Spending too much time in meetings? Why not try this?

So many people are complaining about spending too much time in meetings at the moment, particularly now so many are now on Zoom or Teams. There is (IMHO, obv…) a solution, however…

I have seen a few proposed solutions to this issue described recently, but I’m not convinced any of them quite hit the mark. Here’s where I think they fall short.

What about only attending important meetings?

The main problem seems to be that many of the meetings we get invited to don’t seem particularly relevant — we either contribute little or nothing, or get little or nothing out of them. They simply get in the way of our “real” work.

So, the obvious thing to do would be to somehow grade meetings — which are essential. and which can be dropped? Unfortunately, this approach is doomed to failure; all meetings would be classed as important? Who would ever admit their meeting was not essential? Surely nobody is already deliberately scheduling useless (in their opinion) meetings?

We see this happening from organsations that use things like MoSCoW prioritisation; nothing is ever not “Must Have” (I have first hand experience of this — 4 years of project proposals, only 1 item that wasn’t MoSCoW “Must Have”).

What about leaving meetings if they are not useful?

I’ve worked in one or two companies where they explicitly state — often on a big poster on the meeting room walls — that you are actively encouraged to leave any meeting if you are either not contributng, or not getting anything out of it. Importantly, if you leave a meeting you are not allowed to be criticised in any way.

Cool idea. However in practice, I have never seen this work, particularly here in the UK where we feel this kind of behaviour would appear “rude”, particularly for the more introverted among us. There’s also FOMO (Fear of Missing Out…) and worries about what message it sends to more senior people in the meeting (particularly if appraisals are coming up…).

The problem is that this only works for a certain type of confident personality, and that is not everyone in an organisation. A method than dosesn’t apply fairly to everybody, even if it works, is not really acceptable.

What about having days, or weeks where no meetings are allowed?

I have seen this idea proposed a lot recently — no meetings on Fridays, or no meetings every 4 weeks, etc. — but I do have reservations. Some meetings, whatever we think, are actually important! We need to tweak that presentation for the £10m pitch on Thursday, but we can’t collaborate because it’s “no meetings Wednesday”? Hmm, not sure that’s workable in practice. What about a post-mortem on that massive production issue we just sorted? We need to do that while it’s fresh in our minds, not a week later because of an arbitrary “it’s a no meeting week” rule.

I think the real issue with this is the implicit assumption that all meetings are equally important; I doubt the number of meetings will reduce if we do this, they’ll just move to different “meetings allowed” days.

What about having meeting WIP limits?

So, as an alternative, what if we had a WIP (Work In Progress) limit on meetings? In other, non-Kanban words, what if everybody was only allowed to attend (say) 10 meetings a week, however many invites they received? In the same way that tight WIP limits can improve prioritisation and efficiency in any application of Kanban, meeting WIP limits could help prioritise which meetings are important. For anybody who has ever had a WIP limit on a Backlog, and seen how this really focusses everybody involved into only concentrating on what’s important, discarding everything else, this will seem familiar and, hopefully sensible.

As an example. Let’s say we decide on a 10 meeting WIP limit per week. We have 10 meetings in the calendar. An eleventh request comes in. We must now decide whether to accept this meeting and cancel an existing one, or cancel the new request. Suddenly, we really have to ruthlessly prioritise which meetings we go to; we have to actively not attend the ones that we get nothing out of or we won’t be able to go to the important ones. We are no longer in “accept everything as default” mode — we actively have to think quite carefully about the potential usefulness of every meeting before we accept. Or, decline…

A slight tweak could be to have a maximum limit on time for meetings; if there is a hard limit of (say) 2 hours a day for meetings, a lot of meetings would immediatey become shorter to fit them all in; how many meetings in your organisation are scheduled for an hour because it’s the default when creating them? How many need less than the full hour, but are cut short? (In a previous organisation, we changed the default on the calendar meeting set up to be 30 minutes, and all meetings suddenly and magically only lasted 30 minutes! No-one even really noticed…)

What will happen if we actually do this? Well, I suspect that people requesting meetings will suddenly start getting cancellations as their meetings get “bumped”. This will give them a clear message — “make your meetings more interesting/relevant/efficient use of time, or people won’t turn up!”. Cool, we get better meetings as well!

The most important point tho’, is people wold have to really think hard about which meetings were important and necessary, which ones are effective, which ones can convey the information or content in a better way. They would also need to think carefully about who they should invite to any meetings. Who really needs to be there, bearing in mind they probaby won’t then be able to attend another of your — potentially more important — meetings? So, like the decision to attend or not, the decision to schedule needs deep thought and consideration — no longer can we just schedule meetings.

Importantly, we would also need to think about recurring meetings — how many of these just happen through habit? Hpw many need to happen every week? In this brave new WIP limited world, each occurence needs to be carefully considered for all the same reasons as a one-off meeting.

As with everything, ruthlessly cutting down on WIP makes everythign more effective. Do less, achieve more…



Building online versions of agile workshops such as the No Estimates game, to see how close we can get to the face-to-face experience for remote or hybrid teams

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Steve Wells

Building online versions of agile workshops such as the No Estimates game, to see how close we can get to the face-to-face experience for remote or hybrid teams