A Plea for Sane Meetings (or how we should be makers)

Paul Graham on scheduling:

When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That's no problem for someone on the manager's schedule. There's always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker's schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

I highly recommend you read Paul's article in its entirety, but if you don't get to it, take the following advice: have fewer meetings. If you can't reduce the number of meetings, at least put some thought into when you hold them. Have them at the very beginning (not great) or at the very end of the day (better). This will reduce the level of interruption that the meetings cause.

Working in a large institution1, trying to schedule meetings can be a nightmare. Everyone has a busy schedule and usually have a substantial number of meetings in a given week. Not only is the volume of meetings high, but the efficiency and usefulness of most meetings are questionable at best.

Something I see a lot of are recurring meetings. I don't believe in them. Plain and simple. A weekly, bi-weekly, or even monthly recurring meeting serves no real purpose except to waste time. The meetings are usually not top of mind and when the 15 minute reminder pops up, odds are that the people involved aren't ready for the meeting. This results in a few items being thrown together and no real progress being made in the meeting.

Another (possibly the most significant) problem with meetings is that no real action results from them. A bunch of people get together in a room and talk about stuff. They probably nod their heads a lot and make some notes2. If the meeting doesn't have an agenda, which happens more often than not, then things get even worse. I shudder when I think about agenda-less, weekly recurring meetings. The horror!

Meeting problems are a symptom of something deeper: a lack of real choice in how we communicate. We have the following options when communicating with a colleague:

  • Phone

  • Email

  • In person

  • Inter-office mail (although who uses that?)

Phone is fine for one to one conversations. Email is good for communicating between groups, but not great a dealing with complex topics. We all know how much email sucks for having conversations. It strips away the truly human parts of a conversation and can result in major problems. For complex subjects, the default often ends up being meetings. We've been trained to think that meetings should be a certain way. It's not a meeting until there are more than two people, the people are in a board room, and everyone has some paper in front of them. Why do we have to think that way?

Why can't we have meetings in a common area with everyone standing up? The meeting would take five minutes and everyone would have their say. Following that, any decisions that needed to be made would be made and everyone would go their own way.

Even if the job you do isn't something that might fall under the title of "maker", I think it's worth trying to think more like one. Schedule your time so that you have blocks of uninterrupted time. Regardless of your job, you'll be more productive. Your brain will have time to get into the right mode and your thoughts will connect in ways that you didn't expect. On one episode of Back to Work, Merlin Mann quotes someone (I'm doing a horrible job of attribution) as saying: "moments snap together like magnets." It's such a beautiful turn of phrase and extremely true.

Giving yourself enough time to see how your moments and thoughts snap together will result in better work. You'll ship better stuff. At the end of the day, that's all we can hope for.

After all this, I've come to the conclusion that meetings aren't inherently evil, it's how we do them that is the problem. Meeting face to face is actually the best way to make group decisions, but it really comes down to doing meetings right.

What are meetings like for you?

  1. These are my own views and opinions, not those of my employer. 

  2. And by notes I mean doodles. :