Meetings considered harmful David 17 Jan 2006

91 comments Latest by Glen Richardson

Researchers in organisational psychology have confirmed that meetings are, well, evil. A study conducted by the University of Minnesota found that the amount and length of meetings correlate with “negative effects” (burnout, anxiety, and depression) on its participants.

No surprises here. A few reasons why frequent and long meetings are t3h sucK:

  • They break your working day into small, incoherent pieces on a schedule incompatible with the natural breaks in your flow
  • They are normally all about words and abstract concepts, not real things (like a piece of code or a screen of design)
  • They usually contain an abysmal low amount of information conveyed per minute
  • They often contain at least one moron that inevitably get his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense
  • They drift off subject easier than a rear-wheel driven Chicago cab in heavy snow
  • They frequently have agendas so vague nobody is really sure what its about
  • They require thorough preparation that people rarely do anyway

So don’t do meetings. There’s usually a more appropriate way to convey information or query for participation. One that doesn’t lead to burnout, anxiety, and depression! But if you must have a meeting, keep it short. Like, really short. Half an hour is already stretching it.

Oh, and for the love of god, bring something real to the table for people to fiddle with and spur associations from. They won’t be doing their homework anyway, so provide the easiest way for everyone to come up with something meaningful on the spot.

If its not your call to make, be sure to summarize the result of the meeting and inform the participants of the cost of reaching that result. Was it really worth to spend 2 hours x $100/hour x 5 people = $1,000 whether or not to buy a new printer?

91 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Garrett Dimon 17 Jan 06

Amen to the lack of preparation problem.

Phil 17 Jan 06

I think the term you’re looking for is “t3h suck”.

Adam 17 Jan 06

But isn’t the blame here a bit misplaced? You noted TWICE that people don’t appropriately prepare for meetings.

Frankly, I’ve run a number of meetings which — had people actually spent the required *15 minutes* reading over the critical issue beforehand as pointedly requested — the meeting would have been 20 minutes instead of the drawn out 45 minutes while people bullshittedly pretended to be aware of the issues or groped around trying to get with the picture.

It’s like, come on people, help me help you. Meetings don’t HAVE to be ambiguous and drawn out and boring and unproductive. They can be inspiring and a HELL of a lot more effective than 4,579 e-mails sent back and forth (“Wait, were you saying we SHOULD do that, or that we shouldn’t do it or maybe should wait until Finance approves it before we talk about doing it…????! “)

So, yeah, a lot of people can’t run a decent meeting to save their lives. But let’s not completely blame the tool because a lot of folks can’t use it properly OR refuse to appropriately prepare beforehand.

In other words, instead of “Down with meetings!” how about “Down with sucky meetings and lack of preparedness?”

JF 17 Jan 06

Adam, you’re fighting human nature. And that’s a battle you won’t win.

RS 17 Jan 06

Another tip: If you don’t have an object to center your meeting on — a sketch, a screen, a confusing feature, some code — then you aren’t ready to meet. Make sure there’s something to point at, pick up, or pass around.

In the rare cases where you simply need to talk something out, keep this in mind: It is much harder to understand the problem than to find a solution. When you really understand the problem, the solution appears on its own.

There are thousands upon thousands of possible solutions for any given problem. Think of the variation among teapots. You can talk details all day. So agree on the problem, let people submit solutions, and save the details for when you build the real thing.

indi 17 Jan 06

Another time killer to me are standing meetings where you have a regularly scheduled meeting to discuss status and issues that have come up. Unfortuneately it looks like these standing meetings are often what spur people on to do anything on the project because they know that at a specific place and time the subject will definitely come up in front of their peers and management.

And yes, I work for a large company … I don’t think you could get away with putting off tasks day after day at a small company.

Sucky Marketing Guy 17 Jan 06

Unless management, or those with major influence, are ruthlessly agressive in forcing meetings with agendas that are focused and adhered to, an organization is doomed to this problem. I once visited a company in NH (in the early-90’s) that had meeting rooms without chairs. It was all very cute but a dismal failure. No one ever met and just stayed in their offices.

Brandt 17 Jan 06

Adam, ignore JF’s pointless, flippant response. People can be taught, and people can grow up, and people can become better at their jobs, regardless of what some people think of “human nature”. And what about those people who can’t, or won’t, act responsibly? Fire them, or if you’re not in a position to do so, then talk to someone who is.

Chris Palmieri 17 Jan 06

“They often contain at least one moron that inevitably get his turn to waste everyone�s time with nonsense”

I think this one is a symptom of a larger problem: too many attendees. I’ve found that the most productive meetings have the least number of participants. Anything larger than 3 is probably show-and-tell (which has it’s purpose).

Sure there are still tangents and distractions even with a 2-person meeting, but you are wasting less people’s time, and it’s easier to bring each other back.

