The Crux of Meetings

Just like T., the pro­tag­o­nist in last week’s frag­ment of my nov­el “On the Handrail into the Deci­sion-Mak­ing Cir­cle”, many peo­ple are con­front­ed with the same sit­u­a­tion sev­er­al times a day: they spend a sig­nif­i­cant part of their work­ing day in meet­ings, the use­ful­ness of which — to put it mild­ly — is ques­tion­able. And although these meet­ings cause con­sid­er­able costs, only a few take the trou­ble to crit­i­cal­ly ques­tion the cul­ture of meet­ings (and there­by the cult of pres­ence). But there are also some inspir­ing exam­ples of how these omnipresent meet­ing orgies can be contained.

Meet­ings are by def­i­n­i­tion a con­ces­sion to defi­cient orga­ni­za­tion. For one either meets or one works.

Peter F. Druck­er. The Effec­tive Excec­u­tive, S. 44

With this sen­tence from his book “The Effec­tive Excec­u­tive”, first pub­lished in 1966, Peter F. Druck­er actu­al­ly said every­thing that has to be said about meet­ings. Orga­ni­za­tions don’t get paid for meet­ings (although I’m not 100% sure about that for some man­age­ment con­sul­tan­cies). They uti­lize meet­ings to orga­nize their actu­al work, which is what cus­tomers pay for. Few­er meet­ings are there­fore gen­er­al­ly bet­ter. And of course these few need to be well orga­nized and pre­pared, but this is only the sec­ond step, because Peter F. Druck­er (1963 in Man­ag­ing for Busi­ness Effec­tive­ness) also stat­ed unequiv­o­cal­ly: “There is sure­ly noth­ing quite so use­less as doing with great effi­cien­cy what should not be done at all.”

For some­one on the maker’s sched­ule, hav­ing a meet­ing is like throw­ing an excep­tion. It does­n’t mere­ly cause you to switch from one task to anoth­er; it changes the mode in which you work.

Paul Gra­ham, Maker’s Sched­ule, Manager’s Schedule

The pro­gram­mer, author and entre­pre­neur Paul Gra­ham explains in his 2009 arti­cle the impor­tant dif­fer­ence between the man­ag­er sched­ule and the mak­er sched­ule. The lat­ter need long blocks of time in which they can immerse them­selves undis­turbed into their work in order to be effec­tive. For man­agers, on the oth­er hand, the day essen­tial­ly con­sists of meet­ings. What for the man­ag­er is a nor­mal part of his work, name­ly tak­ing part in a meet­ing, is accord­ing to Paul Gra­ham some­thing like “throw­ing an excep­tion” for the mak­er, pro­gram­mer or knowl­edge work­er in general.

Each type of sched­ule works fine by itself. Prob­lems arise when they meet. Since most pow­er­ful peo­ple oper­ate on the manager’s sched­ule, they’re in a posi­tion to make every­one res­onate at their fre­quen­cy if they want to. But the smarter ones restrain them­selves, if they know that some of the peo­ple work­ing for them need long chunks of time to work in.

Paul Gra­ham, Maker’s Sched­ule, Manager’s Schedule

In many orga­ni­za­tions this is exact­ly what can be observed. The man­ag­er sched­ule dom­i­nates every­thing, because by the pow­er of their posi­tion and with­out knowl­edge of the “species-appro­pri­ate” sched­ule of their employ­ees (or with knowl­edge but with­out con­sid­er­a­tion) they impose their man­ag­er sched­ule on the orga­ni­za­tion. And when the only career path in the orga­ni­za­tion is the manager’s career, ambi­tious employ­ees take this sched­ule and this way of work­ing as their role mod­el, which then leads to a real flood of meet­ings. In the end, all cal­en­dars are so clut­tered that any attempt to coor­di­nate a meet­ing between more than two peo­ple inevitably reminds one of Tetris. 

Oth­er people’s time isn’t for you — it’s for them. You can’t take it, chip away at it, or block it off. Everyone’s in con­trol of their time. They can give it to you, but you can’t take it from them.

