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How to Do Meetings You Don't Hate
You don't have to be grumpy about it!
“You have a meeting to make a decision, not to decide on the question.” —Bill Gates
This quote perfectly summarizes all my frustrations about meetings. Many studies have highlighted the inefficiency of meetings at work. Still, meetings keep increasing in length and frequency, to the point where executives spend around 23 hours a week in them (it was less than 10 hours in the 1960s). It would not be a bad thing if meetings were all useful, but we all know how inefficient most of them are. I’ve been experimenting a lot with meetings in my company and have learned how to make the most out of them—here’s what I’ve discovered and want to share with you so you can use your time well and hold productive, effective meetings.
Meetings are bad for your productivity
We usually work on two different schedules: the maker's schedule or the manager's schedule.
This concept was first described by Y Combinator's founder, Paul Graham, in his 2009 essay. In this essay, Graham explains how makers are task oriented and need a long stretch of time to focus (programmers or writers are the typical examples). On the other hand, managers use mainly communication and meetings to make things progress. What’s interesting is that most of the time, we all need to combine the two schedules in our work life.
When you are in the maker’s schedule, a single meeting interruption could be a hard hit at your productivity. The maker’s schedule is most efficient when you are able to enter the flow, a state of deep focus where your concentration is at its maximum and time seems to flow by without you noticing it. Going back to the flow after an interruption can cost you up to 23 minutes! Trying to mix your maker’s and manager’s schedule is always an indicator of inefficiency.
The problem can also come from outside. Managers are more likely to disrupt the maker’s schedule due to the nature of their position. Because of hierarchy, managers also have the power to decide when meetings should happen. This power comes with a great responsibility (Spiderman quote alert).
Interrupting the maker's schedule with a meeting is a big waste of their time. A good manager should recognize this and adopt meeting practices that let makers maximize their time. Managers should also realize that they could have fewer meetings and create more maker’s time for themselves.
Paul Graham—a highly solicited person—keeps only the last hours of his day dedicated to meetings. The rest of the day is dedicated to getting things done. In modern companies, most of us need to adopt a dual schedule. So, how do you implement this in your daily work life?
Recognize which type of meeting you are in
In his bestseller High Output Management, Andy Grove (former chairman and CEO of Intel) describes two kinds of meetings: process-oriented and mission-oriented meetings. To make the most of your meetings, it’s important to recognize in which type of meeting you are.
Process-oriented meetings aim at sharing knowledge and exchanging information. They usually take place on a regular basis. Classical examples of process-oriented meetings are one-on-one meetings, staff meetings, or project reviews.
Most process-oriented meetings can be avoided (I will exclude the one-on-one from this affirmation). Take staff meetings, for example. It’s very common for companies to organize regular staff meetings to exchange statuses or project updates. The underlying goal is often to gain a bigger picture on how tasks are advancing in a team or company. It’s quite common nowadays to have a daily standup meetings at the beginning of the day. The problem with these meetings is that most of the time, they’re an interruption for makers. Even if organized early, the meeting will always disrupt someone’s plan. And when you take this interruption company wide, the loss of efficiency is very high.
In general, process-oriented meetings can be replaced by digital updates. A written update has more value than one shared in a meeting. It can be read at any time, removes micromanagement, and builds trust across the company.
Take daily or weekly updates, for instance. Apps like Basecamp or Range.co include features dedicated to eradicate daily status meetings. Every day, these tools invite your staff to enter an update. They can choose when to write it and avoid being interrupted by a meeting when they are in their maker’s schedule. The updates are shared with colleagues so they can also read them whenever they want, without being interrupted in the middle of a task. These systems keep all the benefits of a meeting while avoiding the drawbacks.
Process-oriented meetings are not all bad, though. I mentioned the one-on-one as an exception, because the main benefit of those meetings is the personal relationship they create between managers and team members. You can of course make the one-on-one more efficient with some techniques I will describe below, but trying to avoid the social interactions of these meetings would be an overkill.