David Heinemeier Hansson 17 Jan 06

Great point, Chris. The worst meetings I’ve ever been is has also been the largest.

jzt 17 Jan 06

JF, I have to disagree with the cynical idea that it’s human nature to be unprepared for meetings. Look, if you have a good team with common goals and principles, you can have good and productive meetings. So I agree with Adam - the problem isn’t the tool.

Plus the authors suggest that the problem is too many long meetings, not meetings altogether. Calling them “evil” might be a stretch.

Also, it’s probably important to note that the study cited “evidence” that was 20 and 30 years old. Management techniques have changed a lot since then.

Rimantas 17 Jan 06

I really liked attitude towards meeting at Semco, which is described in Ricardo Semler’s “The Seven-day Weekend”.
The rule is simple: nobody is required to show up. And if nobody
comes to your meeting, that just means nobody is interested, which, in turn means, that subject of your meeting is not important (or at least not important at this time).

Sure, regulations can force people to come, but if nobody is intersted, then implementation of whatever is decided would suffer, cause no one believes in what he or she is doing.

Another good appoach is to question everything, and never take
things for granted - even it something was decided on previous meeting.

A. Skeptic 17 Jan 06

Chris, that sounds very similar to my rule of thumb: anything more than 5 people is a performance (with a performer(s)/audience split) and not a meeting (everyone participating).

There’s a question of whether it’s the tool’s fault. I think there’s a strong case that fewer meetings are better, but also that the meeting is useful, and can be improved.

JF 17 Jan 06

JF, I have to disagree with the cynical idea that it�s human nature to be unprepared for meetings.

Meetings don’t happen in a vacuum. People are already busy with other stuff they’re supposed to be doing (you know, the actual WORK).

When you have a 1 hour meeting, and you require 3-4 hours of preparation, it becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly that the payoff for preparation is pretty slim. 5 hours of work for a 1 hour meeting that probably only has 20 minutes of meaningful content. What a waste of time.

That’s why people don’t prepare — the payoff doesn’t justify the investment.

JF 17 Jan 06

Ricardo Semler is spot on: Most meetings aren’t that important anyway. Meetings cry wolf.

pwb 17 Jan 06

I’ve found that meetings share an attribute with gas: they expand to fill the are they occupy. No matter how much content you have, a one hour meeting will always go for one hour.

I’d be interested to hear some of the techniques used to accomplish some of the activities that are frequently performed (attempted, at least) in meetings.

jzt 17 Jan 06

3-4 hours of preparation? 5 hours of work for a 1 hour meeting that probably only has 20 minutes of meaningful content? Did those numbers come from the article? I can’t find them.

Anyway, when you work at a large organization (for example a university), and you’re managing a project that requires the expertise of people in different departments, sometimes you have to bring them all together so they can collaborate and communicate. As I mentioned before, if everyone shares common goals, vision, etc., it can be very productive and fruitful.

The problem isn’t the meeting; it’s the manager.

Michal Migurski 17 Jan 06

Adam, you�re fighting human nature. And that�s a battle you won�t win.

That’s a weird thing to say.

Unless your job can be done in a total vacuum, meetings are an absolute necessity to understand what’s going on. The Agile Manifesto (which I think you guys have pointed to here before) explicitly says this: “Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project” … “The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation” … “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.”

Please don’t respond that these aren’t “meetings” or that you were thinking of a particular kind of BigCo meeting style - it’ll just make the original post sound more like straw man argument.

indi 17 Jan 06

I have found that in large organizations the face to face interaction in meetings can get things going when emails and voicemails do not, precisely because of what Jason said about people having a lot of other things going on. Of course then the trick is getting the people to attend. The alternative is to walk over to their office. I think people repsect your request for action or info more when you make the effort to find them.

Also, one thing I’ve noticed more and more in large meetings is that when a tangential discussion comes up one of the discussers or the meeting leader will recommend taking the discussion “off-line”. This does help keep the meeting on track.

Brian Wilson 17 Jan 06

Face to face meetings are essential - especially in the agile development process, where decisions need to be made on a daily or weekly basis about the priorities and scheduling of features and iterations. if you have a good team, that has enough to do during the day that they can’t afford to waste time on a pointless meeting, you�ll find the meetings become very meaningful and efficient � and flexible in their format and length.

sg 17 Jan 06

I agree with jzt. What these researchers may truly be measuring is a proxy for poor management, both personal and institutional. My guess is bad meetings are a symptom not a cause. There are a lot of very smart people who have had plenty of critical and productive meetings that would not have yielded the same results through other models. If I were in the hospital and my three confused doctors are wondering what to do with me next - do I really want them IMing eachother? I don’t know, but maybe not. I’m sure there are reasons why face to face synchronous models work best. Alright, time to go cancel my next meeting :).

