Meetings are Bugs, Not Features — Here’s How You Squish Them!

We all spend a shocking amount of time in meetings — much more than we need. Group meetings are especially expensive and almost always low calorie density.

Here’s how we fix that.

TL;DR: Meetings are for decisions

Meetings are the least efficient way to pass information.

  1. If a meeting isn’t recorded, then the information/discussion is ephemeral and only known by the people who heard it.
  2. If a meeting is recorded, the information/discussion is not easily discoverable or searchable without watching 30min+ of video.

As our teams/organizations grow it is critical that we not accumulate knowledge solely in our heads since most of the people who will need this information have yet to be hired!

Therefore, we should restrict group meetings (ie. not 1:1s, interviews, etc) to only those occasions when we have to make a decision or resolve a difference of opinion that otherwise cannot be done in a doc.

Step #0: Start with a doc

A discussion that is meaningful and/or needs to be durable is best handled in a doc — especially if it is between more than two people. Slack (or email threads) is fine for transactional 1:1 or ephemeral interactions, but if you think that there is any chance that someone in the future will benefit from the discourse then you should do it in a doc.

Additionally, docs are easy to index, search, amend, and re-mix.

If you stop making meaningful forward progress in the doc because:

  1. You are at an impasse, or
  2. People who need to weigh-in aren’t

then it’s time to schedule a meeting.

Step #1: Invite only the minimum needed number of people

If you’ve written a doc but have stopped making meaningful forward progress then it’s time to schedule a quick meeting to break the deadlock. Do your best to invite only those people who must be there. These include:

  1. The decider
  2. The disagreeing parties
  3. People of whom the decider might reasonably need to ask questions in order to make a decision

Note: Every decision (eventually) has just one decider. If you don’t know who that is, then that’s one of the reasons you are not making progress. Escalate up your chain until you either (a) find the decider, or (b) get a clear and authoritative answer about whom shall decide.

Step #2: Actively run the meeting

The purpose of the meeting is to make the decision / resolve the disagreement. Although it is ideal that every attendee has recently read the discussion doc, that won’t always be true. So, allocate no more than the first 10 minutes of the meeting to either:

  1. A short presentation objectively and evenly summarizing the current state of affairs / impasse, or
  2. Allowing the attendees to read/re-read the relevant doc.

Either of the above is acceptable but in no case should you spend more than 10 minutes on it. If that isn’t enough time then end the meeting and reconvene after everyone has read the relevant doc.

Step #3: Decide!

If your meeting ends without a decision then you have failed at your task and you should feel sad…

It may occasionally be true that the decider wants to “sleep on it” before ruling. In that case, it is the responsibility of the person who organized the meeting to mercilessly and unrelentingly hound the decider until s/he makes a judgement.

In the very rare case where the decider hasn’t made a decision within one business week, escalate to the decider’s manager.

It’s more important to make expeditious and principled decisions than it is to make a “perfect” decision.

The 60/40 Planning Rule

Most of our decisions will be wrong — at least a little. The most important skill is recognizing quickly when things are not going well and changing course to something more promising. The faster we become at recognizing problems, the smaller the cost of the problem will be. As this cost approaches zero our capacity for risk approaches infinity.

When making any decision of consequence you should spend about 60% of your time trying to make the right choice and 40% of your time planning for what to do when you’re wrong.

  • What will you monitor to know quickly when something is not right?
  • What level of “problem” signal will you tolerate before you will definitely decide something is wrong?
  • What are your best 2–3 choices if you need to quickly course correct?

People stick with bad decisions too long because they are emotionally invested in them or because they do not have a more promising idea quickly at hand. Sort those things out ahead of time and you will spend a lot less time doing the obviously wrong stuff.

The sin is not in the failing, but in the failing to notice!

Step #4: Document the decision

Once the decision has been made / impasse has been resolved please go back to the original doc and clearly document:

  1. The date/time of the meeting
  2. The decider
  3. What the decision was

If you want to include meeting notes, that’s fine too, but not strictly required.

Success Criteria

If you are wondering how you will know when you have gotten your meeting load under control, here are two simple rules-of-thumb you can use:

  1. Individual contributors spend (on average) 1hr or less per day in group meetings.
  2. Managers spend (on average) 2hr or less per day in group meetings (ie. not 1:1s or interviews).

If you find that the above isn’t true then something is probably broken and you should look to see if you are really following the previous steps.

Conclusion

Two parting thoughts for the procrastinators among you. :-)

First, your team/organization isn’t as unique as you think. You might think meetings have some magical/special meaning that’s unique to just you. They don’t. That’s just an excuse you are telling yourself to not try.

Second, our employees (or team members) hate meetings — even the people that schedule most of them. Nobody wakes up in the morning, looks at their calendar and says “hooray! I have more meetings today than I did yesterday!”

In my experience you will find that you will have both fewer meetings and faster, more consistent, and durable decision making. If not, then you can always go back.

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Distinguished Engineer - Google

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