Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Meetings Are Bullshit

Jason Fried explains very nicely, in his TED talk, why the modern office is a singularly poor place in which to get work done. Bottom line: It's an atmosphere specifically tailored to facilitate interruptions—what one might call a high-interruptivity environment (by design).

Fried implies, but does not go so far as to elaborate, a theory that productivity—like sleep—occurs in sequential stages. The stages of sleep proceed one to the other, each one dependent on the previous one's successful conclusion. When sleep is interrupted, you have to start over and proceed through the various stages before you can arrive at REM sleep. For this reason, eight one-hour naps interspersed with five minutes of wakefulness do not add up to a full night's sleep. Similarly, a succession of 15- and 20-minute periods of work (in an office environment where you've constantly interrupted by texts, phone calls, e-mails, IM, meetings, coworkers coming in to see you, bosses checking on you, and so forth) seldom adds up to a day's work. To get serious work done requires long periods of no interruptions. This is why so many people say that their favorite place to get serious work done is the back porch, the basement, the attic, the shower, the library, Starbucks, etc., or (if it's indeed the office) the office after everyone leaves to go home, or before everyone arrives in the morning. No one counts as their most productive environment the office during working hours!

Fried is rightfully critical of meetings as the number one source of lost productivity in a modern office setting. Through technologies like Webex and Go-to-Meeting, we're able to introduce productivity losses even to people working from home.

If I were to criticize Fried's presentation, I would only say that he has not gone far enough in his views, particularly his condemnation of meetings. Toward the end of his talk, he suggests, as an exercise, that any manager who has a meeting planned for Monday simply cancel (and not reschedule) the meeting and see what happens. Does the world come to an end? Do sales drop? Do people stop getting work done? Or, to the contrary, does the cancellation of a one-hour meeting involving ten people result in ten additional person-hours of productivity, reclaimed for free?

I wish Fried would have taken his own logic to the ultimate conclusion, which is that all meetings should simply be outlawed. Which they certainly should be, in my opinion.

I have worked for small, medium, and large-size companies, mostly in software development, both as an individual contributor and as a manager. In my seven years at Novell (two as a line employee, five as a manager), I estimate I attended three meetings a week, or about 1000 meetings total. At Adobe, I attended a weekly status meeting (which was often cancelled, to no ill effect whatever) plus one or two division-level all-hands meetings per quarter, and one to two company-level all-hands meetings per quarter. I can say without reservation that all meetings I attended at Novell and Adobe, except for one-on-one meetings, were utterly without effect aside from the undeniable effect of resetting everyone's productivity to zero on the occasion of the meeting.

You might ask yourself, if you're the habit of setting up meetings, what it says about the fragility of your company and/or the ineffectuality of your organization (or your management style) if the success of the enterprise is somehow compromised by not holding that weekly status meeting or that monthly planning meeting or that quarterly all-hands meeting that you think (stupidly) is so necessary to inspiring team spirit and getting everyone "on the same page." In all my time at big companies (and smaller ones too) I can't remember a single meeting being indispensible, or in fact doing anything except distract me from getting real work done. Invariably, when I missed a meeting, I found out later that I either missed nothing substantive whatsoever, or I could easily (and in a few minutes' time) catch up on whatever I'd missed simply by reading a transcript, a key memo, or a followup note somewhere on the intranet.

Are there exceptions? Sure. I count as meaningful one-on-one meetings with a clear agenda, and scrum-style meetings in which participants stand the whole time (for ten minutes or so). The rest, you can e-mail me. I have no tolerance for larger meetings (especially those at which "minutes" are taken). Mail me the freakin' minutes. I'll decide if they're useful. On my schedule.

Meetings are a classic example of a non-optional push technology that should be replaced by an opt-in/pull technology. Post what I need to know somewhere. I'll look at it when it's time for me to look at it. When it's time for me to be nonproductive.


  1. Yeah, I remember that TED talk. Then they tried to cash in without actually DOING anything: with the key part being:

    You know the drill: CEO has BRILLIANT IDEA about how to change the way we work and make things more efficient, less bullshit. He calls a big meeting, announces it to the whole company. Things are going to change. But then it gets no budget, no one is assigned to follow up and get people to change behavior, and 10 days later its business as usual.

    The reason meetings keep happening is that no one, even a guy who got a ton of buzz at TED, has the will or desire to actually do the hard part of changing things.

  2. Anonymous7:48 PM

    Meetings should be held standing up. The next TED talk should be on (useless) teleconference. Followed by: there is no need to cc on anything

  3. Kas - I would make one exception for true joint work sessions between two people. I do this with coauthors every few weeks using the sync edit feature in Docs or 365, and it works pretty well when you both have about the same amount to contribute; if one person is basically watching the other one work, then break it off and go back to what you were doing. Any more than two people is generally counterproductive for anything beyond very early high-level brainstorming.

  4. Agreed. I made an exception, in the article, for one-on-ones.

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