Richard 17 Jan 06

I can read faster than people talk, therefore I prefer to get my assignments in written form. It’s just more effizient. (At least theoretically ;) )

JF 17 Jan 06

Face to face meetings are essential - especially in the agile development process, where decisions need to be made on a daily or weekly basis about the priorities and scheduling of features and iterations

No they aren’t essential. Far from it in fact.

JF 17 Jan 06

If all you want to do is talk about stuff, have meetings. If you want to actually build stuff, don’t meet. Meetings are like kryptonite to productivity. Toxic toxic toxic.

Mark A 17 Jan 06

The ‘cost of buying the printer’ argument is slightly specious - certaintly if outside a tiny outfit - as you don’t mention the cost of making the wrong choice, which ostensibly what the meeting is aiming to avoid.

In smaller teams collaboartive tools like, err, BaseCamp, can act as a proxy meeting - assuming the team are disciplined enough to use the tool. Sometimes a meeting is the only way to drag people from ‘more important work’ like emailing holiday snaps, booking holidays, doing IM, etc., and focus them on the task at hand.

The latter doesn’t absolve the meeting caller of their duties. I agree the view the value of meetings is actually closely tied to the way they’re planned an executed. If the attendees bother to prepare as well and stay awake during the meeting, then that’s a plus too!

Brad Daily 17 Jan 06

Reminds me of a George Will quote:

Football is a mistake. It combines the two worst elements of American life. Violence punctuated by committee meetings

Just like Will’s comment, saying “Most meetings aren’t that important anyways”, “don’t do meetings”, and subscribing to the notion that you need 4 hours prep time for every one hour of meeting time is far too general and sweeping of a statement. Football isn’t half bad, and sometimes meetings are a necessity (at least for those of us who don’t work in a fancy, hip web startup :) )

I recently had an impromptu meeting with my boss and some others in our tech staff. We had an old MS SQL based data system, with a Access/VB frontend. We desperately needed a change. After an hour of discussion, I got the go ahead to replace it with a Rails/MySQL setup. We just launched today, 2 months later. Sometimes meetings can be good.

I would have never been able to convince my boss of this via email or over the phone. But in person, I was able to sell him on all the points that were pros, and assuage his fears on all the points that were cons. Meetings are not necessarily kryptonite to productivity, sometimes they can be catalytic to productivity.

To me the key is not how many meetings you have, but how many people you invite to them. Nothing is worse than being in a meeting and realizing that you have nothing to contribute.

RS 17 Jan 06

Another thing.. Face time is definitely valuable. However it is much more valuable at the building site than in the board room.

Get three people in front of a screen to discuss a design, a process, a broken feature. Then you will solve the problem and move on. Meet on site.

Ara Pehlivanian 17 Jan 06

I once spent 3 days in a marathon meeting. Let me tell you, the fabric of reality actually changes. You start feeling this surreal sort of “what am I doing here?” feeling and you begin to question your existence.

That said, not all meetings are t3h sucK. Sometimes, (like the status meeting I just held this morning) it’s necessary and very productive when the three people around the table have a document they can all go through and assign tasks from.

Josh Poulson 17 Jan 06

It’s not just that those running or calling meetings don’t prepare adequately, it’s also that participants frequently don’t prepare. It’s easy to blame the manager, but we have to be honest about what makes for a succesful meeting: engaged, interested participants. If you don’t get a clear agenda in advance, you should be fixing that before the meeting starts! If the meeting organizer isn’t, well, organized, you should call him or her on it and reschedule!

I’ve dealt with 2 hour meetings that work fine when everyone is ready and engaged. I’ve dealt with half-hour meetings that were agony because everything had to be reexplained and rehashed and every week someone redecides something that was done to death before.

Patrick Lencioni’s book, “Death by Meeting” gives great advice on this, and there are certainly other sources. Meetings don’t have to be harmful, but I’ll admit they often are. Like aynthing worth doing, good meetings take work from everyone involved.

Britt 17 Jan 06

Try this meeting hack to be more productive. Instead of creating an agenda and sending out reading material, give everyone who will be attending the meeting a brief goal statement, such as “I will get agreement on a color palette for the new site.” You can give everyone the same statement or you can give different but related goal statements.

Try not to have a room with chairs and table. Think cocktail party setting instead. When everyone arrives, tell them how much time they have to accomplish their goals and let them go.

Anonymous Coward 17 Jan 06

Phrases like t3h sucK are t3h stoopid.

Rob 17 Jan 06

Like some others, our team (5 people) has daily stand-up meeting that works wonders for team communication. Attendance is optional and we try to take no more that 15 minutes. If an issue comes up that needs more discussion, we take it up with the appropriate people and let everyone else get back to their work.