Mission-oriented meetings aim at solving a specific problem or producing a decision. Unlike process-oriented meetings, they are usually ad hoc and can’t be predicted in advance.
The inefficiency of mission-oriented meetings comes from the fact that spontaneous decision making involves many cognitive biases. The bandwagon bias, for example, stipulates that when we’re in groups, we start to think the same as other people in the group. Another one, the confirmation bias, is very likely to happen in meetings and shows that we are more likely to listen to information that confirms our preconceptions.
The best way to remove cognitive biases from mission-oriented meetings is to go through a longer preparation phase in written form. When a manager organizes a mission-oriented meeting, it’s better to not rush into it and to take the time to collect arguments, feedback, or questions beforehand. Creating a written discussion around the problem to solve it could lead to a better decision process. Rushing into a meeting as soon as a problem occurs is the best way to trigger cognitive biases. It also creates false urgency and disrupts other people’s schedules.
Once all parties are well informed through a preliminary documentation, a short mission-oriented meeting can happen and conclude the decision process. This is a good way to make sure that all parties agree to the decision, or at least commit to it. It could also be helpful to organize this type of meeting in case of conflicts or escalation in the decision process.
Recognizing which type of meeting you are in will help you understand how to implement a better practice. In the case of process-oriented meetings, try replacing them with digital updates. For mission-oriented meetings, a diligent documentation prepared in advance will help reduce the bias linked to decision making.
7 meeting rules to live by
Some meetings can’t be avoided. When this is the case, meetings should always follow the seven rules below:
Predefined goal: A meeting without a goal is the best way to waste your time. Either it’s a mission-oriented or a project-oriented meeting, all meetings should have a goal that is clear to all participants (for instance, a one-on-one meeting aims at reviewing the performance of an employee).
Timeline: A meeting is not open ended and must respect an allotted time. The shorter the allotted time is, the more efficient the meeting will be. If you plan a four-hour meeting, you can be sure that participants will find a way to fill in the time. You could reduce it to 30 minutes and have the same output if the meeting is well prepared and includes all five other rules.
Agenda: No agenda means no meeting! A meeting without agenda is just an excuse to lock people in a room (or Zoom call) for a specific period of time. Always start a meeting with an agenda of what will be discussed.
Preparation: The meeting agenda should always be available in advance (at least 24 hours) so all participants can prepare their thoughts on the topic. The best practice is to engage in a written conversation before the meeting so that the issue can advance as far as possible without face-to-face interaction (and thus remove the problem of extrovert personalities taking over the discussion in meetings).
Leader: Each meeting must have an appointed leader to keep things moving along. If it’s a mission-oriented meeting, the leader should also be the one having the last word in case of indecision.
Scribe: Always appoint a scribe to take notes in a meeting. For fairness, the scribe should not always be the same person. Without notes, there is no trace of what’s been decided in the meeting. Notes help you in case of future memory lapse or to share the content of a meeting with people who didn’t attend. The scribe should also clean up the notes after the meeting to make them fully understandable to readers.
No more people than necessary: Jeff Bezos has a famous rule for meetings: no meeting should be so large that two pizzas can’t feed the whole group. Participants in a meeting should always bring value, otherwise they can simply read the meeting notes and get an update on what’s been discussed. Adding more people in a meeting is a good way to slow down the decision process or just waste time that could be spent somewhere else.
Using this set of rules across your company will ensure that all your meetings are efficient. Still, you could find yourself being interrupted by well-organized and efficient meetings. On top of good organizational practices, healthy personal rules can also help your productivity.
Reduce the time you spend in meetings
Following the rules mentioned above should already reduce meetings to the most efficient ones. However, if meetings keep interrupting your maker’s schedule, they will still be a hindrance to your productivity. Below are some personal tips to help you regain your maker’s time.
