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Make Meetings Disappear

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10 min read

In 2015 Bloomberg installed a framed New Yorker cartoon in every conference room in its New York headquarters that reads: “I know we didn’t accomplish anything, but that’s what meetings are for.”

I personally own a framed copy.

Bloomberg employees said at the time there were so many meetings it was impossible to book a conference room in the building. Some concluded that Michael Bloomberg had the cartoons placed in the conference rooms to “discourage pointless meetings.”

Should We Discourage Meetings?

There are often too many people invited, for too long of a time, covering too little content, with too little accountability. So, yes we should discourage at least some meetings.

  • Meetings are band-aids. Too often, meetings are the only way things get done within a company. Without meetings, people don’t know what to do, how to do it, and are afraid to act. It creates limited forward progress, and yet, they are needed because some progress is better than none. Many organizations use meetings to gain consensus and push things along because otherwise nothing might happen. It a laborious, inefficient solution to a systemic problem. Ideally, people would know their organization/department mission and priorities, collaborate asynchronously, know where to find information and resources, innovate, make mistakes, and organically course-correct within a culture of trust and growth. Sadly, that is so rare it's almost impossible to find.

  • Right intentions, wrong format. A lot of the time, meeting-heavy work culture stems from good intentions. In the spirit of transparency and inclusion, teammates add meetings to the calendar to bring folks along and ensure everyone has context. Inclusion and transparency are foundational to great teamwork, but back-to-back meetings are not the only way to get there.

  • Too many passive observers. A favorite term of mine is "meeting tourists". Have you ever known people who somehow get invited to every meeting but hardly ever speak? As Harvard Business Review reported back in 2019, most meeting attendees are passive participants -- they just come to listen and observe. Many of them are also doing other work during the meeting - a sure sign they shouldn't be there.

  • Meetings are often a waste of money. If I spend $60 taking one of our employees for lunch, to be reimbursed I have to upload the receipt, explain where and when the lunch occurred, the purpose, the number of people in attendance, and then my supervisor has to approve it. For $60 dollars! If I call an hour meeting with 12 people, and to make the math easy let's say their time is worth $100 per hour, I have just "spent" $1,200 dollars with zero accountability. Imagine if you had to create a purchase order for $1,200 dollars to "buy" the meeting!

  • Meetings are often poorly run. Some people are better than others, but some meetings have no agenda, no facilitation, no clear purpose, no notes or meeting minutes, etc. At the very least meetings should have a clearly stated purpose: "We are meeting today to decide on... something."

    "Between depriving a man of one hour from his life and depriving him of his life there exists only a difference of degree."

    — Frank Herbert, Dune Messiah
  • Meetings are political. Some companies are very hierarchical - they must invite "all the bosses" to meetings. Bosses who then cascade the material to their managers, who in turn cascade it further down. Anyone who has played the telephone game knows how poorly this can go. Or, people seek to attend certain meetings just to reinforce their level or stature in the company, not because of the content. Or, consider the dynamics when a powerful individual joins a meeting with junior colleagues, the junior colleagues are often swayed by the power of the senior, or are afraid to truly engage if they disagree.

How to Discourage Meetings (by Building an Asynchronous Culture)

  1. Ask if people found the meeting valuable!

    If you believe a meeting is critical, validate your belief with data. Close it with a "stoplight review." Ask everyone if they felt the meeting was a valuable use of their time. They can respond immediately with one of the three below:

    • Green ("Yes, and please include me in meetings like this in the future.")
    • Yellow ("Parts of it were helpful, but communicate core messages other ways if possible." OR "I'm just not sure.")
    • Red ("Not worth it; cut these meetings in the future.")
  2. Rely less on meetings and more on trust

    People want to feel that they have autonomy on the job, and excessive check-ins may give them the impression they’re under surveillance. Teams that are given more freedom will in turn be less dependent on their leadership, giving them space to develop their own creativity, resilience, and problem-solving skills.

