Confluence to create even more thorough documentation.

alignment needed

We set expectations about meeting preparations and hold everyone accountable to them.

we want face time with people, but meetings don’t always build camaraderie

Right now we may be leaning on meetings more than normal to get face time with each other because we’re all remote. Hearkening back to some earlier points, though, meetings don’t build company culture because some voices will dominate. Because of time zones and other needs, they are not inclusive. But simply relying on slack and email is very impersonal, and not guaranteed to be inclusive either.

solution: pair up / shadow with team members to build culture

I believe that trust is really built side by side. Not just discussing an issue but solving problems together in real time. I’m suggesting that if there are team members we want to connect with, that we should ask to be invited into a problem that they are solving or even just sit with them while they work. Separate from a one-on-one pulse check (for which Friday.app has some creative async solutions), this would be more like a concept we have in engineering called pair programming. This should be encouraged across the organization, not just with leaders.

example

Inverse example, actually. A couple of weeks ago I was struggling with the idea of what to do with a particular request from a stakeholder. I grabbed two developers for a spontaneous huddle later that day, and within about 10 minutes they proposed an elegant solution that provided a way forward. I was ready to buy them both a beer.

Conclusion

Just don’t accept meetings as the de facto way to get work done and collaborate with your teammates, or to disseminate information. It takes discipline.

Russell J. Anderson

I am a Web Developer in Nashville, Tennessee, working for Lonely Planet. I love my family, my church, the local sports teams, and adverbs.

Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

— Antoine de Saint-Exupéry