Meetings – how to do the damn things properly

It is not for nothing that a large percentage of office humour focuses on… the meeting.

They take up a huge chunk of our time (Scrum meetings can take up to a third of a development team’s working hours, especially if sprints are short), are synchronous and therefore highly disruptive events (unlike IM or email, which are comms channels you can choose to ignore for a while and answer when it suits you), and are often appalling wastes of time and money.

All activities in a delivery pipeline are subject to a cost-benefit analysis. Calculating the cost of a meeting is the easy part – just remember that, as here, the cost is man-hours, not hours. So a one hour meeting of 10 people didn’t cost the business one single hour, it cost 10 man-hours, which is more than a full day for one person. And of course, that’s just the time in the meeting itself; depending on your office’s setup, there was travel time to and from the room as an additional cost, plus the extra time it takes to get back in the zone of whatever you were doing when you are finally back at your desk – multiplied by everyone in the meeting.

The benefit of a meeting is trickier to assess; it’s completely contextual, and must usually be evaluated qualitatively.

We all know that many (most?) of our meetings would not come out well on such a calculation. In principle, any activity with a net cost is waste and should cease. Yet few organisations will respond to such an obvious imperative by simply cancelling wasteful meetings – these events are too culturally ingrained for that, and for many people form the main justification for their salary.

The best response therefore is to outline and follow a set of rules for making meeting times maximally productive. These rules are no secret, and were widely known and taught many, many decades ago – yet it is astonishing how often they are ignored, entirely or in part, and as a result people’s time is tossed straight on the scrapheap. What follows is a quick review of How To Do Meetings Properly.

Every meeting needs an owner. This is the person responsible for making sure all of the other points listed below happen, either by doing them personally, or ensuring that someone else does them. If you’re ever in a meeting and you don’t get a 100% clear answer to the question I often ask first thing – “whose meeting is this?” – that meeting is probably a waste of time and you should consider leaving immediately.

Every meeting needs an agenda. It can be short bullet points. It could even be one bullet point. That agenda tells you what is to be discussed, in what order, and why, and should be put into the meeting invite. Thus every invitee knows right from the start the answers to the questions “what is the objective of this meeting, and why is my presence required?”. I tell my colleagues (who are often technical people who loathe all meetings on principle) that if a meeting doesn’t have an adequate agenda, they don’t have to go. Simples.

The attendee list should be the smallest group of people who can achieve the meeting’s objectives. Sometimes you have to bite the bullet and accept the enormous cost of a large meeting, but very often there are far too many people at meetings. The whole thing becomes a bloated affair, hard to arrange (there aren’t many rooms for a ton of people, or many times they’re all free), hard to run, and often with multiple attendees disengaged and resentful. Scrum makes all this maximally bad, by insisting that the majority of regular meets are whole team meetings, with no latitude or room for experiment or common sense. There is a colossal amount of waste doing things that way.

Someone needs to chair the meeting when it happens (to keep things moving, make it clear where you’ve got to in the agenda, keep time, ensure the right people are talking at the right moments etc), and someone needs to take notes. Both of these are usually done by the meeting owner. If it’s not my meeting, I usually ask right at the start who is chairing and who is taking such notes. It’s a bad day when you don’t get 100% clear answers.

The chair of the meeting needs to start wrapping up before you all get kicked out of the room, and best practice is to review the meeting notes together on a shared screen to check they are correct. This is vital as the meeting notes will become…

…the meeting minutes. This is a written record, as brief as you can make them without losing important information, of who attended, what was discussed, (more importantly) what was agreed, and (most importantly) what the next actions are, and who is responsible for each action. It is (or should be) every Project Manager’s mantra that an action is only an action when it has i) a thing to do and ii) someone to do it – an unowned action is close to worthless. Any follow-up meetings are identified as actions in themselves (since someone has to arrange them).

The minutes are emailed around as soon as possible after the meeting, to the attendees and anyone else relevant. That email should call out a deadline for a response; if no response is received within the time, the minutes are deemed to have been accepted as the true and definitive record of the meeting/decisions/actions.

And that’s it. All of this – the elementary, universal basics of running efficient meetings – should be both completely uncontroversial, and unnecessary to repeat. And yet time and time again I find that many people in organisations of all types and sizes don’t do some – or perhaps even any – of them.

It is a sadly common occurrence to be delving into the root of some problem or confusion and to find that people have entirely different accounts of what happened and what was agreed at a relevant meeting. “Someone send me the minutes of that meeting”, I challenge, all too often it is then sheepishly that there aren’t any. This lack of discipline is simply unacceptable – we are all responsible adults after all.

So now we know – once more, I’m sure we knew it already – what it takes to run a decent meeting. We should still look to reduce their length, frequency, and attendee count to the minimum; after all, the modern office offers many alternatives to the formal meeting – informal chats, email, IM etc. But if you’re going to do meetings (and let’s face it, we are all going to spend a lot of our lives in them), we should at least make an effort to do them well.

I leave the last word on the matter to the true expert, Dilbert.


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