Book: No Office » Part 1 - You are using your office wrong! » Chapter 7 - Make meetings optional | meetings.md

Chapter 7 - Make meetings optional

Change your approach to meetings completely and stop wasting everyone's time.

Meetings are so easy, so useful, so tempting…

One of the major problems for most companies affected by the COVID-19 pandemic was the way they handled meetings. They thought that because now everyone had access to video-conferencing software, they could easily replicate the same dynamic they had in the office. They continued to organize meetings.

I get it – it’s tempting. When you’re all in one office, it’s all too easy to set up a meeting. After all, everyone’s around and there’s time in everyone’s calendar, so let’s fill it up with yet another meeting, right?

I mean, meetings have so many benefits:

  • As a meeting participant, you get to show off in front of everyone how busy you are, being part of yet another meeting, contributing yet another brilliant thought, stroking your manager’s ego with a praiseful comment, while also having a few moments to catch up on email and social media.
  • As a meeting organizer, you’ve got this unique opportunity to delegate responsibility to the group and be off the hook for making an incorrect decision. It works every time – don’t know what to decide? Organize a meeting!
  • Meetings are a solution to all common team problems. No ideas? No direction? No strategy? Let’s organize a brainstorming session! Additionally, this is so good for team spirit, right?

And on top of that, make sure to invite everyone you can! Don’t forget anyone, or they’ll be offended! After all, the more the merrier, right?

Nope.

This has to stop. It’s time to approach meetings differently.

Three rules for effective meetings

Over the years, we have come up with these rules for running effective meetings:

  • Meetings are regular.
  • Meetings are optional.
  • Meetings are well-prepared.

Let me dive into all three below.

Meetings are regular

By definition, we avoid impromptu meetings. We resolve to having a few regular meetings that happen weekly, like:

  • Developers meeting every Monday at 10am for up to 1 hour
  • Directors meeting every Monday at 2pm for 1-1.5 hours
  • Support meeting every Tuesday at 9am for 1-1.5 hours
  • Design meeting every Tuesday at 2pm for up to 2 hours
  • Marketing meeting every Wednesday at 12pm for 1-1.5 hours
  • Roadmap meeting every Thursday at 3pm for up to 1 hour

The cool thing about these meetings is that they’re clearly defined. They are on our company’s calendar and everyone knows:

  • When the meeting takes place
  • What it’s about
  • Who’s assisting
  • Where the meeting takes place (we have a separate virtual room dedicated for each meeting1)

Additionally, every meeting is time-constrained and they run no longer than two hours – if we haven’t discussed everything, we move it to next week’s meeting.

For each meeting, there’s no negotiation, no RSVP, no barrier of entry. We have all agreed once on these meetings and that’s it.

The predictable pattern of these meetings helps everyone on the team plan their week, make sure they can budget time for their focused work (as discussed in Chapter 4) and have enough preparation time for each meeting (more on that below).

Now, despite these meetings being “set in stone” every week, they aren’t mandatory. Instead…

Meetings are optional

That’s right. Meetings should be completely optional. If we don’t have topics to discuss or if we feel like we’re just too busy this week and the topics can wait, we cancel the meeting. If someone cannot come to the meeting, they let others know and nobody gets offended if they don’t show up.

Whenever we cancel a meeting, we almost never reschedule it. We just cancel the meeting and we meet next time: same time next week. That’s it. Makes everything very easy.

Meetings are well-prepared

This is key. If a meeting doesn’t have an agenda, there’s no reason for this meeting to happen at all.

Agenda is not enough.

This is key. If a meeting doesn’t have an agenda, there’s no reason for this meeting to happen at all.

Further, an agenda is not enough.

Each topic on the agenda has to be written up. If nobody took their time to write up a topic, we usually don’t discuss it. There should always be a person responsible for each agenda topic.

It’s important to remember that meetings are not a time for presentations.

Presenting an idea in a meeting hardly ever makes sense. It’s better to add this idea to the agenda, write it up and let everyone read it before the meeting.

This way, during the actual meeting, we don’t waste time learning and discussing the entire topic, as everyone has read it beforehand; instead, we only focus on the points of tension, the nuances and the missing parts.

But for this to work…

Everyone has to do their homework. Everyone participating in the meeting has to read and digest the documentation prepared before the meeting.

Famously, Jeff Bezos does something similar before each meeting.2 Before they start talking, everyone reads the documentation in complete silence, and only once everyone has read it do they start to discuss topics.

It’s a good first step, but we take it to a whole new level. I personally need more time to form an opinion, so I prefer to read the documentation a few hours before the meeting to really think things through.