This daily communication eliminates the need for any weekly status meetings or other rubbish. If we have additional meetings, they are to discuss concrete things like interfaces and implementations of features (best idea wins!) Plus, I like seeing the people I work with on a daily basis and sharing a story or joke - it makes work more fun.

Greg Macoy 17 Jan 06

JF - Sheesh, talk about being narrow-minded! Part of the problem stems from how one defines “a meeting” - are we talking about 15 people in suits sat in a room around a table detached from a situation, project, or idea? Or 3 creative people getting together for 20 mins, honing their ideas to create something useful and inspirational? If we remove the human aspect of interaction and discussion, are we all robots? Cogs in a machine?

Sometimes a meeting can be great to get an overview of the whole project, to kick things off, it’s like that idea of “starting in the middle”, and if you have a team of people it makes sense to have a meeting with a few people, rather than having the same conversation several times (that is a waste of time). I agree that a lot, if not most, meetings are a waste of time, but that’s not the same thing as ALL meetings being a waste of time.

JF, you make your point by picking the extreme situations, maybe you should “get real”, and not try to pick the polar opposite of an idea or situation? Good meetings can be useful, although bad meetings are the majority. Accept it and move on.

Dave Peele 17 Jan 06

I agree with this article and appreciate the suggestions on how to make meetings more beneficial. We have left some meetings with our clients in the past more confused and off track than when we came. I do feel like meetings are necessary and can be beneficial if everyone is close to the same page.

Thibaut 17 Jan 06

To keep meetings short, a good thing is to stand up all along, no chairs, just a higher table. This way you’re sure it’s not going to last too long.

Keith 17 Jan 06

I’m not a fan of meetings either, but to be honest, I don’t see how they can be completely eliminated. I’d LOVE to know how people go about their daily business without ever having meetings.

Then I’d LOVE to try it and see how it works.

Brandon 17 Jan 06

I think David makes a good point, but it’s becoming the norm for this blog to take the extreme position, rather than a more balanced, real-world viewpoint.

Meetings are here to stay. I agree that *most* meetings are useless, and too many people attend, but I don’t think meetings can just go away. Meetings are neccessary to get decisions made, or to discuss decisions.

I prefer 15-30 minute meetings with agendas emailed in advance. If someone doesn’t have something really constructive to say, they don’t talk.

I do a lot of meeting over messenger and email, and touch base on the phone a few times a week with clients so they know I’m still here. I might have one or two production meetings over the course of a project, that’s it.

RS 17 Jan 06

I think David makes a good point, but it’s becoming the norm for this blog to take the extreme position, rather than a more balanced, real-world viewpoint.

I can tell you that, except for short on-site (ie. in front of a screen) brainstorms, we do not have meetings. It’s the real-world for us, and we’re not special. Anyone who focuses on making things instead of talking about them can do the same.

Evil ZEN Scientist 17 Jan 06

I prefer shorter meetings with a lot of pre- and post- interaction.

I work with and manage diverse and dispersed teams; Instant Messenger, voice, video and good document collaberation make a difference. If the tools ‘don’t suck’ then the collaberation process is a lot smoother.

I do find that most people need some face time; there is a lot that happens face to face and with a real whiteboard that can’t happen when seperated by hours and miles.

Matt Jankowski 17 Jan 06

Meetings are a great way to feel like something is being accomplished and that progress is happening and that decisions are being made.

The variable is whether that feeling then leads to that feeling becoming reality — or another meeting that does the same thing the next week.

I would say that meetings _for their own sake_ are almost always useless in terms of getting anywhere.

gwg 17 Jan 06

Yes, *most* meetings are pointless. After working in companies who held loooooong pointless meetings, and now working in one that has short useful meetings I’m not prepared to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I hated meetings before, now I look forward to making actual progress in these short meetings we have.

There are three differences I’ve noticed.
1. The meeting should have a clearly defined goal: “Get together to talk about…” is not a goal and will waste time. Define a goal. Reach the goal and leave the meeting.

2. Restrict the time of day during which you may meet: First thing in the morning is the best. This mitigates the interruption and hassle factor.

3. The meeting leader has to be willing to keep the meeting on track by whatever means necessary. You have to either not invite those who waste time with off topic bs, or you have to immediately stop them from speaking once you know that they are off topic. Let them know that they are off topic, restate the goal and move forward with the meeting.

Restricting attendance to those who care/should have influence is important too, but those are the top three - easy.

Aside from that, if your meetings are constantly going poorly, you need to hire better colleagues.

Gary R Boodhoo 17 Jan 06

a personal favorite - meetings about meetings. Once, even a meeting about a meeting about a meeting. Although previously suspected, it became clear management was not only clueless but actively entropic. A positive benefit for the dev team in question was that face to face discussion of actual product (prototypes, code, designs) became the preferred way of doing things.

clearly some meetings are necessary, especially for large interdisiplinary teams, but my feeling is that any meeting long enough to require a break is twice as long as it needed to be. There seems to be an inversely proportional relationship to time spent in a meeting and the information content of that meeting.

