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Meetings are for Collaboration

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Humans are social creatures, so meetings of one form or another are par for the course both for personal or business reasons.

Why meetings (tend to) suck

People don’t like to have their time wasted. Most of us are busy (the idea of busyness is a topic for another post) and want to get the most bang for our buck when it comes to time.

A coworker shared an article with me that described a typical meeting where there are several C-level executives in a room giving (or listening to) a status report. This is mostly a losing scenario: multiple people with high hourly rates not getting much value out of a two-hour meeting.

If someone feels he/she doesn’t need to attend a meeting they’ve been dragged into, the temptation to not pay attention kicks in. Especially look out for those mid-afternoon meetings in a dark, stuffy conference room.

What should meetings be used for?

Collaboration (or communication where non-verbal cues add value). Collaboration in my opinion means activities like…

  • Conversation
    • Example: A software developer and a product manager having a dialogue (i.e., back and forth dynamic exchange) about what a new feature should look like.
  • Debate
    • Example: A husband wants to get a $500 gaming console and should probably have a rational discussion with his wife about whether such a purchase is feasible at this time.
  • Group work where the individual is not sufficient
    • Example: I’m trying to make my portion of the application work more efficiently and need some help from the database expert to streamline my queries.

Remember that when you’re gathering other people together, the real benefit is having multiple minds at the same place (even digitally for remote workers). There needs to be value in being together which would not exist with only individuals.

Some things I do

If I’m thinking about hosting a meeting and the outcome isn’t one of the three purposes I mentioned above, a meeting is probably not the best communication tool.

Status meetings

At my job I have the good fortune to have the freedom to experiment with a variety of processes. There was a time when I tried the now-classic daily stand-up from Scrum: what you did yesterday, what you will do today, and what obstacles you have.

The intent seems solid — everyone knows what’s going on and problems are spotted in short order. I found that these meetings took longer than expected, so I switched us to a daily task summary e-mail.

  • Each team member e-mails the group to share what he did yesterday
  • We can each read these messages on our own time
  • Because our team is small, anything that requires urgent attention can be dealt with as it occurs
  • There’s a digital record, which works out great for reviews

Training

Everyone has their own learning style, and I won’t go into the different learning modalities here. You’ve likely encountered some kind of presentation-based training in your career, whether for re-certification (e.g., HIPAA in my case) or for learning new skills. For example, my work team uses Pluralsight training videos to refresh our knowledge and learn new tools.

It seems logical to have multiple people watch a video as a group so that you know everyone has seen the training end-to-end. However, lecture is not as useful for everyone. Maybe I might want to pause the video to go look up a related topic or setup a sample project to help test assumptions about what I just learned.

An exception was the video about domain-driven design. Our main software project at work uses this kind of design, and I thought it would be an excellent way for the entire team to level up simultaneously. We decided to watch one hour per week on Wednesdays. During this hour we would occasionally pause the video to discuss patterns or look up examples of how we followed certain practices in our codebase. Again, the key here is some kind of dynamic exchange with the people present.

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Tribal knowledge

A trait of small companies is reliance on tribal knowledge, usually implemented using brain-based storage. Meetings are often used to impart this knowledge to the tribe. These meetings don’t always take the form of all-hands-on-deck meetings; they can occur during “teachable moments.”

Please don’t misunderstand my intent; such knowledge needs to be communicated. My complaint is that meetings aren’t the most efficient medium. Following the Don’t Repeat Yourself (DRY) principle, if you think anyone other than yourself (e.g., colleagues, someone who takes over your job when you leave, managers) would benefit from the knowledge in your skull, share it.

Technology is no longer the barrier here. Send a group e-mail, add a page to a company wiki, write a blog post, take pictures, record a video or screencast. This breaks the cycle of using meetings as a power play, where knowledge is power.

The MoSCoW method

If you’ve determined a meeting is called for, use the MoSCoW method to build the attendee list:

  • Must — success is based on this person attending
  • Should — not crucial, but may prevent the need for future meetings
  • Could — may be tangentially helpful
  • Won’t — neither the attendee nor the group will benefit

Non-work related meetings

I apply the same approach when hanging out with friends. (Of course, sometimes the benefit of hanging out is just for a change of scenery and to unwind.) Playing board games or some engaging in some other kind of collaborative activity is where I feel the most involved. It’s way less fun to play Pandemic by yourself.

Watching the latest blockbuster can be fun, too. What makes it more enjoyable is the discussion afterward. After all, I can watch the movie just fine on my own, but I can’t have a dialogue about it by myself.

Conclusion

Productivity blogs such as Lifehacker have a plethora of articles that describe creative ways to make meetings more bearable. Ask yourself these questions to help you:

  • If I’m being asked to attend a meeting and feel it’s not the best use of my time, can I…
    • …propose another method to meet the host’s goal?
    • …try to consider why my presence was requested so that I can put myself in the host’s shoes?
  • If I’m thinking of hosting a meeting…
    • …is a face-to-face meeting the best medium for communication for this situation?
    • …can I find ways to make the meeting be less of a burden?

Make the most out of your meetings by connecting with people. That’s where magic happens.

 

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