JW on Tech

James Whittaker is a technology executive focused on making the web a better place for users and developers. He is a former Googler, former professor and former startup founder. Follow him on Twitter @docjamesw.

The Anti Meeting Culture

The Anti Meeting Culture

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Wasteful meetings. We've all been there. We are all still there. Meetings are at once the object of our ire and the very rhythm of our business. How can something be so derided and yet so important? There are books, articles and blogs about better meetings but all any of them serve up is the same exercise in pointing out the obvious. Here's a brief tour of published folly:

"Do the pre-reading." Yeah, like that's going to happen.

"Be on time." Sure, it's not like we're busy or anything. Deadlines, schmedlines!

"Know everyone's name." Five minutes of intro time saved! Go buy some blue tights and paint an 'S' on your chest.

"Be a proactive listener." Darn, that whole not listening thing seemed like such a great career move. Is 'reactive listening' even possible? What did you say? Sorry I must've missed that.

"Have a good reason to meet." Ok, this one just pisses me off. If you are meeting for no good reason, no advice about the semantics of a meeting can help you. Whoever wrote this, please never work in the software industry.

Oh there are plenty more, like taking good notes, creating action items, using good humor (hey I called this meeting to fire you, but have I got a great joke about being unemployed! You see this jobless guy walks into a bar ...) and stating the purpose of the meeting in advance. Boy, wouldn't have thought of those in a million years.

Yawn. 

This advice is as unproductive as the unproductive meetings it is trying to alleviate. I've been to meetings with all these ingredients and guess what? Those meetings still sucked. Why? Because good meetings are not about the way the meeting is held but about the culture of the organization that is holding those meetings. Thus, my thesis: If you want productive meetings, create an anti meeting culture. Here's my shot at defining this culture:

First, get the right attendees and be aggressive about it. Invite people who can contribute and when people sustainably fail to contribute, un-invite them. The same thing goes for people who drag out the meeting with tangential issues and pointless debate. Meeting invitations are not some corporate-given right. Meetings are not a door prize everyone collects. If you want in, be in. Take the meeting seriously or don't be part of it. Create this culture and you will find that people come to meetings ready to get work done and that the attendees will self-select to be the right people to be there in the first place.

Second, make coming and going kosher. Halfway through a meeting and you realize you can't contribute or don't need to be there? Leave. Such an egress shouldn't even raise an eyebrow with the right grown-up meeting culture. A great way to start such a culture is to hold meetings in open areas where coming and going is more natural and fuss-free. Or remove the chairs from the conference room and stand up. You've just made the door easier to get to.

Third, vote with your feet by walking away from the more useless meetings. Just don't go to those meetings where the organizer holds court. Anyone who likes the sound of their own voice that much doesn't deserve your attendance. When he asks why, tell him! If such bluntness isn't your style then turn it around and put a positive spin on meetings. Create a rank ordered list of good meetings and "like" them, "tweet" about them or, in Microsoft's case, use Yammer as a hammer. Meetings are important so make good ones a cause for kudos and a metric you track.

Fourth, heed the warning signs. The first such sign is the meeting agenda. Big agendas mean lots of time switching topics. Too many decision points means too much debate. A long list of topics ensures that some people won't have a stake in some topics and that's a poor use of those people's time. Single purpose meetings are the best: this is what we are here to do, now lets use the meeting time to do it. The second sign is multiple presenters. The more, the less merry. Each one has to do their little warm up and wind down and each must pay the technology tax of switching laptops and dorking around with display settings. Ah that damn tech tax! Someone bring me a bucket.

Fifth, follow up a scheduled meeting with scheduled work time. If a meeting has a purpose and requires action to be taken (like any good meeting should), schedule time immediately following the meeting to take that action. When the meeting ends, the action items are fresh in everyone's minds and everyone is on the same page. There is no better time to act. Make sure you actually schedule the work time too so everyone's calendar is blocked preventing other people from putting meetings there. Post meeting hallway conversations are often the best part of meetings, make time for them!

Finally, all this points to building an anti meeting culture within your organization (or at least work group). Build disdain for meetings into your DNA so that every meeting is useless until proven otherwise. Anything less means superfluous meetings are the accepted norm. But a meeting series that starts out with a "useless" label only to become a part of the rhythm of business is a meeting to respect. Meeting organizers need to be put on notice: make this meeting meaningful, its your damn job.

Once this culture is built, prepare for extra-meeting communication to spontaneously form a life of its own. Status is reported over email (where it belongs), accomplishments spread through lunchroom chatter, hallway conversations sort out blocking issues, office drive-bys turn into brainstorms. In such a culture meetings are part of the flow of business instead being the pause button for the business. When meetings are sparse, that means communication is flowing freely and no one feels like they need to be at a meeting to be informed of some key decision (which is lame) or just to be seen (which is lame squared).

An anti meeting culture is about getting stuff done. It's the opposite of talking about getting stuff done. Fewer meetings isn't necessarily the goal; better and more productive ones is the goal. Fewer generally follows better and an anti meeting culture is the way to get there. What it takes is for some meeting organizer to step up and do it right and provide the high water mark for all other meeting organizers to reach. Be that person for your org and sit back and wait for someone complain about having too much time to get their work done because there aren't enough meetings.