    The point here is that managers need to take a leap of faith. Ask yourself honestly: Where could you be less hands-on when it comes to deliverables? If you’re struggling to give certain employees more independence, why is that? It might be a red flag that something is wrong in your relationship with your staff, or that their work isn’t up to scratch.

    Rather than fall back on meetings, see if this is a chance to give your employees more educational opportunities. Using performance data, you can easily identify who needs assistance in what areas and offer them corresponding training materials. With such data, employees don’t have to feel shy about asking for extra support, and managers can foster a closer informal relationship with the team.

  3. Rely less on meetings and more on data

    Data is unbiased, accurate, and insightful in a way that humans can’t be (especially after the fifth meeting of the day). It can help managers better understand how teams are working, how projects are progressing, and even how employees are feeling — boosting overall trust and work quality. Data can be the deciding factor in finally getting rid of useless meetings.

    Meetings aren’t always an accurate or even truthful reflection of the work that’s being done. Employees can only provide a subjective measurement of their progress — and they typically under or overestimate their performance. We’re only human. Different personality types can also send misleading messages: Someone who appears unengaged or uninterested may be one of your most productive employees.

    Then there’s the risk of meetings being merely transactional, where team members autopilot their updates (and repeat the work that’s already being done by project management tools), or simply tell managers what they want to hear.

    Data gives a more in-depth look at employees’ productivity, objectively telling you most of what you need to know about their progress, quality, and output.

    Analytics platforms such as ActivTrak, Timely, and ZeroedIn integrate with a wide range of teams’ project management tools, codebase, and more to document employee performance in real time, and to automate reporting rather than relying on information shared in meetings. Managers can turn to data around priority metrics (e.g., the number of completed tickets or projects finished within budget) to review team or individual productivity without interrupting employees’ workflow.

  4. Rely less on synchronous communications and more on asynchronous collaboration

    Async communication happens in writing, instead of in-person. It’s a great way to keep teams in sync without having to meet in-person, or over video. It also has the added benefit of improving access to information and creating a written record of all your team’s progress and accomplishments.

    Async communication works really well for meetings like standups and status updates. But it can also be used to replace or shorten many other meetings on your team’s calendars too. Examples:

    • Status updates: Rather than holding a daily or weekly round-robin, teams use async written updates (like check-ins) to share progress on in-flight work and flag blockers. This eliminates a meeting that can sometimes feel repetitive and helps folks more easily surface context about the work that they wouldn’t have had time for in a 30-second update. Template:

      • Status check: What’s the status of this project? How have you moved it forward since your last check-in?
      • Blocked: Is there anything you’re blocked on?
      • FYI: Is there anything the team needs to be aware of?
    • Standups: For async standups, teams use daily written updates to share what they’re working on, what they’ve accomplished, and how they’re doing. Not only does this cut down on the number of hours spent in meetings each week, but it also gives folks a line of sight into how everyone’s doing so they can collaborate and support each other. Template:

      • Plan: What are you working on today? Share your top 1-3 priorities.
      • Progress: How have you moved work forward since we last checked in?
      • Blocked: What are you blocked on?
      • Mood: How are you feeling today?
    • Team meetings: Adding an async pre-read component can help folks align before the team meeting and come prepared. This ensures a more productive discussion and can often help cut down the meeting’s length. Template:

      • Weekly focus: What’s your primary focus this week?
      • FYI: Is there anything the team needs to be aware of?
      • Team-building: Rotate in a different team-building question each week to get to know each other and spark discussion.
      • Celebrate: What’s something or someone to celebrate this week?
    • 1:1s: Instead of meetings centered around status updates, consider using async check-ins or even email to share updates. Then you can use your meeting time to chat about personal development or how you’re feeling. Template:

      • Mood: How are you doing this week?
      • Accomplishment: What are you most proud of this week?
      • Learning: What did you learn this week?
      • Blocked: Is there anything you’re blocked on?

Coda

"Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you."

— Carl Sandburg

References

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