You still want meetings. Here’s how to make them useful. Ryan 23 Jan 2006

31 comments Latest by Snuggs

Though meetings are harmful, you sometimes need to get together and work a problem out. Here are some tips to make sure nobody wastes their time.

1. Begin with a specific problem. Meetings are wild horses that always try to run off course. Yoke the meeting to a specific problem. “Improve the flow on the New Entry page” is better than “Talk about New Entry page.”

2. Meet on site. Meet at the site of the problem instead of the conference room. Get in front of the code, in front of the UI, and talk about it together. Point to real things and suggest real changes.

3. End with a solution and responsible parties. Your next action will be concrete if the problem is solved. You’re ready to go when you know what will be done and by whom. If you can’t find a concrete solution, end the meeting and come back when you understand the problem better.

4. Celebrate, shut up, and do something. Celebrate the solution. It’s good when heads come together and solve a problem. It’s great when they get back to work and build the damn thing.

Say “Done!” then do it!

31 comments so far (Jump to latest)

gwg 23 Jan 06

This sounds vaguely familiar.

#3 is frequently overlooked. Assigning actions prevents the “I thought that someone else was going to xyz…” syndrome.

Kendall 23 Jan 06

I totally agree with #1. So often meetings are called with very little stated purpose. What are we here to solve or communicate? If the person who called the meeting can’t answer that… there shouldn’t be a meeting.

also for #3 I think that falls to the person who called the meeting as well. if you called the meeting because you want something done, it’s your job to make sure that everyone knows whose job it is to do and the expectations of them are laid out very clearly.

Jake Nickell 23 Jan 06

one thing for #3 … if you’re currently doing #2 (meeting on site) you can often just do what the meeting’s about DURING the meeting … make a change, check it out, just do it now!

Mark Gallagher 23 Jan 06

Yes, many good points.

If I’m in a troubleshooting mode and need help from others, I don’t call for a “meeting”. I usually know the one or two people that know how to fix these things and I know they are busy and have no time for meetings.

So this is what I do:

First I would IM them a short message that says… “I’m calling you now, need a bit of help” …. “ringing”

Call them on the phone and say:

“Hey Mary, need your help, you can fix this. The new peoplesoft feed has changed the UI of the org charts. Can I walk over to your place and I can show you the problem ?”

Now I walk over and discuss the problem and find a solution.

It’s kind of meeting, but I would not use that word. Too many negatives attached to the word .

Final note - much more evil than the word “meeting” is the word “committee”.

Keep up the good work. Mark

Noah Winecoff 23 Jan 06

Nice breakdown. Does the “Keep meetings small” rule apply still? Meeting at the “site of the problem” would most likely be at someone’s desk, which would have room constraints.

Anonymous Coward 23 Jan 06

Seriously, it’s not that hard to have productive meetings. If you are invited to a meeting that has no agenda, just ask for one and decline the invitation if you don’t think it’s a good use of time. If you are in a meeting that is a waste of time, just say so and suggest postponing the rest of the meeting until someone (probably the organizer) can better structure the conversation. Chances are everyone else will agree.

Piotr Usewicz 23 Jan 06

I’d like to be… moss!

Robert G 23 Jan 06

I like the Christopher Hawkins list.

Although, I think I need my Diet Coke in order to stay awake in them D*%m boring meetings.

Steven v. Wel 23 Jan 06

Great article!
Best point is #2, go! go! go! Boys and girl meet on site.

Thanks, Steven.

Uhnahn Ihmas 23 Jan 06

Sounds like something right out of “Getting Things Done”, save for some rewording here and there.

indi 23 Jan 06

What’s another way of saying a meeting is a waste of time, without being a jerk about pointing it out. I still gotta work with these people :-)

I’ve heard, “I think thind meeting was a little premature … lets chew on this a bit more then get back together”

Brian Miller 23 Jan 06

The average meeting is a horrific waste of time.

I think the key to having effective meetings is to make sure they are the highest energy point of your day. Keep them as short as humanly possible, only invite the necessary stakeholders, and walk in the room focused on getting a good decision as quickly as possible.

