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Sep 4, 2009

How to tell a good meeting from a bad one

My calendar for this week shows 19 meetings, one of which I skipped, totaling about 17 hours. If we assume a 40 hour work week (mine is a bit longer), it is close to half of the work week, if you include a number of unscheduled ones. Some thoughts on meetings:
  • A lot of meetings are actually fun, when you get to meet people from other areas and units. Hanging out with a lot of smart people is one of the main benefits of our jobs.

  • A meeting can also be an opportunity to take a break, and just rest a little. They are never as intense as working alone.

  • Whoever is chairing it may or may not be effective at making it a social occasion, and put everyone at ease. But it is an important dimension of any meeting. We are social apes, and need to be comfortable with each other when there is a common task.
  • A meeting is useful when there is a specific, practical issue that needs to be resolved. When a committee is created without an urgent need, it produces bad meetings, where people are not sure why they are there, but are too embarrassed to ask.
  • Scheduling a meeting sometimes takes longer than the meeting itself. If only people used their calendars and kept them up to date, we won't have a problem, and would save hours and hours for more productive work. This is where technology really- really helps.

  • Getting people together to convey information to them is a complete and utter waste of time, unless the information is confidential. If you want to share information, write what you want to say, and send it to me, and stop wasting my time on useless meetings! Remember, writing was invented for these exact purposes. A meeting is only needed when you want active input from other people, when you want a discussion, or want to see their reactions. No conversation – no meeting. If you must talk rather than write, record a vide and send it to me.

  • I never take any paper with me other than doodling paper, because no meeting has ever resulted in more than half a page of actionable items. Those can be scribbled on the back of the doodling paper.
  • The best meetings have a small group of people; they last only half an hour, an each comes out of it with a list of things to do.

  • The best of the best meetings are those that solve a specific problem, and make everyone's lives easier.
  • The worst of the worst are meetings where people talk about generic problems, without ever hoping to solve them.
  • Larger group meetings are sometimes inevitable. They are very good for getting complex feedback, a reaction on a specific plan or proposal. Large groups of people are great at imagining how things can go wrong and what could be some unintended consequences. Groups over 10 are terrible at coming up with new ideas, and at working through a plan or a program of some sort. Why? Because the most banal ideas always win, and best proposals get ignored. Large meetings are for critical input, not for productive one.

  • As a colleague commented recently, I am a bottom line thinker. Therefore, I enjoy meetings that actually have the bottom line visible, so it can be discussed. A gathering where agendas of people are unclear is a fancy dance of power interests – sometimes interesting, but always pointless.

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