In praise of meetings

Meetings suck — that’s uncontroversial. Meetings are a pain in the ass, and a timesink.

But as a way to organize behavior, meetings are sort of like both democracy and capitalism — a really lousy, terrible idea that’s just a little bit better than any counterproposal.Here I’m talking about meetings within companies of a certain size (say, eleven or more people). Below that size, you don’t really need them to coordinate things, and of course that’s part of the startup’s secret sauce. (“Yo, I’m going to rename all the variables like this — anyone gotta problem with that?” “OK by me…”).

But let’s assume for the moment that we want to build something large, and that there exist things that are too large for a group of ten people to build. (I may get pushback on software or web properties — if so, just take an airliner or the space shuttle as your example.) Then things split into groups, inevitably, and by definition people talk to people in their own groups more than they talk to people in other groups. Each group can then act like a startup, sort of. (This goes all the way back to the Mythical Man-Month.)

Here’s where meetings shine, and are most inevitable: when you have to make a complicated decision that cuts across grouplets. Emphasis on the “make a decision” part — not “communicate”, or “explore alternatives”, or “brainstorm”, but make a decision. Your best move is to get everyone physically in the same room and hash it all out. You can of course, try other things…

Email: this is great for capturing objections, counterarguments, technical detail, etc. in a way that everyone can refer back to. It’s also really good at expanding the scope of the conversation and getting people mad at each other (lacking the usual social cues to keep things under control). What it’s lousy at is reaching closure. This is partly because of the time-shifting aspect — not everyone will be reading mail at the same time, and there’s no inherent synchronization that makes everyone ratify at the same time. Just as all but one person is agreeing, that last person is replying vituperatively to the second-to-last message in the thread, and off you go again.

Wikis/collaborative docs: These are really good for proposals, and to some extent for making comments. But I’ve never seen them used effectively for multiple people to converge on something, especially when it’s controversial.

Telecommuting/teleconferencing: Sure, maybe in that perfect videoconferencing world that is always predicted to be three years out. But “dialing in” to meetings is for the most part a lose, because the visual presence is so important — I can’t count the times that a question has come up for the lone dialed-in participant, whose response was “um, sure, but can you just give me the context of this again?” Translation: I was tuned out/playing games/writing email/folding my laundry.

I once worked in a hedge fund where my boss was a commodities trader. He had the capability to trade completely electronically, but still traded from the pit by preference. He said it was because the bandwidth of the pit was so much higher than that of his desktop — so many more bits per second, and a lot of them meaningful… We have peripheral vision for lots of reasons, but social communication has to be one of them.

Here’s the state of the art of digital meeting technology as I’ve seen it practiced: get everyone in the same physical room (max about 20), one person leads and writes down agreement on the analog whiteboard with an analog marker. At the end, you snap a photo of the whiteboard with a _digital_ camera and upload your meeting to the modern world.

There’s also a subtle morale issue involved in not having meetings. If you split people into working groups without much face-to-face contact, people’s opinion of people in the other groups begins to reliably degrade, even when everyone starts off as friends. You begin to hear the odd dark comment about the idiots in Group B, and how much their silly email demands are getting in the way of real work. The only corrective seems to be have people talk to each other.

The fact that meetings are irreplaceable for some purposes has some really negative consequences; it turns out that it matters whether people work in the same place, and come in to work, and so it matters how far away from work they live, and all sorts of physical constraints that we all hoped that the Internet would do away with still turn out to matter. At least until we get that indistinguishable-from-reality hologram projector we’re all waiting for.

1 thought on “In praise of meetings”

  1. Re : Decision Making versus Brainstorming – an excellent point. Just yesterday I was guilty of calling a Brainstorming meeting, which devolved into the inevitable “Well I think we should fly a spaceship to the moon!” – “No I think we should…” timesink.

    I’ve found that the best way to document really important meetings is by designating one reliable participant the Minutes Man/Lady. A post-meeting hyperlinked email highlighting every key decision goes a long way towards elminating the little ‘misunderstandings’ that seem to come out of many meetings.

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