Reaching Peak Meeting Efficiency

There over 7 million Google and 13,000 Giphy search results for “hate meetings”.

There are almost as many for “love meetings” but that is just irony. Beyond that there are countless posts on time and money wasted in meetings — ”This Company Spent 300,000 Hours a Year in Pointless Meetings” was a headline recently. The Muse reported on study results that 35–50% of work time is in meetings and 67% of meetings are “failures”. We’ve all computed the financial cost to the company of a meeting we hated. Ugh.

I’ve endured a lot of bad meetings in my time. I’ve led bad meetings and attended bad meetings. I’ve tried to fix meet

ings. I’ve broken meetings. This post is about why meetings really are important to getting things done, even with incredibly divergent views on that fact, and why meetings so often go sideways or worse.

By and large meetings come and go and most of us just accept them as part of doing collaborative work in a company. Like AutoCorrect, once in a while a meeting backfires to such a degree that it just sets off a stream of emotions about how horrible meetings can be and what a huge waste of time all meetings have become. Some react by attempting to define when/how/if to have meetings as if there is a secret that has eluded most everyone for 100 years.

In the course of building a company the most important tool you have to create a culture of shared values is communication and meetings are critical to communication.

When you bring together a team of talented and diverse individuals, the only way they will come to operate as a team is by spending time talking, listening, and understanding the perspective individuals bring to contribute to a larger whole.

Unless everyone hired shares the same background and experiences, there’s no way a group of people can converge to a high-performance team without meeting, sharing, and learning together. No amount of ping-pong, email, or shared docs can substitute for meeting.

This essay does not contain the magical PowerPoint template for how to run an effective meeting, nor doe

s it espouse a system for deciding how, when, or why to meet. I’ve seen every type of agenda, preparation, tracking, issue-list, decision-making tool, template (whether using Word, Excel, Powerpoint, or Outlook). Call me skeptical. In my experience the best tool for meetings is scheduling time to have them in the first place and then to be present. The rest are just distractions to the real goals of sharing, building, deciding.

Meetings in this post refers to internal to a company or focused on the internal workings of a company, prima

rily the most common meetings of small groups. External meetings with (potential) customers, partners, investors, press, and so on are rather different. The last section of the post discusses 1:1s and broader team meetings as well.

Let’s Be Honest About Meetings… Before I come to the defense of meetings, we should be honest with ourselves about meetings and some nearly universal truths.

  • No one likes meetings except the person who called the meeting. This is just a given, but it is important to remember that you too will someday call a meeting that no one will like.

  • No meeting ever made it through an agenda. If you’re meeting has n > 1 agenda items to work through you will not make it past the first couple. If your agenda for an entire meeting is just one item, then reconsider “world peace” as an agenda. The physics of meetings are such that the first agenda item you talk about (which half the time might not even be item 1) will expand to fill all available time.

  • Very few opinions/minds will change at a meeting in real-time. Expecting people to come around to your point of view in the meeting is almost never a winning approach. That said, it is reasonable to assume most everyone is rational and will come around to share a rational point of view if you spend time with them outside the meeting.

  • If you’re at a meeting

and everyone is looking at their phones most of the time, then the next step is to reconsider the meeting and approach not to ban phones from meetings. Or maybe just don’t worry about it because meetings are just like real life where people look at their phones. As far as laptops, they are tools of work and people want to look things up or take notes, but just be sure to commit to participating (reminder, everyone can tell if you’re doing something other than taking notes).

  • If you’re at a meeting and the room isn’t big enough to fit everyone, then the next step is to reconsider the attendees and approach and not to get a bigger room.

  • If you’re at a meeting and the presenter is using slides with static representations of data, then it is a given that the discussion will require dynamic views, slices, and dices of the data. Don’t present pictures of data, rather be prepared and willing to share live data.

  • If you’re at a meeting and you present the group with two potential solutions to a problem, you will leave the meeting with a third potential solution to investigate and that idea will h

ave the best attributes of each of the two proposed solution and magically none of the tradeoffs. I mean seriously, why didn’t you think of proposing the lower cost and faster time to market solution in the first place! Also, if you’re presenting to your boss no matter how many alternatives you present at least one new one will be synthesized at the meeting, but the boss is the

one who can relieve the team of one or more constraints.

  • Important things never really happen at a meetings. If something does happen it is right at the end when everyone has to pee and half the people are out the door. The biggest mistake people make is thinking the meeting is the peak moment or end of a long process, when in reality meetings are steps along the way to collaborating and converging.

  • If you believe that you reached a decision on a really contentious topic in a meeting and jumped to “close” at the very end of the time, then one can probably say with certain

ty the decision will be revisited shortly. Chances are someone with key input wasn’t present or didn’t get a chance to contribute and will find a way to either re-open the decision or provide information to someone who will.

  • Nothing good ever came from voting at a meeting. Just don’t ever vote. Companies are not democracies, and you also do not want to memorialize winning and losing “sides” of an issue. If a person’s position isn’t clear, ask questions, but cornering them only raises the stakes and reduces accountability.

