Tim on Leadership

Musings on Management and Leadership from Tim Parker

Productive Meetings!

Everyone loves meetings, right?  Not me.  They are a huge waste of time, typically.  Every company I go to that has any good-sized development group, I watch to see how much time is spent in meetings.  There are usually team meetings, of course, to discuss assignments and design.  Then there are meetings about other things.  Each meeting has lots of people who don't need to be in there, all waiting around while the last person struggles in, and then they spend hours talking.  The average group wastes dozens and dozens of hours a week in useless meetings! 

Meetings need to do only three things: they need to provide communications to the teams and individuals about what they are going to be working on; they need to help set up and allow a team to function properly; and they need to be a means of disseminating ideas and making decisions.  If a meeting doesn't accomplish one or more of these three things, it's probably not necessary (yeah, I know there are exceptions!).  I have a few rules about meetings I've followed for decades now, and find they help reduce the amount of time in wasted meetings for both myself, and my team members. 

First, meetings should be kept as short and succinct as possible.  If you only need twenty minutes, don't book an hour.  If you've covered what you need to cover, call the meeting over!  With few exceptions, I never schedule meetings of more than one hour (because the bathroom breaks, subject detours, and people wandering in and out tends to make the extra time a waste!).

Second, make sure everyone is there on time.  I don't tolerate people wandering in whenever it is convenient.  If a meeting is called to start at 10, that doesn't mean you should think about wrapping up your work at 10 and wandering over, via the coffee room. It means I want you in your place at the table by 10.  To enforce this rule, I start all meetings at the designated time and call out anyone who is late (or even refuse them entry to the meeting, depending on the circumstances).  Time is money to a company, and a dozen people sitting around waiting fifteen minutes for the last member of the team to wander in at his own pace means three hours of paid time wasted! 

Third, get the meeting to order by asking for quiet, make sure everyone knows everyone else at the table (a quick round of introductions if necessary), ensure the goal of the meeting is clearly laid out at the start, and then get into it.  No small talk, no detours, just get the subject aired and pursue it to the logical conclusion.  At the end, summarize the meeting and thank everyone for their time, then get out of the room and back to work!

Fourth, when I call a meeting I make sure I know what I need to convey before I start by having meeting notes already prepared.  "Winging it" is a waste of time!  If you need others to contribute to the meeting, make sure they know what you need before the meeting starts.  My meeting invites always include details of the subject and expectations for others who may be contributing.  I also try to schedule meetings as far ahead as possible so people have a chance to prepare for them, if I need them to contribute.  Of course, emergency meetings break this rule.

Fifth, don't allow detours in meetings.  Discuss what's on the agenda.  If something else comes up, delay it for a different meeting (there are exceptions, of course).  This makes it easier to get through what you have to do and finish quickly.

Sixth, don't schedule meetings at awkward times.  Having an 8AM meeting when the team doesn't usually get in the door until 9AM is a waste.  End of day meetings are similar, as some people want to leave early.  Schedule meetings at reasonable times, keep them short and on target, and meetings will go a lot better!

And finally, many meetings don't actually need a meeting but can be done by email, a quick phone conversation, or a one-on-one at a desk.

Whenever I am in a group that is not as productive as I think they can be, the cause is often attributed to meetings.  When I track team member's time (which is not something I usually like to do), the amount of time per day allocated to meetings can be staggering.  One company that required every hour to be logged had an average of 25% of each developer's time in meetings!  That's a quarter of each day!  That's time that could be used to code or test, and cutting out the useless meetings made a huge difference in productivity.  After one year, we had meeting time down to two hours a week.

Meetings are a necessary part of communicating and team building, but holding "smarter" meetings is a way to maximize productivity and reduce wasted time and frustration for all concerned.