Jason Fried, Sig­nal vs. Noise

Jason Fried and David Heine­meier Hans­son are just like Paul Gra­ham pas­sion­ate pro­gram­mers and for 20 years with Base­camp uncon­ven­tion­al and suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neurs. In their blog and books, they rad­i­cal­ly scru­ti­nize com­mon prac­tices in orga­ni­za­tions. For them, meet­ings repeat­ed­ly are the tar­get of their crit­i­cism. That’s why they get to the root of the prob­lem and don’t use shared cal­en­dars at Base­camp. What is com­plete­ly nor­mal in most com­pa­nies, is inten­tion­al­ly not the case at Base­camp: to quick­ly claim a part of your col­leagues time in their calendar.

It’s hard to come up with a big­ger waste of mon­ey, time, or atten­tion than sta­tus meetings. 

Jason Fried, Sig­nal vs. Noise

Since Jason Fried and David Heine­meier Hans­son have set up Base­camp in a rig­or­ous­ly decen­tral­ized man­ner (one of their books worth read­ing is there­fore also called “REMOTE: Office Not Required”), employ­ees could­n’t meet quick­ly any­way. The clas­sic sta­tus meet­ing or stand-up does not work in this rad­i­cal­ly decen­tral­ized mod­el and Jason Fried express­es legit­i­mate doubts that such meet­ings are worth­while at all, because usu­al­ly the indi­vid­ual team mem­bers do not need the exchanged infor­ma­tion all at the same time.

Need­less to say, Base­camp also has a live­ly exchange with­in teams, but most of it is in writ­ten form and asyn­chro­nous. Every day the employ­ees do a so-called “check-in” and write (sup­port­ed by their soft­ware Base­camp) vis­i­ble to every­one what they have been work­ing on today. And at the begin­ning of a week, every­one also writes what they will be work­ing on this week. These more or less short writ­ten updates of each one and the result­ing dis­cus­sions replace the usu­al meet­ings else­where at no loss. So every­one can work as undis­turbed as pos­si­ble in his “mak­er sched­ule” and inform him­self or oth­ers, when it fits best.

Exces­sive meet­ings are the blight of big com­pa­nies and almost always get worse over time. Please get of all large meet­ings, unless you’re cer­tain they are pro­vid­ing val­ue to the whole audi­ence, in which case keep them very short.

Also get rid of fre­quent meet­ings, unless you are deal­ing with an extreme­ly urgent mat­ter. Meet­ing fre­quen­cy should drop rapid­ly once the urgent mat­ter is resolved.

Walk out of a meet­ing or drop off a call as soon as it is obvi­ous you aren’t adding val­ue. It is not rude to leave, it is rude to make some­one stay and waste their time.

Elon Musk, interne E‑Mail via Jalop­nik

Elon Musk also laments over the cul­ture of exces­sive meet­ings and estab­lish­es clear rules, as can be seen from this excerpt from an inter­nal e‑mail. His first focus is on sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduc­ing the num­ber of par­tic­i­pants and the fre­quen­cy of meet­ings. In an inter­view, for exam­ple, he says that at Tes­la no meet­ing may con­sist of more than four to six participants.

Elon Musk also laments over the cul­ture of exces­sive meet­ings and estab­lish­es clear rules, as can be seen from this excerpt from an inter­nal e‑mail. His first focus is on sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduc­ing the num­ber of par­tic­i­pants and the fre­quen­cy of meet­ings. In an inter­view, for exam­ple, he says that at Tes­la no meet­ing may con­sist of more than four to six participants.

Today as always, men fall into two groups: slaves and free men. Who­ev­er does not have two-thirds of his day for him­self, is a slave, what­ev­er he may be: a states­man, a busi­ness­man, an offi­cial, or a scholar.

Friedrich Niet­zsche, Men­schlich­es, Allzu­men­schlich­es. I: § 283

The pol­i­cy of Jason Fried and David Heine­meier Hans­son at Base­camp is like­ly to be the excep­tion and most of us will have to deal with a lot of invi­ta­tions every day. That’s why it’s worth check­ing each one care­ful­ly. Some time ago, a longer absence due to ill­ness opened my eyes and gave me a help­ful guide­line for meet­ing requests: When­ev­er I would can­cel the appoint­ment with equa­nim­i­ty or even relief in the unfor­tu­nate event of a sud­den ill­ness, I now con­sid­er very care­ful­ly whether this meet­ing real­ly has to take place with me.

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