JF 17 Jan 06

I think David makes a good point, but it�s becoming the norm for this blog to take the extreme position, rather than a more balanced, real-world viewpoint.

I’ll echo what Ryan said above. Our reality is no meetings. 5 minute brainstorms in front of a screen, yes, anything longer than that, no.

coffee 17 Jan 06

I love this point: “They often contain at least one moron that inevitably get his turn to waste everyone�s time with nonsense”

What’s funny is that in one of our classes we were required to provide a list of all the meetings that a group had and what was discussed, etc.

Uhh…we had to “fudge” the whole data on meetings. For a total of 3 projects spanning over a period of 4 months we had a total of….1 meeting. And I think it lasted 10 minutes. I am not sure what the outcome of it was.

Our communication was best suited to emails, really. Emails back and forth, when someone feels at their convenience and have come up with some great idea or such. It made things so much simpler.

Oh and of course, we had the best grades in the class =) Highest :D

Anonymous Coward 17 Jan 06

There are good meetings and there are bad meetings. Please don’t mixup the two.

David Heinemeier Hansson 17 Jan 06

It seems that most people agree that most meetings suck. To me that’s a reflection upon the format. It’s too hard to use meetings as a everyday collaboration tool. Few other tools would survive with such an atrocious track record and still be considered “necessary”.

On reality: Since I moved to Chicago in November, I’ve been at the 37signals office about five times. Since bringing on Sam and Marcel in December, I’ve met with them two times. Since hiring Jamis in February, I’ve met with him once (at RubyConf).

Meetings are not necessary. Meetings are an option. One to be used rarely and with extreme care.

Brian Wilson 17 Jan 06

Loud noises!

(and meetings are essential) even if they are conference call based.

Brad 17 Jan 06

How is a blog like this not a meeting then? Are you not discussing something instead of working with a tangible? Is this not then wasting time? How is this productive? And if it is productive on some level, then cannot a meeting also be productive?

Jay 17 Jan 06


The big difference here is that participation in a blog is entirely voluntary. Furthermore, one can participate in a very superficial way or in a very involved way. I can read and comment when I feel like, you can respond when you feel like, hours later if that’s what works for you.

JF is not saying that discussion is worthless, he is just pointing out he flaws with most meetings.

Matt 17 Jan 06

Meetings are like going to preparing for a Court date.

If you called your freinds up and said you want a meeting …..

Meetings are good in say a shared house if things are getting boiled up. “Some fucker left his/her bite marks in my cheese”

In suit land corporate stiflement regemental 9-5 meetings are normal?
In creative world meetings are to discuss how terrible your designs/music are and if you dont sort it out you can fuck off.

If I were to go to a mental through work I would:

a - Pretent to have a fit and accidentally punch who was responsible for the meeting.

b- Talk loads and be annoying so not to get invited to next meeting.

c- Buy some joke sweets and pas them around in the meeting

d- Hand out some hash cake when you have tea break

Shanti 17 Jan 06

It’s pretty obvious that 37Signals and startups with no baggage have the luxury of working on fresh new apps and maybe ones that have been around 1-3 years, max.

Legacy BigCos with their CORBA/Java/Mainframe/Oracle — to SQL Server — bridges, interfacing with 50+ Inter-departmental organizations, are a different story entirely.

Try migrating / upgrading / improving that kind of app without a meeting, JF. :)

Thankful he hasn’t worked for a BigCo in a while (like the 37S crew),


hmm... 17 Jan 06

Our reality is no meetings. 5 minute brainstorms in front of a screen, yes, anything longer than that, no.

Now I understand why there’s no way to schedule milestones in Basecamp at specific times of day!

pwb 17 Jan 06

Shanti brings up a good point. BigCos have no restraint when it comes to adding on baggage and totally deserve to find themselves in the messy position they are in.

Thomas 17 Jan 06

Correlation does not indicate causality. There is a correlation between meetings and negative effects, but does that mean meeting cause negative effects? Perhaps workplaces with other underlying issues also tend to have more meetings?

The more interesting point from the article has to do with interruptions. The researchers treated meetings as a form of interruption or hassle - so maybe the real lesson is to decrease the total number of interruptions experienced by workers. Meetings could in fact assist in this regard, as an opportunity to resolve outstanding issues for everyone at once, rather than having to deal with them again and again for each individual.

David Stevenson 17 Jan 06

One of the best pieces of advise I have heard about. If you suffer from long drawn out meetings where people go on about the subject in enless circles, next time you have a meeting remove all the chairs from the room. You will be suprised how quick the meeting becomes.