Write more, talk less: Written conversation is a huge time saver. Imagine the number of meetings that could be solved by a written (and detailed) conversation. I’m not talking about chaotic Slack threads, but real, in-depth details about projects, issues, and decisions to take. I’m regularly writing 200-300 updates I share with my team in our project management software. This let me put my thoughts in order before I share them. These updates can be read at any time, so I don’t constantly interrupt my team with meetings. I would literally kill the productivity of my team if I constantly shared my thoughts in meetings instead of by writing.
Include metadata on calendar invite: Calendar invitations are a good place to add metadata like the location, a call link, notes, and an agenda. This is especially true with people outside of your organization. Giving context and information to external parties is even more important, as they may have less knowledge on the topic of the meeting than your colleagues.
Stay present and focus on the agenda: We have all seen those people who start texting while they are in a meeting. In addition to being disrespectful, it also shows that the meeting is not relevant to them. To increase participants’ attention, you can introduce simple rules like having only one computer in the room or forbidding smartphones during meetings. It’s also important to stay focused on the agenda. Going off course is the best way to make a 30-minute meeting last hours. If the agenda needs further discussion, prepare a followup meeting instead of locking up your colleagues in a room for too long.
Stop spontaneous interruptions: When you need to stay focused, the last thing you want is an interruption. However, some workplaces are more subject to this, and sometimes it’s your own responsibility to stop the interruptions from others. A simple method is to be transparent with your colleagues. For example, if you need long stretches of time to focus, communicate clearly with your team that you will not check emails or messages regularly. If you work in a crowded office with a lot of interruptions, you can also wear headphones to show that you are busy.
Say no to meetings: This is the most radical option, but often the best. Saying no to meetings is the best way to regain your maker’s time. You could, for instance, block your calendar with a “no meeting” event so that people can’t hijack your schedule. I regularly refuse meetings that don’t have a clear goal or agenda. Don’t forget, when you say yes to a meeting, you automatically say no to other tasks on your list.
Batch your meetings: Like tasks, meetings can be batched together. This is especially useful for people with a hybrid maker’s/manager’s schedule. If all your meetings are batched on one or two afternoons per week, you totally free up the rest of your time for deep focus. Allocating a specific time window for your meetings also allows you to keep time spent in meetings to a decent level. For those who have a lot of spontaneous interruptions, you can also create “office hours” (like what professors do in universities). With office hours, you open a specific window of time in your calendar to answer questions. This is particularly helpful for people who need to regularly answer questions.
Don’t make it too long: Most calendar apps create one-hour events by default, but meetings don’t always have to be that long! Keep in mind that a 30-minute conversation can cover a lot of ground if the meeting is well prepared. Ditch the one-hour slot and start having shorter meetings. It will also force participants to get to the point more rapidly.
Facilitate meetings with tools: Organizing a meeting can be complicated. It’s quite common to end up with a long email back-and-forth when trying to find a time that will fit all parties. One easy way to avoid this is to use tools like Calendly (it’s free). This app lets you share open time slots with external contacts. The organization process is totally automated, and you simply need to share a link for others to find a time that fits into your own agenda. Thank you, technology!
The social benefits of meetings
Each company is unique and has different needs when it comes to internal communication. Even though I’m convinced that most companies would benefit from reducing meetings to a strict minimum, I also acknowledge the social benefit of meetings.
Sometimes, you have to let bad meetings slip through the gaps. In my company, we do one of these every week, voluntarily. Once a week, we organize a short all-hands meeting (as we are less than 10 people, this is still manageable). This meeting is dedicated to sharing two short weekly highlights, one professional and one personal. Even though this could be completely replaced by a written report (and we actually have one in parallel), the benefit of this meeting is to gather the team and have a relaxed discussion. The personal highlight also helps us bond, and quite often, laugh together.
Sometimes, you have to recognize the benefit of a simple talk. But we can allow this meeting because we know that all other meetings are efficient.
If you follow the advice in this post, you could easily reduce your time in meetings to a few hours per week, even if you are managing a team or a company. You don’t have to hate meetings if they are all relevant.
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