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Are Meetings Really Productive?

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By Robert Nagle, Austin, Texas, July, 2001
Summary: A tongue-in-cheek look at business meetings.

While working at Dell, I spent an an extraordinary amount of time at meetings. A good number seemed to be a waste of time or could have easily taken place without me. For those meetings of value, I estimated that only 20-30% of the time was actually helpful to my productivity.

Actually, that is not bad. Lack of communication between team members and departments often caused resources and time to be wasted on work no longer necessary or relevant. Attendence was often pro forma, but often it was enough to go to these meetings to make sure nothing dramatic had changed. A manager feels obligated to invite you to keep you "inside the loop," and you feel obligated to stay in that loop whether you like it or not. An overly nice manager can invite you to too many meetings, while another manager can be downright stingy about invitations. I can truthfully say that some of my most important meetings were ones I never was invited to and only heard about later.

As a technical writer, I was often glad to go to meetings. It was a chance to come face to face with developers and learn about a project's current status. It was also a way to hear about new acronyms and new projects (I averaged two new acronyms per meeting). Although most meetings were a waste of time, quite a few were not, and it was hard to predict beforehand which of these would be worthwhile.

I've noticed that about 3/5 of meeting attendees are bored or just glad to be away from their desk. Their role is basically to twiddle their thumbs and look alert. Usually one person is in the hot seat; it is usually a manager or person giving a presentation.

Bringing donuts or cookies is a great way to liven up a meeting. I knew many a manager who as an incentive to increase attendence would announce beforehand that the meeting would have refreshments. That usually brought people, but it also caused people who had no reason to be there to show up just for the food. These kind of meetings usually were productive (and fun), but usually the person who brought the refreshments had the unpleasant duty of cleaning up afterwards.

donut
    Geek Bribes

Dell used the scheduling features of Outlook for making meetings. Say what you will about Microsoft, but using Outlook to schedule meetings was a terrific time-saver * . It is probably the best thing about Microsoft Office. I never was a stickler about keeping a personal calendar until Outlook. I got to the point where I thought nothing of sending an email invite to the person sitting 5 feet away from me. Removing recurring appointments was often a great bother, so in my laziness I often had "phantom appointments" on my calendar for projects cancelled long ago. Probably the coolest thing about Outlook calendar was being to access it from home or to download it into your PDA. That allowed you to decide the night before whether to stop for hotcakes at MacDonalds on the way to work.

I always enjoyed meetings that talked about other meetings I hadn't attended. Sometimes, two or three members had been at the meeting and offered postmordem analyses (causing me to wonder about whether they did the same thing about this meeting at other meetings). Sometimes I would go to one meeting and end up hearing the dope on three or four others.

The best meetings tend to have only 5 or 6 people and last for about one hour. A good manager usually knows when to cut short a debate. I'd heard my share of ideological debates, and most of them were pretty pointless after 3 or 4 minutes, especially when it involved some arcane programming call or network protocol. The two people who actually understood the issue would shout at each other, while the rest would doodle on their notepads or mentally deliberate over options for lunch. Interestingly, meetings were not really good places for making decisions. Distractions and other side issue tended to pollute the air. But meetings were excellent places to extract commitments from team members and provide opportunities for coworkers to lodge objections to a plan moving forward.

Meetings also were great for brainstorming. Those kinds of meetings were usually the most animated and productive. The catch is that afterwards one or two people need to condense the suggestions into something workable and make a decision unilaterally. Group decisions tend to be conservative, timid and ineffective.

I've always been intrigued by people who teleconference into the meeting when they only work in the next building (Are they allergic to sunlight?). On the other hand, it allows you to surf the net and answer email (ahem, I mean "work") while being able to perk your ears when something important is discussed. Etiquette Tip: Don't take another call while teleconferencing. What happens is that you put the meeting on hold, causing the people physically at the meeting to hear the corporate Muzak blaring loudly on the meeting room's speakerphone. In the recent year or so, I've noticed that more people are bringing laptops with wireless connections into meetings. Oh, the possibilities for distraction are endless!

Here are some tips for having effective meetings.

  1. Make sure team members understand the order in which items will be discussed. That allows people to decide which portions of the meeting to duck into or out of. Trust me. It's for the best of everyone.
  2. If someone invites you to a meeting you don't normally attend, try to identify beforehand whether you are expected to go FYI or to play an active role in giving information. Several times I've gone to meetings where --surprise! surprise! -- I was expected to provide information. Once I scheduled an informational meeting with a developer only to realize that the developer knew even less about the project than I did.
  3. If a key person is not at the meeting, it is better to cancel the meeting than to make the feeble attempt to have the meeting anyway. When the big cheese isn't there, coworkers are constantly referring to his or her work and using his absence as an excuse not to make a decision about anything.
  4. If you are at a meeting with 5 people or less and you are completely lost, ask a lot of questions. If you are at a meeting with 10 people or more and are completely lost, say nothing throughout the meeting and try to take good notes. Then later on, take a colleague aside and ask him/her to explain what the hell everyone was talking about.


** I've heard that Linux's version of "Outlook", Evolution is supposed to be very good as well.









Robert Nagle is an available technical writer and trainer living in Austin, Texas. He has also taught at business colleges overseas and worked in consulting.



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