Brad 17 Jan 06


That made me laugh.

Anonymous Cube Dweller 17 Jan 06

I work for a certain technology company that is world renowned for its infernal bureaucracy and I have about twenty scheduled to repeat conference calls per week. Many of these have a dozen or more participants. That’s aside from the face to face meetings I attend. Sometimes I think my brain might just slide out of my ear and make a break for it.

dmitry 18 Jan 06

Meeting is just ON OF COMMUNICATION TOOLS to accomplish some final/intermediate target(s).
They could be bad and good, in the same way, as other tools are good or bad, for example, IDEs.
They could be leverage in the same way as salary and/or bonuses, and be burden in the way micromanagement is.
They could be necessity, and could be fake & waste of time.

Why we should discuss the meeting in such generic terms?
Be specific to situation(s), environment(s), target(s), quality of tools, ideas and weight of human factor in each particular case study.

WTF you’re talking about, guys? I feel myself like on a meeting now!!!

as set of Milestones



Object: Meeting
Object: Problem

If a meeting is an object serving a lot of subclasses
If meeting is an object, serving some particular

Chris Mear 18 Jan 06

Our reality is no meetings. 5 minute brainstorms in front of a screen, yes, anything longer than that, no.

I think people are getting upset about this because you’re not really explaining what you use instead of meetings to communicate with each other.

Is it all written word, via Basecamp, Writeboards, IM and email?

Harry 18 Jan 06

If you look at the 7 points brought up in the original post pretty much every one (maybe not the 1st so much) of them has been exhibited in one way of another in the debate/discussion going on here. (echoing Brad a bit here) about we use this forum to share constructive suggestions and experiences about making face-to-face collaboration more effective?

My 2p / cents: It helps to appoint a moderator/chair to the meeting to keep it on track and on time. Is chairing a meeting a skill we recognise, value and nuture in organisations, my experience is “no”.

Marcel 18 Jan 06

RSS must be bad too, cause that’s where all my content meets.

Farhad 18 Jan 06

You forgot one thing, when meetings become the battle ground for corporate politics.

Hmmm 18 Jan 06

Most of the bad meetings I’ve been in have been a direct result of people not talking their minds. The longer this goes on for the worse it gets and then it reaches a point where people are so instututionalised that they never recover.

Hmmm 18 Jan 06

Also, people are often scared of asking basic questions that would put the more complicated problems into perspective.

a-dub 18 Jan 06

“I think David makes a good point, but it�s becoming the norm for this blog to take the extreme position, rather than a more balanced, real-world viewpoint.

I like the fact that JF and crew always have some radical ways of thinking about things. It challanges the norm and many ways makes on conscious of trying out new things. SVN isn’t a divine blog - so ease up.

JF & crew - keep bangin the ideas and challenging the norms, its a one of the secrets to your success which I’m sure you all agree with.

I’m on the top of the e-commerce world, and can tell you this blog fuels ideas that make people’s jaws drop with awe or cuts through peoples bs in meetings.

Prophetess 18 Jan 06

Useful meeting topics:
- Come to a decision within the length of the meeting
- Make an announcement and deal with Q&A all at once rather than 15-20 separate times via email.
- Put forth a proposal and get group input

Meetings can easily be abused (and often are, in large companies). Meetings can easily be co-opted by time-wasting morons. Meetings can disrupt your day and your concentration. But there are things that group communication can achieve that can’t happen via email, IM, wikis, blogs, or any other medium.

Bottom line: The higher you are in a company, the more meetings you will attend. Developers don’t need a large pile of meetings to get their jobs done. Execs do.

Eric Swayne 18 Jan 06

Having also recently come from an extremely over-bureaucratic company in the airline industry, I can say that meetings tend to be for external reasons, not internal. The people actually getting the work done won’t have a meeting, they’ll email/call/get up and go talk to the people they need to get the work done. Standing open-agenda meetings are so that managers can demonstrate to their managers that they’re “staying on top of” everything their subs are responsible for. Repeat meetings based on an individual project are there for everyone’s peace of mind - they’re a chance for the control-freaks to finally let go of their part of the work.

As for a solution, I love the concept of having SOMETHING with you to look at, refer to, talk about, or point at. An external agenda reminder, however rudimentary, will keep the meeting on some sort of track. My other suggestion would be that if there’s a large amount of content to be reviewed, pull the items you know are going to cause controversy and put them at the beginning of the meeting. You know they’re going to take up most of the time anyway, and you know you want to get to all of them, so leave the more benign topics for after everyone’s brains are fried (or after they all leave with some excuse or another).

Getting Real: Get rid of the Execs 18 Jan 06

Prophetess: Execs do ???

What do Execs do?

If Execs aren’t building something or aren’t selling something, then what do Execs do?

