Too many meetings (or why it’s time to optimize your scrum ceremonies)

I recently was hanging out with my brother and had the opportunity to be a silent observer of a sprint retrospective in action.

This was similar to other retros I’ve been a part of. The team seemed enjoy each other’s company and had meaningful discussion, but there was one major issue that was brought up.

Too many meetings. Too much context-switching. Not enough time to write code.

I found this a bit comical as it was literally a meeting about meetings.

Virtually every company I’ve ever worked for has used scrum (or a permutation of it), throwing out certain aspects, while keeping other rituals like a daily standup intact. I find many aspects of scrum to be extremely helpful (the daily standup being one of them), but I’d like to focus on how scrum can inadvertently create meeting culture and what you can do to save your team’s sanity.

No one does this in meetings…

Typical Scrum Meetings

Let’s first start digging in by looking at specific scrum rituals (also known as ceremonies). Some of you may say, “these aren’t supposed to be meetings”, but the reality is that these turn into meetings. Some are critical, others…not so much.

Sprint Planning Meeting

First up on the list is a planning meeting, which happens on the first day of the sprint. This meeting is focused on what will be built during the sprint, while the second aspect is how the team will build the thing.

The time cost involved with this meeting depends on the length of the sprint, but can be 1–4 hours (I’m reading some people think it’s okay if this is 8 hours, which seems insane).

I rarely hear people complain about planning meetings, mostly because this a necessity and from my view, unavoidable. If you have a team of 6 people who make $100k annually, a one-hour sprint planning meeting will cost $420 per sprint (p.s. — I will use this calculator to run time cost estimates for the rest of the article). Keep in mind, this estimate does NOT include the cost of context-switching.

Daily Standup

Next is the daily standup, which is supposed to last 15 minutes and happens on a daily basis. For those unaware, a daily standup is focused on each person answering the following questions:

  • What did I accomplish yesterday?
  • What am I doing today?
  • Where am I stuck (what blockers exist?)

I’ve found the daily standup to be helpful for a variety of reasons (built-in accountability, sense of progress as a team, identifying and helping others who may be blocked, etc).

From a time-cost perspective, if you have a team of 6 people (making $100k/yr) who spend fifteen minutes daily, this is $525/week in time-cost. If you estimate the cost of context-switching to be an additional 15-minutes/day for each person, this adds up to ~$1,050/weekly or $4,200/month.

(if you think I’m going to suggest cutting out daily standups completely, please keep reading).

Sprint Review

Next, we have the sprint review, which is focused around what the team accomplished throughout the sprint, including clicking the things and demoing the features to stakeholders.

Once again, the time cost depends on the efficiency of the team. Let’s be conservative and say the meeting lasts an hour. Once again, for a team of six people this will be about $420 per sprint, excluding context-switching costs.

Sprint Retrospective

Finally, we have the sprint retrospective. This process is focused on examining how the work was completed. Traditionally, these meetings are focused around answering the following questions:

  • What worked well?
  • What could be improved?
  • What will we commit doing in the next sprint?

For a one-hour sprint retrospective, the time-cost is $420 per sprint, excluding context-switching costs.

Monthly Cost of Sprint Meetings

At this point, let’s plug-in some numbers. For a team of six who operates in two-week sprints, the cost of these sprint ceremonies is $6,720 per month.

I’d argue that this is a very conservative estimate.

More Meetings: When things REALLY start to break

Here’s where things really start to break down. It’s a common occurrence for scrum teams to have other meetings (could be regularly scheduled or ad-hoc) that they need to attend as well. Examples provided below:

1–1 meetings

1–1 meetings are typically 30-minute conversations between a team member and the manager that happen once every week (or bi-weekly). Unlike team meetings, 1–1s are much more private and it ends up being a very different conversation as a result. These frequently feel like coaching sessions.

Another stock photo, but one that’s a 1–1 meeting.

For a team of six, if the team leader holds 1–1s with five people on their team weekly, the cost is $70 per session, which is $350/week, or $1400/month.

Ad-hoc meetings

This next section is tough to estimate and depends on the nature of the work being completed, the team/company dynamic, and other factors.

For the purpose of example, let’s say each person on your team spends an hour/week in an ad-hoc meeting. On a monthly basis, the time cost ends up being $280/mo per person. For a team of 6, this is $1,680/month.

Company-wide meetings

Finally, there’s company-wide meetings, which could occur frequently (weekly) for smaller organizations, or monthly for larger ones.

Let’s say this adds an additional two hours/month for each person ($140/per person or $840/mo).

Congratulations, you have accidentally created meeting culture.

If your team of six matches the cadence outlined above, you will spend $10,640/monthly on scrum & other meetings, excluding context-switching costs (with the exception of the daily standup). This could easily be $20k/mo in time cost.

And we wonder why engineers say they have too many meetings?

I want to be clear and say that many of these meetings are necessary (if not critical) to your performance as an individual or team.

With that being said, there’s a ton of room to make improvements. I’ve outlined a few ways to think about this in the next section.

Reducing your meeting burden

There’s a few variables that can reduce the burden of meetings for your team (outlined below):

  • Eliminate the meeting completely
  • Reduce the time spent in meetings
  • Reduce the number of people in the meeting
  • Hold the meeting asynchronously

There are upsides/downsides to making the changes above. There are also some meetings which you have very little control over (i.e. — the company meeting), but there are other meetings which you have complete control over.

Let’s unpack a few examples of how you can reduce your meeting burden, with a particular focus on the areas where you have the most control.

Hold daily standups asyncronously

Daily standups are one of the most costly meetings, even though they are the quickest. The information relayed is incredibly valuable, but I’d argue that this can happen asynchronously over Slack (read more about holding slack standups). There’s plenty of apps you can use to make this process easy too. If you need to have an in-person meeting to discuss a blocker, that can happen between the relevant parties, not the entire team.

Same outcome, less time (and context switching).

Reduce the time spent in 1–1 meetings

The headline of this section may scare you, but the first ten minutes of every 1–1 I’ve ever had revolves around asking the question, “what’s going on?” This is typically an attempt by the manager to get an understanding of the agenda for the discussion, but tends to waste a bit of time.

If the employee shares an agenda beforehand, you can virtually eliminate the first ten minutes of the meeting.

Same outcome, less time.

Reduce the time spent in sprint retrospectives

Sprint retros are a helpful exercise, but one thing that drives me nuts about this process is how a team spends 10–15 minutes writing things down. This data gathering process doesn’t need to happen in a meeting. You can collect this feedback over the interwebs.

In fact, I’ve spent the last two years building a tool to help this process too and the data you gather online is much richer (and honest) compared to collecting it in-person. It’s amazing what feedback you can get when you give people time to collect their thoughts.

If you collect feedback over the internets, you can still have the meeting if you’d like, but it can be much, much more efficient. Instead of data gathering, you can jump right into the meaningful discussion.

Wrapping up

I’m sure you can think of additional ways to reduce the burden of meetings. A few final thoughts:

  • Estimate the time cost of each meeting you have, is it worth it?
  • Identify ways to reduce the length of the meeting
  • If a meeting is about relaying information, can this be done asynchronously?

Meetings can be a valuable way to align a group of people (or reach consensus), but take some time to optimize them. Your team’s sanity depends on it.