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There’s a topic I often think about. It’s something I like to ask friends with similar desk jobs. It sounds incredibly boring at first.
What recurring meetings are on your calendar?
Bleh, meetings! Sitting through them is bad enough, now you want to discuss them? I know, I know, it makes me feel sleepy too.
But it’s surprising how much this simple question can tell you about a person and their organization. Job titles and official responsibilities are fine, but recurring meetings tell how someone actually spends their time, what they care about, what they choose to prioritize – a window into their professional hopes and fears.
Recurring meetings are something every organization seems to do differently. Even within a single organization and teams working on similar projects – even among Agile product teams following ostensibly identical practices – there can be very different approaches to meetings.
As I spend more time thinking about management and organization design, I’ve realized the cadence and content of recurring meetings is one of the biggest levers we have in shaping how teams interact.
I’ve become someone who can spend hours probing how exactly a business runs their meetings. For example, take the “all-hands meeting”. Every business has some form of it, but it’s wildly different between organizations – even orgs of similar size in similar industries. From the outside, these meetings seem to just happen, but when you go to plan one for your own team, you realize just how many decisions are involved.
Who plans it? Who runs it? What’s the format? How long is it? How often? Who talks during it?
And so on. Questions about meetings always seem to beget more questions, because meetings are fundamentally a reflection of the people on the team and the ways we communicate. Those are topics with nearly infinite depth.
Why Do We Even Have Meetings
Another topic around meetings that I find interesting is deciding when a recurring meeting should be canceled.
If it’s a meeting to support a project or time-boxed initiative, its lifespan is often relatively clear, but if it’s a departmental or leadership meeting, knowing when to quit is rarely obvious. Marketing strategy, for example, is never done; we’re always responding to new events or trying new experiments. So does that biweekly meeting never end? Is it on our calendars for the lifetime of the company?
To understand when it’s time to end a meeting, It’s worth thinking about why meetings happen in the first place.
When some plucky founder starts a new company, there are typically zero meetings. I don’t need to meet with myself. Meetings generally get added over time for two reasons:
- To foster a shared context by providing information or gathering feedback.
- To prevent or respond to specific problems.
Having a shared understanding of the world – a shared vision of what we’re doing – is requisite for a team to deliver anything. A lot can be accomplished by leveraging async methods like email, PR notes, Slack standups, etc.
But I believe you also benefit from the high fidelity of real-time communication, phone, Zoom, maybe even in person. Purely verbal communication through written dialog can be great for many scenarios, but with sensitive or nuanced topics, it often takes so much more effort to clarify tone and connotation. Nothing can replace the efficiency of hearing the tone of someone’s voice or watching their nonverbal body language and responding immediately.
As long as you and I need a shared perspective, we’ll benefit from the occasional meeting, but what about the other types of meetings, responding to problems.
We’ve Got a Problem
When a problem occurs in a business, the natural response is to think about what we could have done differently to avoid the problem. The default next step for most managers – myself included – is to start thinking about what process we can add to ensure a different outcome next time.
That’s not an inherently bad instinct, but this is how we end up in hours of recurring meetings every day. We slowly add process and meetings until nobody has time to do any deep work. As I mentioned in the post about thinking subtractively, we also need to be considering what we can remove.
It’s important to occasionally step back and evaluate if all of those recurring meetings are actually serving their purpose. Are they all still needed? Can any of them be less frequent? Can any of them be combined?
If the meeting were skipped, would the team’s progress have slowed? If not, maybe it can be less often.
If the meeting were skipped, would the team have missed a critical course correction? If not, maybe it’s not needed at all.
Be wary of meetings that effect no change in the world and are merely for theater or ceremony. There’s a trope in the tech world that most meetings could have been an email, and while that’s a bit hyperbolic, there’s a kernel of truth to it.
Chesterton’s Fence Meeting
I want to add a word of caution before closing this out. Chesterton’s Fence is the idea that reforms should not be made until the reasoning behind the existing state of affairs is understood. And likewise, it’s important to understand the real point of a meeting before canceling it.
For example, we have an internal continuous learning meeting every Friday afternoon, where we show off recent client work or share side projects, read books together, etc.
I vehemently guard that time from project work, and while I pick up some new tricks, it’s not the learning I care about. In fact, if you thought its only purpose was to maximize skill growth for team members, you’d probably cancel that meeting.
That meeting is the one guaranteed time each week that the entire team gets together. We have other one-off events and small group things, but having a loosely-structured time each week for the whole team to reconnect as humans is important – especially as a remote team and especially during the isolation of a pandemic.
So before you cancel that recurring meeting, make sure you are recognizing the full value of it. Sometimes the value is not in the short-term effects on a project but instead in the long-term working relationships of the team.
For people like me, who spent many years as an engineer or “individual contributor,” meetings often have a negative connotation, something that steals focus and makes deep work harder. Paul Graham has a classic essay on this: Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.
As the goals I want to accomplish have grown in ambition, so has my appreciation for having a shared context, having everyone on the team focused on the same priorities.
Recurring meetings are one of the most important tools to achieve a shared context, but they’re an extremely expensive tool – and not the only tool. They disrupt focus and flow, and they often don’t effect enough change to be worth it. Maybe an email would have sufficed.
Today’s a good day to look through your calendar and think critically about those recurring meetings. Are there any that have outlived their usefulness? Are there any that can happen less often? Do I need to be in all of them?
How we choose to spend our time is the ultimate measure of what we care about. What are your recurring meetings and do they represent what you care about?
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