John 18 Jan 06

There’s also the penis-measuring aspect of meetings. Everyone has to basically brag that they are doing something better than everyone else. The larger the company, the worse this is, especially when managers don’t communicate effectively with their employees. Large meetings are teh only time for someone to justify their paycheck.

And so nothing gets done.

Prophetess 18 Jan 06

Execs go out and find funding so the $100K/year developers can continue to sit in their Aeron chairs and play foosball in the afternoons. Execs think about all the grotty little details of running a company like “where’s the money coming from, and where’s it going to”, like “how can i keep the company afloat when my entire development staff takes an hour off every afternoon to play foosball”, like “how can I get the money to simultaneously pay our electric bills and keep the fridge stocked with energy drinks for the developers, aand keep our inventory at reasonable levels even though sales are down”, like “where am I going to find a reasonably priced, reasonably talented sysadmin for less than $90K/year”.

They do the jobs that *aren’t* development. They make sales calls to important clients, and gloss over bugs in the demo. They hire your friends, and schedule the work, and in the best of all possible worlds, they encourage you to do your job better than you otherwise would.

I’ve seen it good, and I’ve seen it bad. Bad management is bad *because* it can’t do the things it’s supposed to and stay out of your way. It’s not bad by default.

After all, one guy in his bedroom coding is not a company, no matter what the paperwork says.

Mark Gallagher 18 Jan 06

Long meetings are almost never productive because the people you need at the meeting (the people that do things) don’t come, or leave early. They are busy making it happen in the real world.

Agree that almost all meetings over 30 minutes are evil.

But, I’d argue, small and short meetings (face to face) are becoming more important in big or small companies because we now rely so much on electronic communication. I noticed in my big company, my small team was communicating frequently, but always by regular IMs, email, and voicemail / conference calls. That’s fine, but these channels don’t have the same power of face to face meetings to keep everyone feeling connected and motivated.

I started once a week staff meetings (in person) for our team with this informal agenda:

- about 10 minutes: open discussion about any good movies or reality tv shows seen (mostly laughs)

- about 10 minutes: I’d give an informal update on any feedback from management about our projects, new business or corporate politics / gossip (who is resigning or got promoted).

- about 10 minutes: go around the room and ask for any project updates from each team members.

You have to look someone in the eye and listen to the tone of their voice to really get a sense of where they are.


Paul Power 18 Jan 06

Just my 2cs worth. So far the discussion has more or less fallen into different camps. Those that feel meetings can be avoided with IM, blogs etc., those that see meetings as always being a waste of space and those that schedule meetings and see value in them.

Personally I’m in the last camp. I sit on the line between execs and developers and feel the pressure from above to have meetings to discuss what we’re to do next or to gather and communicate progress.

I try to keep meetings focused and if appropriate have them standing around a whiteboard ( even in a room with comfy seats ) and short. I could use email, IM etc but you end up spending more time making sure that your emails are not misunderstood and then playing email tag untill the issue is left in limbo. I am fortunate however that I work in one location and when I deal with customers/other sites I can webex and conf call in preparation before ultimatly visiting. I’m aware that companies like 37 are distributed and work differently.

I would be careful of tarring all meetings with the same brush, yes some are a waste of time but there are steps you can take to avoid them.

- Ask for an agenda if one has not been provided, cc everyone invited so that they all get it
- If participants are not prepared suggest postponing untill they are
- Each meeting should focus on delivering at least one decision or solution and empower the owner to complete it without another meeting.

Like prophetess has said, over 30 minutes is getting into waffle territory unless you’re talking about collaborative reviews or similar.

And just as a parting point, as much as I hate to say it not everyone on your team can always be trusted to deliver on their own initiative. I have seen both sides and it’s painful to have to call status meetings just to get a feeling for the real progress, or lack of, of a project - but sometimes you’re dealt the team you have and it’s life.

Jay Michael 19 Jan 06

I couln’t agree more with this *short* article. But what the hell is “t3h sucK”??? Could someone decode this for me?

Michael 19 Jan 06

it’s an internet-ism, meaning “it sucks.”

“t3h” is leet for “teh” which is a common typo when rapidly typing “the” and was picked up by the net forums as something to type on purpose.


Patrick Sullivan 19 Jan 06

Meetings are absolutely essential. Imagine a business world in which no-one met to discuss issues. It is true that the greater the preparation time the shorter the overall (preparation plus execution) time to get something done properly. In this context, execution time includes putting mistakes right. However, it does take a lot of skill to run meetings effectively yet how many management courses include this.

