Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Ineffective Meetings

I've tried posting this a few times from work but because we have Google Drive and Gmail and Google Calendar and all sorts of other googley bits all up in our network, it's impossible for it to believe that I may not want to use a particular Google service as my non-work self.  So here I am posting this from home.  Maybe I should return my blog to software on my own server rather than using Blogger.  Eh, a topic for another day.

Ineffective meetings have become a part of my daily work routine.  I'm not really sure when it happened but that doesn't really matter much now.  I've been with Red Hat now for almost 12 years.  In that time we have acquired many companies, released many versions of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, and undergone a huge growth in headcount that has ballooned all existing departments.  With this can come some institutional pain, but that's not strictly a bad thing.  In this post I want to concentrate on just meetings.

I recently started logging my weekly meeting attendance.  I log the date of the meeting, the starting time, the duration in minutes, how many minutes I spend contributing in a meaningful way (i.e., statements other than "yeah, sounds good"), whether or not the meeting has an agenda, and whether or not the meeting ends with any actionable things.  I should have also been logging the number of people in the meeting as well because that's a key indicator as to whether or not a meeting will be a giant waste of your time.

Why have I've been logging my meeting activity?  Well, I feel like I'm always catching up on my work.  Where has my time gone?  I feel like the majority of my useful working hours have been sucked up by ineffective meetings.  It's so bad that I generally dial in to a meeting from my desk at the office just so I can do other work and not be so rude in the meeting itself (also, I've been doing that for years anyway).

In the last week I spent 841 minutes in meetings.  That's 14 hours, or 35% of the scheduled work week.  And for what?  I couldn't tell you because it's just an information overload.  Many of the meetings repeat themselves, with the same people, and lack a clear goal.  Here are my observations:

  1. Duration.  Meetings at Red Hat, at least in engineering, are usually scheduled for 1 hour.  Big important meetings get 1.5 hours.  Seldom do you see 30 minute or 45 minute meetings.  One hour is a lot of time to fill, especially when you have no agenda.  My thought is that meetings should start with a short time limit and grow only when necessary.  Beyond 1 hour and you should really break it down in to multiple meetings -or- figure out why you need so much time.  Maybe what you are intending to cover doesn't need to happen in a meeting.

  2. A meeting should be 30 or 45 minutes, tops.  All hands meetings and other types of department wide meetings can be exceptions, likewise big quarterly or planning type meetings can be exceptions.  The point is, a regularly scheduled meeting in the day to day business of doing your work should not be long.

  3. Guests.  The majority of my meetings have too many people invited.  In one meeting there were 66 people on the call.  Sixty-six!  Only two people really talked.  Do we all need to be there?  If you have no reason for me to be there, DON'T INVITE ME!  If you think I might possibly maybe be tangentially interested in the work you are doing, send me the minutes.  If I am interested, you'll hear from me.

  4. The more people you invite to a meeting, the less likely you'll accomplish anything of value.  Have you ever tried ordering a pizza with a group of people?  It's difficult, right?  Everyone wants different types of toppings, or are allergic to some, or have food sensitivities to others.  But what happens when the 1 or 2 pizzas show up?  People eat other types that they didn't order, right?  Was it really necessary to involve everyone in the decision or could you have just ordered one large pepperoni and one large veggie and saved yourself some time?

  5. Agenda.  This one surprises me a lot.  People scheduling a meeting with no agenda.  Why are we here?  Even still, I go to meetings where the person who called the meeting immediately defers to someone else to get things going.  What?  Why are we doing this?  An agenda is short and states why we're holding a meeting.  It should also tell me why I'm being invited.  If I get an invite with no agenda, I will decline it.  Tell me why you are holding a meeting and what you expect from me.  Do you need my input?  Are you assigning work?

  6. Actions.  I really dislike the term action item, but it's relevant for meetings.  There should be a reason we are holding a meeting.  You are either asking me for information or asking me to do something.  Either way, we should come away from the meeting with new information related to the meeting topic or a list of things that need doing and who is doing them.

  7. End on Time.  Better yet, end early!  Many times we actually get through a meeting early, but people run out the clock with filler.  Why?!  End it early and give me back my time.  We can't come up with anything useful for 13 minutes of everyone's time, so let us all just go back to work.
I personally think a lot of people just like to fill up their schedule with meetings.  It certainly looks like you're working.  Crowded meetings also look really busy.  Sixty-six people on the call, wow that must be super important.

If you are going to schedule a meeting, ask yourself these questions:
  • Do I have an agenda?
  • Do I know who should be invited?
  • Does my agenda fit in 30 or 45 minutes?
  • Do I have a set of actions for the meeting?
If you answered no to any of them, take it to email.  So many of my meetings are just presentations.  Dump it on email and make me responsible for reading it in my own time.  I can also read that information and determine what, if anything, relates to my team and individuals on my team.

This only works when everyone is on board.  People feel guilty about declining a meeting.  Or if their boss goes to a meeting, they think they should go to.  While this may be true in some cases, it's not always the case.  Your time is worth something to the company and sitting in meetings doing nothing is probably not what they had in mind.  Make a case for your time being valuable.  Reclaim your work week so you don't feel like you are always behind and having to catch up.