Monday, August 18, 2014

When Is It Really Necessary to Hold a Meeting?

Jason Fried explains very nicely, in a 15-minute TED talk (watch it here), why the modern office is a singularly poor place in which to get work done. Bottom line: The modern office is specifically designed to facilitate interruptions. It's what one might call a high-interruptivity environment (by intent; by design).

For much the same reason that eight one-hour naps interspersed with short periods of wakefulness do not add up to a full night's sleep, a succession of 15- and 20-minute periods of work (in an office environment where you're interrupted by texts, phone calls, e-mails, IM, meetings, coworkers coming in to see you, bosses checking on you, trips to the coffee machine, and so forth) seldom adds up to a day's work. To get serious work done requires long periods of uninterrupted private time. 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, the park, 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 normal working hours.

Through technologies like Webex and Go-to-Meeting, we're now able to introduce productivity losses even to people working from home.

Toward the end of his TED talk, Jason Fried suggests, as an exercise (not as a policy), 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 meetings (particularly regularly scheduled staff meetings) should simply be abolished, outlawed.

Over the years, I've worked for small, medium, and large companies, mostly in software development, both as an individual contributor and as a manager. As a manager at Novell, I attended an average of 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 ever attended at Novell and Adobe, except for some one-on-one and impromptu 3- or 4-person meetings, were utterly without effect, aside from the undeniable effect of resetting everyone's productivity to zero at the time of the meeting.

You might ask yourself, if you're involved in setting up meetings, what it says about the fragility of your company 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 (vainly, stupidly) imagine 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 (except, as I say, for a few one-on-one or two-on-one events). The meetings invariably distracted me from getting real work done. The bigger the meeting, the worse the productivity loss.

Whenever 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 someone's "takeaways" summary.

Meetings are a classic example of a central-command push technology that should be replaced by an opt-in/pull technology. Quarterly all-hands meetings, in particular, are surreal in the way they evoke 1980s business culture. Can we get beyond the 1980s? Just post what I need to know somewhere. Drop me a memo. I'll look at it when it's time for me to look at it. When I can spare some time to be nonproductive.