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A Simple Rule to Eliminate Useless Meetings (linkedin.com)
70 points by alexmr 1362 days ago | hide | past | web | 24 comments | favorite



It's fascinating how much of this is a reinvention of classic meeting technique.

"Define the objective of the meeting" --> Have an agenda.

"Identify who is driving" --> Have a Chairman (Chairwoman, Chairperson, Facilitator, whatever).

"Assign someone to take notes" --> Have a Secretary.

"Summarize key action items, deliverables and points of accountability" --> Publish minutes of the meeting.

I used to be involved in student politics. Mastery of meeting procedure is a tactical weapon in that sphere, but even when they are being abused, Rules of Order are effective at keeping ... order.

Having an agenda and attentive chairmanship go together. The role of the Chair is to ensure that the meeting proceeds according to the rules and doesn't stray from the agenda. This often means not contributing.

A key reason to stick to the agenda no matter what is given in Tom DeMarco's amusing novel The Deadline. If you don't stick to the agenda but still make binding decisions, then everyone has to attend every meeting to guard against the possibility that a decision affecting them will be made in their absence.

If there is an ironclad guarantee that agenda will be followed come hell or high water, then only folk who are required at a meeting will show up. That saves a lot of time and breeds a lot of confidence.

To learn more, you can join Toastmasters or The Penguin Club. You might also join a political party, a professional society, a union, community groups like Rotary, Apex, Lions and so on. There are many good books on meeting procedure, they're worth reading to get the basics down.

This guide is brief, but gives you a taste of classical meeting technique works, in the context of incorporated associations:

http://www.commerce.wa.gov.au/associationsguide/Content/06_M...


Thanks for highlighting the reasons for "stick to the agenda no matter what". A good reason that I was not really aware of.

These are the little details I learn from HN every day. Adds up over time. :)


It was eye-opening for me too. The relevant chapter in the novel is great.

Up until then I'd been taught to keep meetings on agenda for a different reason: it keeps things moving along at a decent clip. Without an agenda, most discussions wander off into irrelevancies. With an agenda the Chair can say "that's not what we're discussing, we're discussing X which is in the agenda. Consider submitting it for the next meeting". Bam, you've just saved 20 minutes of chatter.

The first meeting I ever chaired lasted for about 4 or 5 hours. It was, in practice, a social get together. The minutes reflected that we decided basically nothing. By the end of my time in a chairman role I aimed for all meetings to conclude in 45 minutes and I was a maniac about sticking to the agenda. And you know what? It worked. It really worked.


> If there is an ironclad guarantee that agenda will be followed come hell or high water, then only folk who are required at a meeting will show up.

That's a really interesting technique I might try one of these days.

I'm actually of the opinion that I want people to attend the meetings anyways since they might be informed even if they don't participate.


Right. But this can usually be achieved with agenda and well-written minutes. People who are good at the secretarial role are force multipliers for meetings.


I'd be tempted to add

* Set an ironclad time limit, no longer than 1 hour.


Or make it uncomfortable. Meetings of Queen Elizabeth with the UK's Privy Council are conducted standing up to prevent them from running too long, a custom that began in 1861. (During that dark time before the agile manifesto was signed and history was rebooted).

It takes advantage of a simple exploit: if the Monarch is standing, nobody present may sit down, unless they are bodily incapable of standing. Queen Victoria didn't like long meetings, so she stood up to ensure they would be brief.


Yes stand-up meetings are a great idea.


Surprisingly effective. :)


Before addressing eliminating meetings based on content and goal, how about looking at the structure of the organization and management teams (in startups) that require useless meetings?

One startup I was an early engineer for had a management team that developed a need to have daily all hands yet still planned on weekends in the schedule. It wasn't obvious at the start, but it crept up over time.

Miss an arbitrary deadline? Meeting. Someone in management forgot to tie their shoe? Meeting.

Sometimes there are just some people that require meetings to justify themselves.

This particular startup eventually had an ok exit (sub 4x multiple) with only four of the original twenty people still there. One of the main needy meeting culprits was not one of them.


I use a meeting ticker sometimes - one like this: http://tobytripp.github.io/meeting-ticker/

Set a low ball hourly rate - so £50 (depending on where you are and who you're with) so that people suspect the meeting actually costs more.

When it comes to the end of the meeting, you say "Did this meeting produce £376.42 worth of value for the company?"

If the answer is "yes" - you're doing something right. If the answer is "no" - hold a meeting to discuss how to become more productive in meetings.


Ha! This is a good idea. Actually I'd count it by the employee pay/cost being soaked up in the meeting instead of an arbitrary rate. So in your case say the average per hour cost to the company for an employee is £50, and there are 10 people in the meeting for an hour, that meeting cost the company £500. It can keep meeting sizes small as a motivator to keep costs low ;)

(I've seen several $20,000-30,000 "meetings" before that accomplished nothing)


Two suggestions from my experience with links to my blog for more extensive descriptions.

