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Reworking meetings?

I downloaded a sample of the new Jason Fried/David Heinemeier Hansson book, Rework, which will doubtless find its way onto my reading pile – seems like good pithy bits of advice we can all use. However I zeroed in on the “meetings are toxic” section, and tweeted something about how that view suggests someone who doesn’t know how to have meetings. But it really suggests the frustration of someone who’s been victimized by others who don’t know how to have meetings. And even people who know how will sometimes screw up – I’ve subverted a few of my own meetings, for instance.

It’s useless to rail against meetings as toxic, just try to have better meetings. In fact, the authors acknowledge that point, but only after venting. Examples:

“They’re usually about words and abstract concepts, not real things.” But life is like that, no? When we’re not doing zazen, we stumble into conceptual states of mind, samsara, and everybody’s weaving a bit of that web, and you don’t cut through it by pretending it isn’t there. The meeting should be the knife that slices through the fog and finds reality and clarity. If you don’t know how to do that, your meetings might be unproductive, if not toxic, but that’s a problem of organization, not a problem with meetings per se.

“They usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute.” Yes indeed – this frustrates me, too… meetings where the people in the room are saying the same thing over and over. Department of Redundancy Department. But I had a flash of insight while sitting in one of these – there were people in the room who needed that redundancy for knowledge they were acquiring to sink in. Meetings can be slow because some participants need them to be slow. Quick thinkers may be frustrated, but there’s where a commitment to group process takes priority.

“They drift off- subject easier than a Chicago cab in a snowstorm.” That’s true, if the meeting doesn’t have an effective leader to keep things on track. The solution for this problem is implicit.

“They require thorough preparation that most people don’t have time for.” So you shouldn’t have meetings because they require preparation? That seems out of kilter to me. If nobody needs the meeting, then the preparation is a waste of time. But if people need the meeting in order to synchronize their efforts or get clarity about something, do you really want to blow if off because preparation’s a hassle?

“They frequently have agendas so vague that nobody is really sure of the goal.” So write a clear agenda, no?

There’s a couple more, but you get the point. It’s easy to complain about meetings, because they do have failings, but the better move is to say how to make them effective and productive.

In fact, Fried and Hansson do have some recommendations – set a timer and end meetings whether everyone’s done or not is one. So if the people in the room haven’t quite worked it out, and the timer goes off, they’re SOL.

Invite as few people as possible is another, and I totally agree. Why invite anybody who doesn’t need to be there? Have a clear agenda, start with a specific problem, both good. Meeting at the site of the problem is a recommendation that might not be practical. End with a solution and assigned responsibility, also good. Action items.

One that’s surprisingly missing, that I learned many years ago: don’t call the meeting unless there’s a reason. (Standing meetings for checkins can be an exception, and monthly organizational meetings where there’s always something to address).

My bottom line is that meetings are not inherently toxic. And you gotta have ’em. I think I would’ve reworked that section of Rework. (Bet the rest of the book is great!)

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