  • There is no process to be discovered that makes meetings “effective”. Having good meetings is about a culture and team that recognizes their value. Once you begin to overlay a formal meeting (or pre-/post-meeting) “process” there is probably little hope that meetings will become more effective, but a high likelihood that meetings will become a little bit more grating to most people.

  • If you hate meetings and choose to ban all meetings, you will almost certainly find the pendulum will swi

ng back as meetings get added back one by one, and usually with a vengeance.

  • If you make it difficult for people to meet with you, they probably won’t meet with you. That can be good or bad, but probably some of both. Conversely, if you make it easy for people to meet with you, they probably will meet with you. That too can be good or bad, for each of you individually.

  • Meetings should not create more work. No one shows up to a meeting without a backlog or a bunch of available resources, so if you’re meetings are designed to find things for everyone to do they are likely to be miserable. If you think meetings are about piling up action items and follow-ups, then realize that you’re slowing down the organization to work at a meeting’s pace, not a work pace (as you discuss follow-up at the next meeting). This is the massive dysfunction IBM got into with the infamous “Management Committee”.

  • Engineers in particular hate meetings and stereotypically view them as a waste of time. If there’s one thing to consider it is that the worst thing for an engineer is reworking/rewriting something because of a miscue, failed explanation, “misunderstanding”, “new data”, or “change of mind”. Meetings are the best way to try prevent all of these things and participating is essential. So, engineers stop hating meetings on


  • When you don’t know what to do, don’t call a meeting. Stereotypically (according to asking engineers) when product managers don’t know what to do they call meetings. The worst thing you can do is waste everyone’s time meandering towards a problem, not a solution. If you don’t know what to do, spend some time formulating a problem and proposals by walking and talking.

  • If you want to build a strong and collaborative culture then meetings are the most important “tool” you have so finding a way to make meetings worthwhile

is arguably the most critical step you can take after hiring. Whether an email culture, a slack culture, or voice call culture, meetings are critical to bringing together and focusing the team.

But Meetings Are Important

I really like @pg’s 2009 post on Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. It is absolutely correct and a great way to view time management in general. Read it and internalize it. I believe, however, the post might be interpreted too literally and used in a way that could cause difficulty in a growing company rather than to clarify reality.

“Maker time”, aka engineer time, is the most valuable resource in any product effort and everything should always be done to treat engineer time as the precious resource it is and to make it as effective as it can be, especially in an early stage [tech] company when the company is effectively one collective coding brain. Amen.

That said, meetings are just as important for engineers as they are for “managers” or “marketing” or “sales” or “execs” or any other functional part (function means job function like eng, marketing, product, sales) of a company. Often engineers can miss the importance because striving for efficiency causes a certain blind spot relative to the larger opportunity of meeting.

The shortest way I can say this is that the most important thing in growing a company or team is to of course focus on getting things done, but the only way to get the right things done is by having meetings, by talking. There is no doubt that a group of people not meeting will get a lot of stuff done. It can be said with equal confidence, however, that by not meeting the stuff that will get done will lack cohesiveness, quality, and a shared set of values — the wrong stuff. The most expensive thing a growing company can do is get the wrong stuff done. This risk is magnified the larger the team, but clearly starts with just a couple of people.

The question is how to get the right stuff done. The answer is by talking, listening, and discussing. Those together are the ingredients for a shared understanding and with a shared understanding the micro-decisions that everyone makes every day whether writing code, creating positioning, deploying a build, designing an experience, and so on.

Talking, listening, discussing should not be thought of as “soft skills” or worse a “waste of time”. Call it talking or call it meeting, but no matter how good each member of the team is at the “hard skills” of their discipline, I am confident even the best are not psychic. That’s why teams need to have meetings.

Where meetings are generally misunderstood is that the effort to make them efficient, goal-oriented, and conclusive is exactly what shuts down discussion, causes people to think about what to say next rather than listen, and generally prevents collaboration.

We tend to think of meetings themselves as the main event, when in reality meetings should be the practice sessions. Instead of thinking about meetings as the regular season, think of meetings as practice drills or warm-ups. The real main event comes when you’re actually committing work to the screen. If you have done enough drills with your teammates then there’s a really good chance you know how they will react, how they can help, and how the work you’re committing will impact the overall “game”.

And since no one thinks they are above practice, we can agree no one is above meetings.

Since no one likes to redo work or revisit plans unnecessarily, we can agree that the best tool to avoid that is to use talking and listing—meetings—to get to and remain on the same page.

The reality of a company beyond the seed stage is that failing to communicate and collaborate result in massive inefficiencies and rework. And nothing upsets anyone more than having to redo work unnecessarily. In fact, people will spend countless hours debating whether to redo something rather than just a short time redoing just to make that point (reworking shipped code also introduces bugs, I get that). While it is common to view this as an engineering problem because code is expensive, to someone in marketing redoing messaging or redirecting a vendor for an event are each equally costly.