Send out a questionnaire before to discover hidden assumptions. http://beza1e1.tuxen.de/articles/questionnaire_meeting.html

Use Etherpad to rewrite the agenda into a protocol live and cooperatively. http://beza1e1.tuxen.de/articles/meeting.html


tldr: There are many kinds of meetings. This article doesn't even really cover the work involved in the kinds of meetings it's covering.

There are different reasons to have a meeting. This kind is the "present shit" kind of meeting. In that case, you can pretty much just email the material out and skip the meeting. Everyone gets an hour of their lives back. Win!

Or is this actually about the "get buy-in" meeting? Maybe. In that case, you lobby every person who will be in the meeting beforehand so that you know you'll get them all to consensus. And set aside time in the meeting for a Festivus-style "airing of the grievances". Make sure everyone is heard and then make sure everyone sees that they all agree with whatever decision is being made. Win!

If anyone actually starts arguing about semantics or other people's positions, the meeting is fucked. Adjourn, rethink, and try again after some legwork or with a different approach. Don't even bother with the "I want to show my anger to the group and nobody else matters" stuff in a meeting. That wastes everyone's time and makes everyone angry. Also, if it's your meeting everyone will remember that you let it go into a tailspin.

There are other kinds of meetings, too. Like the aspirational presentation followed by the call to action (great with an actual example of the thing in action at the company already), for example. This article doesn't seem to be about those, so I'll hold my tongue.

Meetings should be as short and engaging as possible, letting everyone make/save face and getting them all in line. Most of the work involved is before the meeting ever happens. Get the result you want by knowing how everyone will act/react in the meeting and setting the whole thing in motion before everyone's sitting at the table.


There's yet another kind of meeting; the recurring team meeting. Purpose being to get everybody in the same room to discuss whatever is on people's minds.

(This is obviously a type of meeting that needs to be used lightly)


True Story: I got chastised in my annual performance review because I didn't have a scheduled staff meeting for my 5-person team.

I've always found meetings like that to be useless, but I guess there was some official policy someone that stated "thou shalt haveth staff meetings".


Personally, I've found they do contribute somewhat to team cohesiveness, and if you have a busy manager it is nice to have guaranteed time with them. Of course, everyone is different, and it may well be truly useless in other companies


I like how this rule doesn't do anything at all to 'eliminate useless meetings'.

Somehow reading the presentation beforehand makes the meeting more relevant? Most meetings I've been to on a regular basis were pointless not because there was a presentation, but because there were more than 2-4 people in the room.


Surely, if you've read the presentation and the agenda is kept strict and the content isn't relevant then you don't attend the meeting. Or at least you say to your boss - or whoever is demanding attendance - that your attendance is not productive use of your time.


I worked at a multinational bank just last year and all these new efficiency procedures are lightyears away. I think in large companies, management philosophies really will need to start at the C-level executives in order to ever be implemented.


I've found that the person running a meeting really defines the success/utility of a meeting.

Some bad practices I've learned from:

a) Instead of making a simple decision, plan a meeting, at that meeting plan other meetings.

This Dilbert pointy haired boss-style really happened at a very large corporation I once worked at. I actually thought it was a joke the first few times it happened. Ultimately the simple decision was never made, and the endless meetings delayed oversight because the logic was that the decision could come out of just one more meeting. It had the awesome side-effect of making the manager look incredibly busy. At the end of my first 9 months there, the sum total output of a 5 man team came to a 5 page checklist in Excel.

Finally, and long overdue, that manager was "realigned". I was put in charge of the team and after an initial kickoff where I assigned appropriate people their tasks, we produced the desired deliverable in 90 days and not a single structured meeting after that...just a few ad hoc get-togethers to check status and align priorities. 7 Years later, that deliverable is still used as the gold standard.

b) Be disorganized.

If you think pointless meetings are a drag, wait until you end up sitting through week after week of unfocused, disorganized, confusing meetings without clear recaps, minutes, actions or other useful output.

A pointless meeting is like being frozen to death, the inaction of it all slowly kills you by sapping your strength. A disorganized meeting generates lots and lots of heat and motion but kills you just as sure as getting lit on fire would. The result is the same, nothing gets accomplished, it's just a matter of how you wish to die.

I've had the displeasure of working for/with a few people, usually at smaller companies (50-200 people) for some reason (and usually run over a bad speakerphone as well), who run the most consistently disorganized meetings I've ever encountered: bouncing around the agenda, veering off down irrelevant rabbit holes, no collecting and summarizing of what just happened, no clear actions, things that sound like actions but aren't, no follow up on previous actions etc.

Fix this by:

- Make a loose agenda

- as you work through the agenda, stay on topic and don't veer, but be willing to adjust a little as needed

- if you end up veering a little, it's okay, but bring the ship back to center and recap quickly, or set the issue aside for an "offline conversation" or another, more focused meeting just for that topic (if it's big enough)

- recap each agenda item before moving to the next one, issue out actions immediately

- take meeting notes and send out a recap to all hands, the hour you spend typing it up will save dozens of hours trying to fix bad memory screw ups instead

- put the actions in the meeting notes!