As discussed in Chapter 5 about writing stuff down, we use a collaborative documentation app so we can comment on each and every paragraph of a written text. This very often results in a sort of “meeting before the meeting” where we exchange comments about certain parts of the documentation before the meeting. This makes our real-time meeting so much more efficient. We’ve already argued the main points in the comments by then, so once the meeting starts, we focus on the last bits now that we’re all live and in the same virtual room.

Of course, for that to happen, the documentation has to be prepared in advance. Our rule of thumb is that the topics must be written up by the evening the day before the meeting, at the latest.

What about “Brainstorming sessions”?

Avoid them like a plague. You are not that brilliant, nor is anyone on your team, to come up with a genuinely great idea on the spot. Usually the first ideas that come to mind are crap. Good ideas require thinking time, research and focused work.

Sometimes we do a “brainstorming moment” in one of our meetings, but we limit the time for this to more-or-less 15 minutes, then we write down all the ideas that came from it and we choose a person who’s going to process these ideas and prepare an agenda item for the next week’s meeting.

What about “Status meetings”? Change them to “hangouts”!

We don’t do status meetings. Why would we? As I described in chapter 6 about banning email, we communicate in projects and tasks, so we simply need to check our system to learn the status of a project or task. There’s no need for a verbal status update.

However, as we’re an all-remote company, I want to make sure we don’t feel alone. When you don’t go to an office and don’t meet your team members every day, it might get lonely. That’s why we have our directors, developers, support and marketing meetings. These might not have many agenda items, but they usually happen anyway so that we can just see each other, say hi, share a little of what we’re working on this week… and simply reconnect with our team members.

These meetings have both the “hangout” part, where we just hang out together, and the “agenda” part, where we discuss certain topics. However, if there are not many topics to discuss, we respect each other’s time and cut the meeting short. That’s whyI previously mentioned all the meetings with “up to” times. If one week we’ve got only 1 hour of things to discuss, we don’t extend the meeting: we cut it short and get back to our work.

We try to avoid having meetings longer than two hours. It’s a magic threshold. After that amount of time, we’re just too tired to discuss anything further. The good thing about having regular weekly meetings is the fact that we very rarely have so many topics that extending a meeting beyond two hours is warranted… and after all, we can always get back to things next week. So no stress.

How many people in a meeting? As few as needed!

We make sure we don’t have too many people at our meetings. Usually more than six is too crowded. We try to make sure that nobody feels bad about not being part of a meeting, and we are very mindful of each others’ time.

Before each meeting, Steve Jobs3 looked around the conference room and checked if there were any excessive personnel in the meeting. He often just threw people out when he believed they had no reason to be there. It’s radical, but I totally get the sentiment.

We try to find the people who give the most insight for each meeting, and sometimes important people on our team don’t participate in some of our important meetings, because we’d prefer they used their time in a better way.

For example, our CTO doesn’t participate in Tuesday’s design meeting. We still receive his contribution: he reads each meeting’s agenda and the associated documents, and he gives us his feedback in comments before each meeting. In fact, this is how we ask many of our team members to provide feedback.

Again, that’s why publishing an agenda and supporting documents before a meeting is so useful. Everyone on the team can contribute with their comments, even if they don’t participate in the meeting in-person.

Remember: Write stuff up after the meeting, too!

After each meeting, one of the meeting participants posts “meeting minutes” as a comment to the meetings’ task. This ensures the entire team can read what the meeting was all about and what we’ve agreed on.

Further, all of the relevant tasks discussed in the meeting get updated, so we can move on with actionable items right after the meeting.

I keep repeating myself, but as noted in Chapter 5 – write stuff down! Especially:

Write agenda items up before each meeting and later write the conclusions. This way, everyone on the team can feel like they’ve been there and they know what’s going on.

The one thing: switch to regular, optional and prepared meetings

Avoid impromptu meetings, make meetings regular, don’t make them longer than two hours, limit the people invited and always write up agenda items before and after. This is the only way for your team members to feel in control of their calendar and to plan their time around meetings and longer stretches of focused work.

For further reading on the subject of meetings, I recommend the book Read This Before Our Next Meeting by Al Pittampali4.

  1. We use Zoom, and we have set up a different virtual room ID for each meeting. We can click on a link from the calendar entry to go to that room. Easy. 

  2. “Jeff Bezos Knows How to Run a Meeting. Here’s How He Does It. On Inc.” 

  3. One of such scenes is described by Ken Segall in his book, Insanely Simple: The Obsession That Drives Apple’s Success

  4. Al Pittampali: Read This Before Our Next Meeting 

Next: Chapter 8 - Fight, argue and commit

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