Frankly, I think it’s rare for a meeting longer than 10 minutes to be an efficient use of anyone’s time.

Chris 24 Jan 06

I presume everyone knows of the ‘no chairs’ meeting.

victor 24 Jan 06

meetings are like name calling. i prefer fights.

Gayle 24 Jan 06

Where I work, there are weekly management meetings, that usually take the better part of a full day. They have had several meetings in which they discussed the amount of meetings they’ve had.


Deepak 24 Jan 06

#3 is the key. Meetings are well and good, but too many end without any concrete action items at the end. That only leads to another meeting to try and come up with some clear actions and the vicious circle begins.

Steve Agalloco 24 Jan 06

I learned the following from a coworker and I think it works really well:

P - Purpose
E - Expecations
A - Agenda
T - Time

Never hold a meeting without being able to satisfy all four of those things.

RyanA 24 Jan 06

I recall reading in Peopleware and a couple of the PragProg books about how most people don’t ever consider the cost (money wise) of meetings.

Any non-trivial example shows that meetings can be very, very expensive. And if little value is derived from the meeting it’s all money down the drain.

When I was freelancing I’d travel for about 3 hours in total to attend a meeting that lasted 2 hours, and produced no results. Good waste of a day on my behalf. That’s time I could have spent finishing the bloody project!

jeff 24 Jan 06

Just to take the contrarian position (because, damn it, someone has to — too much congruence makes me nervous) I think there’s a place for time-based meetings. That is, meetings which take a certain amount of time regardless of the business being accomplished.

OK, you’re now saying, “Great, we’ll have a fifteen minute meeting and call it good.” Which is fine for certain things. But there are times when you need to let things fester. To sprout and spawn. To germinate, ferment, to ripen. Sometimes that can happen while just chatting with other people who are involved in the same work.

When I teach (at a university), I have fifty minutes to conduct the business of the class, after which a bell will ring and my students will leave. Sometimes I dump information on them (lecture), sometimes I’ll tell an illustrative story (and sometimes not all that illustrative, but at least entertaining) and sometimes we discuss. And sometimes we talk. Even in those times when we’re just chatting (about campus issues, TV, fashion) the students can learn, question, and apply the subject. We’re moving forward.

In business, I had meetings (mostly brainstorming or concept meetings) where we made progress even when just bouncing around. That only happened with a trusted, happy team. So maybe that’s those are the secrets: have a bell go off after 50 minutes, and only meet with people you like and consider intelligent and talented.

Steve o 24 Jan 06

I agree with Jeff. Meetings are fine as long as you have good people around you. I met with 4 people today for a total of 4 hours nailing down requirements for a web application, and I left feeling like we got the world accomplished. Meetings seem fine to me as long as you have focused people.

mouli 24 Jan 06

Often times, I need to go to a meeting, which I do not even know the purpose. And it so happens that these are meetings for which your inputs are not needed too much (since, if you did, you would have known more about the meeting). These are meetings for which I do not need to be there.

I would also laud the commenter Steve A, the guy who gave the P.E.A.T idea. Hey .. that is awesome. I am going to write that down.

Ivan Minic 24 Jan 06

I will agree with most.. This is a great article.. short but effective!

Apel Mjausson 25 Jan 06

Interesting that the meeting I hate the most, our weekly “team status meeting”, violates all those rules. I’m thinking that the purpose of scheduling it on Monday morning is to suck any lingering weekend enthusiasm out of us before we get to our desks and actually do something.

Krishauna 06 Feb 06

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Steve Thomson 12 Feb 06

Sound advice, and some great ideas in the comments too. My view is that as well as defining the point of the meeting, you should state the point as an ‘up-front contract’, so that you can bring everything back to topic quickly and easily if people start to go off at wild tangents. So the first thing you say is “We’re here to discuss the (whatever problem) and the effect it’s having on (whatever team, project, person is most affected). This allows you to draw everyything back together just using the same statement. It really helps keep a meeting focussed.

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kiki HENDRix 04 Aug 06

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Snuggs 15 Aug 06

Meetings suck