Meet smart and prosper.

 

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  • Great post, great advice. Only thing I'd add is if you are done, you are done. Sometimes I set aside 30 minutes to meet with someone and we are done in 7. Yay I just got 23 minutes back, and so did they! So done be afraid to say: looks like we are done here, sum up any action item stuff (either there or in email) and get going.

  • I'd add one more:

    *Allow and Encourage People to Bring Laptops*

    I know some people think that its "rude", but there's a reason I say this.

    I used to work at a company where every Monday morning the entire IT department (all 50 of us) would cram into a conference room and go one-by-one around the room saying what we were working on. To combat the overwhelming boredom, I always brought with me a difficult problem that I was having trouble solving.

    No matter how difficult or how large the problem, I always had the solution by the end. The room was so devoid of distractions and the boredom was so complete that I couldn't help it--I would always work out a solution to whatever problem I was having. (To this day I maintain that if we had held the meeting 5 days a week, I would have cured cancer by now).

    Allowing laptops allows people to get things done, even if their presence is only occasionally needed. Heck, if the meeting is boring enough, you might see a spike in productivity :).

  • Love it, James. Thanks for writing this up and not scheduling a meeting to discuss.

    My favorite part of your post is this part: "If you want in, be in. Take the meeting seriously or don't be part of it."

    One of my pet peeves is being in a meeting where people are only partially paying attention, spending 90% of their brains on email or other laptop focused activities. I personally think this happens for one of three reasons: (1) The wrong attendees are in the meeting, (2) The meeting is about too many things, or (3) The meeting is pointless.

    So for all you meeting organizers out there... If your meeting attendees are buried in their laptops or tablets, you have an action item. Fix your meeting, with a drive towards creating an anti-meeting culture. That doesn't mean "Don't have any meetings" ... It means only have a meeting when you absolutely MUST have a meeting.

    --rob

  • I agree very strongly with the sentiment here, I do worry about the whole "anti-meeting" naming though. Often times people take that to mean "don't have meetings" leading to some meetings which need to happen not happening because people are being too respectful of other's time / scared to against the culture. A culture of minimal meetings however, where people are encouraged to come and participate, but where meetings are rarely, if ever mandatory. I think can be really effective.

    also transitioning from a meeting culture to a less meeting culture can be painful, something needs to come in and fill the gap in communication that is left. I think its important to be deliberate in this and not just "hope" it happens organically.

  • What jumped out at me in terms of being the single biggest non-Microsoft dimension is the "coming and going [being] kosher" - that's just not something that I see very often. Of course, if meetings are more often shorter and about a single thing, then the coming and going may go away when the other dimensions take form.

  • This is sane. In my experience, meetings at Microsoft are to work what gardens are to nature: a display, a pantomine, and an opportunity for the organizer to "act out" work.

  • Disagree with Ricky Walker. If people bring laptops and check email or other solo work, they should not be in the meeting. They detract from the meeting just by being there; looks like they don't care. IMO multitasking is not productive in that setting, anyway.

    I would encourage people to work with laptops (or mobile devices) only if it's in direct support of the meeting's agenda.

    Like James said: "If you want in, be in. Take the meeting seriously or don't be part of it."

  • Enjoyed every bit of it -- glad to be part of a org that thinks like this. Thanks James.

  • @Matt Griscom, it shows no more or less disrespect than walking out of a meeting imho. 9 times out of 10, meetings are called by your boss or your boss's boss, and walking out is simply not something you have the luxury to do. I do it because it helps me make the most of my limited time.

  • These commenters are missing his point. James is specifically saying that better meeting techniques don't work, its about company CULTURE toward meetings. Don't change your meetings, change your culture. He's giving some ideas you can do toward that but this cries out for much more. James please write a longer post on this. It's important and we want this culture. More please, much more.

  • "...good meetings are not about the way the meeting is held but about the culture of the organization that is holding those meetings."  Well put!

  • Re: *Allow and Encourage People to Bring Laptops*

    I was on a project like that where this was encouraged, but people were not contributing towards the current meetings, so when the meeting was done, little was accomplished since people's minds were elsewhere.

    I would ruthlessly not allow electronic distractions; if the meeting is not engaging enough to participate in, leave.

  • @X11::GUITESTER,

    (My last comment on the subject! Promise!)

    If everyone was distracted by their laptops, that means that you were already inviting way too many people to way too many meetings. **The meetings were the problem**--not the laptops.

    I would say this: If you're trying to have productive meetings, do two things:

    - Encourage and allow laptops.

    - Strive to have meetings where the laptops are voluntarily ignored.

    Let laptop usage be your guiding light for effective meetings. If laptop usage is high, you're calling too many meetings and inviting far too many people. If laptop usage is low, that means you're doing a good job of keeping meetings relevant and on task.

  • It sounds like you are stealing some of the great ideas from Google and it's CEO. That's one of the first thing he announced when he becamse CEO to change culture.

  • I hat meetings without a goal - status meetings. Everybody can read, so if you need a status get one in the tools. If you won't get it within 5 min. the tool has a RFE ....

    Nice article James!

    Jogi

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