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On Embracing Meetings

Change your attitude before complaining about too many meetings

What does your schedule look like today? Chances are you have at least a few meetings sprinkled throughout your calendar. On top of that, most of us believe meetings are a massive time sink. No wonder he have the following reaction when we look at a busy day: “Oh my gosh, I hate meetings! Why can’t I just have a couple hours sitting at my desk?”

I am pretty sure we have all thought this way. You do not have to look hard to find a ton of articles claiming meetings are bad. Some might even argue we should strive for not having any meetings at all. People are literally afraid of moving from a maker to a manager schedule, and fear they will die a little inside.

I hate bad meetings as much as everybody else. I fully believe we need to try our best to kill all unnecessary meetings and improve the necessary ones. But I have also come to accept and embrace group conversations as a place to do great work. And I believe you can too.

Why We Need Meetings

There is a very simple reason why we started coming together and discuss all kinds of topics as groups:

A single person does not know everything and needs help from others in order to figure out a complex system or problem.

Even if you are the most successful CEO or you have invented a whole new industry, you could not have done it without the help from others. And for most complex topics, nothing beats a good old brainstorming or white-boarding session.

The aim is to successfully develop an elaborate system or idea together. You need to able to bounce ideas off each other. Maximise the combined creativity without having to wait for replies via email or chat. Nothing works better than locking a handful of people in a room to work through it.

For me, this is the most important reason to come together as a group. There are, of course, other types of meetings that can be beneficial. However — as we will see in a moment — it is mostly those that we have to come to hate.

Why We Hate Meetings

Given there is a great reason to have meetings, where do all these negative impressions come from? Turns out we helped quite a bit by introducing some really bad habits along the way:

  • The more the merrier. Or so the old saying goes. Sadly, most people think this is also true for meetings. Which is why we invite lots more participants than we actually need.
  • Being scared of saying No. Most of us are nice. Saying No to someone is hard. Pressing the Accept button on an invite is easy, and it makes everybody happy. Right?
  • No Agenda. Have you heard of the single responsibility principle used in software engineering? It sadly is not applied to meetings. Often there is no clear goal or agenda for a meeting, which means we can and will talk about everything and anything.
  • Meeting shift workers. Do you have at most one hour between catch-ups? Are these gaps mostly filled with checking emails and slack, or other shallow work? Then you are missing out on the good stuff. Creative people need prolonged periods of time focused on a single task to do their best work. And that includes managers.

All of these sub-optimal behaviours made things way worse than they should be. No wonder we have all come to despise these innocent looking rectangles in our calendars. Most of the time we do not have to be there. One the off chance it does make sense for us to attend, the discussion goes off topic. And even in the rare case the meeting is on topic and relevant, it is interrupting our two hours of focused work time.

Stop Complaining, Change Your Attitude Instead

So we are in a bad situation, and there is no quick fix. The easy response is to just accept the situation, fall in line with the rest, and start complaining about how awful meetings are. Problem solved. Well, not quite. Imagine only half of your team having that kind of attitude and it should be no surprise we get frustrated before the day even starts. But what would happen if we take a more positive approach?

Instead of complaining about how bad meetings are, begin to embrace them as an opportunity to do great work.

I understand this will not magically solve all the issues, but it is giving every meeting a fair chance of success. By treating your calendar commitments as opportunities to be productive, you will be surprised by how much more you get out of them.

Good Behaviours

This change of mindset is a good start, but we can do better. In order to be more efficient, let us combine it with some very basic behaviours you should adopt:

  • No distractions. Close your laptop. Put away your phone. Either you are fully engaged with the group or you leave and do your work somewhere else. Everyone will be better off that way.
  • Steer when possible. Almost all meetings will — at some point — drift off topic. Every participant has important issues and wants to talk about them. When it happens, do you zone out and reach for your phone? Or do you try and bring the discussion back on topic? The latter not only keeps you engaged, it also increases the chances of a productive meeting.
  • Prepare & Participate. Do not rock up to a discussion just because you are curious. Spend some time beforehand preparing and forming an opinion. If you realise you are not invested enough, do not show up.

Meeting Rules

Everybody can follow these simple behaviours, whether you are facilitating or participating. And in case you are the organiser, there are some more rules you can adopt which can make your meeting more productive:

  • Lead by example. As soon as you as the facilitator drops the ball, you give everybody else permission to join in. Follow the good behaviours described above and others will too.
  • Set an agenda, and share it at least 24h before the meeting. Encourage everyone to come prepared. This will get your discussion off to a flying start and you can use it to steer the discussion back on topic.
  • Start small. Only invite those you absolutely need. If you are unsure, leave them out. In the worst case, you will have to bring more people in during the discussion.

Summary

Is there a thing as too many meetings? Most definitely. Do most of our meetings are run in a bad way? Very likely. But instead of just accepting the situation, let us try our best to make things better and us happier.

Follow good meetings habits and improve your behaviour. Most importantly though, you should adjust your attitude and embrace meetings as an opportunity to do great work.

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Tom Sommer

Tom Sommer

Writing about Leadership and Personal Development. Director of Engineering @ Redbubble.