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Posted on: Monday, October 13, 2008 by Rajiv Popat

When a very capable engineer and a great colleague, approached me in a project party and told me that I was turning into a meeting-man, I stopped and took a long hard look at myself. Even though he meant it as a harmless joke, it was really important for me to stop all meetings I was organizing and do some serious soul searching; instantly. From recruitment to project issues we were having too many random problems back then and every one of those seemed to warrant the need for a meeting. 

Even though that does sound like a convenient excuse to be organizing and attending a lot of meetings, the fact remains that attending and conducting too many meetings can turn you into 'the meeting man' who chatters away as others catch their zzzzz's during a meeting.

 

The folks at 37Signals have an interesting take on Meetings and refer to them as things which are toxic to productivity:

Do you really need a meeting? Meetings usually arise when a concept isn't clear enough. Instead of resorting to a meeting, try to simplify the concept so you can discuss it quickly via email or IM or Campfire. The goal is to avoid meetings. Every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead.

There's nothing more toxic to productivity than a meeting. Here's a few reasons why:

  1. They break your work day into small, incoherent pieces that disrupt your natural workflow
  2. They're usually about words and abstract concepts, not real things (like a piece of code or some interface design)
  3. They usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute
  4. They often contain at least one moron that inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone's time with nonsense
  5. They drift off-subject easier than a Chicago cab in heavy snow
  6. They frequently have agendas so vague nobody is really sure what they are about
  7. They require thorough preparation that people rarely do anyway 

Whether you're responsible for recruitment, retention, company strategy or just running multiple projects and products; arranging, conducting and being a part of a lot of meetings and calls seems natural. After all, we as humans beings are social animals. We like to connect to and interact with others. But then, as you start conducting and attending more and more meetings something creepy happens: You Get Addicted.

The idea of being a part of something grand by comfortably sitting in a chair and talking sounds much more appealing than working your ass off while trying to solve real problems. Meetings tend to give you an illusion of being in control and everything working as per plan when in reality nothing is getting done.

Try to push yourself and focus on getting things done instead of attending countless meetings where plans of saving the world or your projects are discussed. If you are getting bogged down by meetings or are leaning towards organizing too many of them, you can start by taking really simple steps:

  1. Turn Meetings Into E-Mail Trails: If you're going to be discussing controversial topic like recruitment or company strategy don't get into a meeting. Start mail threads instead. Mail is asynchronous; it gives you time to think, formalize your thoughts and put then down in a coherent, written down stream of ideas. Mail threads prevent you from getting into arguments and un-necessary confrontation during meetings. Whenever possible, replace meetings with mail trails. Specially for topics which are controversial in nature.
  2. When given a choice, lean towards one on one discussions: At an organization level it definitely makes sense to have lots of meetings and involve as many people as possible but from a productivity perspective, everyone's business is no-one's business. When picking people who are invited in a meeting less is better. What can be solved by quick face-to-face one-on-one discussion with an individual should not be turned into a meeting containing two participants. 
  3. Pull The Plug: Irrespective of what the topic is, The Folks at 37 Signals have a rather innovative answer to the problem: 'Set a 30 minute timer. When it rings, meeting's over. Period'. I would go so far as suggesting that you have a running timer flashed on a screen so everyone is well aware of the fact that time is running out and when you do run out of the pre-decided duration, pull the plug and end the meeting.

Meetings are truly like heroin of Software Development World. The more you indulge in them, the more you get addicted; even when you clearly know that they are injurious to your professional health. Don't get addicted by meetings and if you already are, try to stop attending them, now. When you do, initial withdrawal symptoms are bound to appear and the fear of having to sit down on your desk, figuring out innovative ways of finding out the status, doing some real work in a concentrated fashion might sound daunting and harder than simply going out there and talking to people, but remember, sitting down and working with a focused thought process is the only way to get things done.

Get together for a quick five minute stand up discussion with your team if you must, but next time you attend a long formal meeting ask yourself if it's really necessary or are you, in the name of good communication, just indulging yourself in an addiction which does nothing other than make you feel good about yourself and give you an illusion of being a part of something important when in reality all you are doing is wasting everyone else's and your own precious time.

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