- use the previous meeting's actions as the framework for this meeting's agenda. Open actions need to be brought up again, this time with a note that it's a repeat x number of times. The more times it repeats, the higher up in priority it goes. If it doesn't move up in priority, it's probably not real anyway and shouldn't have been an action to start with

- if you use some kind of work tracking system, file the open actions and assign them immediately after the meeting. Budget time to do this around the meeting.

- Running a meeting is a responsibility not a privilege.

c) Run a meeting like it's a military exercise.

Too many times, at all sizes of organizations, I've run into people who think it's a matter of life or death that meeting run precisely on schedule. I think this is a B-school technique because it always seems to be MBAs who do this. For example, Each agenda item shall take no more than 10 minutes of meeting time, or an hour meeting shall go no longer than one hour, no matter the issues brought up - reschedule the next meeting to take up the issues later. This is dangerous and stupid.

Sometimes during meetings, new critical issues pop up, those need to be triaged, actions to remedy need to be discussed and assigned then and there. I've even seen critical deadlines missed because the meeting was going overtime, the deadline was a couple days later, a critical issue popped up and the meeting was closed due to time till the next week. Stupid stupid stupid.

The problem still needs to be addressed, but now people are going to do it off-channel, uncoordinated and disorganized with unreliable outcome and no control over the situation, management of expectations, clear communication to stakeholders etc.

Worse yet, if the person running the meeting has an honest obligation that forces the meeting to close early, that's one thing, but if they're just closing it down because it's hit its 1 hour mark, people see this and view the meeting manager as disingenuous and weird and end up confused about priorities in the organization. It ends up undermining that person.

The best meetings I've seen basically follow a loose template as jacques indicates here https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5968926

I'd add that issues that look too big for the current meeting should be sidebarred into another meeting with just the key people involved. It usually is just a two person phone call in reality not a full blown meeting.

The meeting notes and rapidly assigned actions really are the critical bits, the "product" of a meeting. The notes inform and remind, follow ups can usually be solved with 10 minute ad-hoc face to face meetings.

In a different milieu, I've also liked the daily developer roundup in the morning over coffee. The meeting manager just goes around the table and asks each person what they're working on, what they've accomplished since yesterday and what they have in their queue. These are usually 15 minute informal get togethers, but help set the daily agenda. Other can pop in and offer help, or have help asked of them in this environment and the manager unit and reset daily priorities if they need to to ensure project coordination.

I think for small startups (under 15 people), this actually works really well in general, not just with the developers. It lets people understand cross department issues and helps them coordinate across developer/rest of the company boundaries very easily. It even works well with remote and distributed teams. I don't think these need to be dailies, but maybe once every week or two. I've seen startups completely turn around just by adding a weekly all-hands roundup. (it also hilights people who aren't pulling their weight really quickly since they'll have nothing/little to report)

Once the company grows a little bigger, you want to start dropping the all-hands aspect in favor of maybe just the department head and a deputy and maybe a senior. Over 20 people I've found these get unwieldy and boring as unrelated departments talk about their work past each other.


> Open actions need to be brought up again, this time with a note that it's a repeat x number of times. The more times it repeats, the higher up in priority it goes. If it doesn't move up in priority, it's probably not real anyway and shouldn't have been an action to start with

Hey, I wish I'd known about this one. I had items that lingered for weeks, sometimes. Maybe a rule like "4 repeats and it gets dropped". That said, a countervailing rule of thumb is that every action belongs to someone. If they get too many repeats, it's time to find out why.

I agree with c), that meeting techniques can have a dark side if you go off the deep end and place means above ends which my glowing description elsewhere did not present. However, lots of people don't realise the utility of the fusty old rules. When they are used as a backstop for judicious chairmanship, they speed things up.

It's a spectrum. At one end is chaos and wasted time and "because I said so". At the other end is stultifying rigidity and Brazil and "it's stupid, but I must adhere to this minute inconsequential rule or I'm pretty sure the universe will stop".

In the middle there is a nice median. That's where people should aim to be.


> Hey, I wish I'd known about this one. I had items that lingered for weeks, sometimes. Maybe a rule like "4 repeats and it gets dropped". That said, a countervailing rule of thumb is that every action belongs to someone. If they get too many repeats, it's time to find out why.

Exactly on all points.

I've found that repeatedly lingering issues point to deep organizational dysfunction. Elevating the priority or dropping it (up or out) can be a forcing function to take care of it if it's real. Making something high priority, even if it really isn't puts pressure on the doers -- they don't want to be the one who dropped the ball on a level-1 issue that's coming up over and over again. And everything has a due date, even if it's open ended...set a tone of work getting accomplished in a reasonable time frame and not dragging on even without a set due date.

If you drop it and it's actually real, it'll be brought up later when it matters to somebody.

> I agree with c), that meeting techniques can have a dark side...the utility of the fusty old rules...It's a spectrum.

I'm hard pressed to find ways to agree with you more :)


Your bad practices remind me of this:

    when possible, refer all matters to committees, for    
    "further study and consideration." Attempt to make the 
    committees as large and bureaucratic as possible. Hold
    conferences when there is more critical work to be done.
    -- OSS/ CIA Simple Sabotage Field Manual
https://www.cia.gov/news-information/featured-story-archive/...




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