I have found it most useful ALWAYS to divide the agenda up into 3 headings- Information, Consultation, Decision. Allocating each item to the appropriate slot focuses the mind. The other tip is to time agenda items in advance. I ask the person how long they need for their slot and then haggle if the meeting would be too long. On the day, the Chairman reminds the speaker how long a slot has been agreed and holds him/her to it. Items for AOB should be taken at the start and not the end. All this, of course, pre-supposes that there is an Agenda - and there always should be one (with a clearly stated purpose) for all but the smallest and informal of meetings. Over the years, there have been a few times when I have had to be insistent with time wasters but I found I could train most people to stick to the rules. The people who have said they like the disciplined approach, whilst using Chairman’s skills to ensure everybody can have their say, far outwiegh those who have complained about not having had enough time to make their points.

AHHHH 19 Jan 06


Listening to you explain how to organize, plan, administer and babysit a meeting is argument enough for why meetings (read: Group Gatherings) are a complete waste of time.

Mark W. 23 Jan 06

I like meetings. I like to attend meetings. I like to organise meetings. Why?
Well, whilst you’re stuck in a meeting, you don’t have to worry about getting any real work done! You can just kick back and watch the clock reaching for 5.30.
Meetings = work avoidance.
Work avoidance = less stressful life
Less stressful life = path of least resistance.
ipso facto: meetings = path of least resistance

Steve R. 23 Jan 06

It sounds like the consensus is that ‘good meetings’ are more like ‘conversations’ and ‘bad meetings’ are what we typically think of as meetings - a bunch of people sitting in a room/on a conference call listening to material they could have absorbed better from a well-written memo (‘well written’ is a whole other discussion, which we’ll leave for later…).

Conversations are good. One-way verbal communications (‘bad meetings’) are pointless unless immediacy is required (e.g., “Watch out for the rabid dog!”, “Please don’t do that…”) - that’s why books and other written communication methods are (IMHO) the best method of passively conveying material. Or, from my tech-support days, “Read the manual I gave you, particularly the step-by-step tutorial, and call me if you get stuck.” Again, assuming the documentation you provide is well written…

Wayne Fielder 23 Jan 06

I’m thinking the productivity of a meeting is directly proportional to the nature of the business. For developers, meetings are detrimental to the project because, as others have stated here, it takes coders away from their keyboards.

Now, if your business is public relations, then perhaps meetings can actually achieve something probably because there is rarely anything tangible that comes from PR work.

Bottom line is Meetings suck for developers. If you have to schedule it, there’s a problem. If you MUST get together, it should be over someone’s machine, looking at the UI/code in question. Find a path forward and step off toward that.

Paddy 24 Jan 06

> Nobody is required to show up. And if nobody
comes to your meeting, that just means nobody is interested

Ideally, maybe. In my experience (exclusively large companies, admittedly) people tend to show up if they’re invited, because they don’t want to be seen as a slacker, or somehow out of the loop

> Another good appoach is to question everything, and never take things for granted - even it something was decided on previous meeting.

And hence meetings go around and around

Bubby 28 Jan 06

amazing irony going here. One big meeting (packaged as a blog).

domic 10 Feb 06

I need this

Joe Clark 12 Feb 06

Signal vs. Noise’s schtick-lik public goring of sacred cows considered harmful.

Really, we get it: You lads are just *so* *much* *better* *prepared* for the 21st century than the rest of us, who are, apparently, “t3h sucK.”

Lee 01 Apr 06

Man you guys (37signals) are real idiots.

Pej 09 Jun 06

JF is right. I’ve not attended one useful meeting in the past 12 years. Not one.

Tom Pyke 06 Jul 06

Many meetings are a waste of time. They don’t have to be. Some meetings are essential.

I measure a meeting’s worth by the quantity and quality of the decisions AND the quantity and quality of the actions that were committed to.

There is a tool that I’ve found very helpful when planning my meetings that outlines when to have a meeting and when not to . Most meetings cover items that don’t require a meeting.

An agenda sent out in advance of a meeting which contains clearly defined desired outcomes, has prepared leaders, and has an action-decision register that is used to hold people accountable for accomplishing critical objectives is essential.

I feel sorry for anyone who hasn’t experienced a highly productive, value-added meeting. It doesn’t happen without a leader who knows how to prepare and uses powerful meeting tools that work. These meetings are not long, they are short and very focused.

Learn how to lead effective meetings and help those who don’t know how. I don’t continue to attend meetings that aren’t properly done; but not until I’ve offered the leader of that meeting my help in doing it right. I’ve had the priviledge of eliminating a lot of meetings and a lot of meaningless meeting agenda items through influence and education.

I choose to be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. For those situations where the leader isn’t interested in improving I just move on to more meaningful and satifying opportunities. And yes, that could mean leaving a job for something better…although I rarely find that necessary. Most people (all of my bosses) are eager for help when properly and professionally approached.

Glen Richardson 13 Sep 06

Very interesting thoughts.

Meetings are an essential part of business however they must be used sparingly.