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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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Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

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