Are we Humans or Machines, and why we need meetings

This week I read a post by Jason Fried, founder of Basecamp, “Status meetings are the scourge”. In it he talks about how much meetings cost and how they are a barrier to getting work done, linking to his TED talk on the subject.

While I agree with him on some of the issues, having recently been involved in a four-hour meeting with 11 people, a 44-hour meeting by his calculations. I still think there is validity and there are benefits of the daily stand-up in Scrum.

Jason’s premise is that by using the new “Automatic Check-ins” feature in basecamp you can do away with daily status or stand-up meetings. To me, though this makes developers like machines without any human interaction with the rest of the team.

In defence of the stand-up

If you are in a Scrum team the daily stand-up is probably one of the most well-defined meetings you have ever been to. It should have:

  • A set starting time

  • A set location

  • A set length

  • A set agenda

These are the minimum things that need to be in place to have a successful meeting.

We are human, though, and face to face contact is something that we all benefit from, it helps build our team mentality and feel good about all working towards the same goal.

The real scourge of meetings

In my day to day work, I’m not a member of a Scrum team and don’t see the structure of the daily stand-up in many of the meetings I am asked to attend. I have had days just like Jason describes in his TED talk when I have had nine meetings starting at 9am and finishing at 6pm with no gaps in between for lunch or even toilet brakes.

It is the meetings that have no agenda that are the problem, those that have no defined outcome or no set purpose. The type of meetings where someone says, “I will just put some time in the calendar”; or a regular “office hours” meeting.

The need for meetings

We can’t get away from meetings though we need them all the time; to share information, to gather feedback, to get consensus, and finally to make decisions.

I have had my fair share of meetings in the past having been a Town Mayor & District Councilor. Those experiences of local government are different to my experiences of business meetings, they are structured with a known format and defined rules. Sometimes those rules and structures can be frustrating, slowing down progress, or getting in the way of free thinking. In those meetings though decisions are always made and outcomes and actions generated.

I recently experienced possibly the most important “meeting” anyone is ever part of, undertaking jury service. It might be interesting to see how business meetings would play out if you are all locked in a room with no tea or coffee, or cigaret (for those that do smoke, both strenuous on them and others) breaks until a decision is made.

If you are calling a meeting:

  • Set a purpose: Give the meeting a title with a result action: think of; to decide X, to plan X, to generate ideas for Xbut never just: to discuss X.

  • Send an agenda: Try using a Pie Chart Agenda to visualise the amount of time to spend on each item.

  • Be prepared: if you are planning a meeting it will probably take you at least the same time to plan, send the agenda, and prepare for the meeting as the meeting itself.

  • Follow it up: once you have had a meeting send out notes of what was discussed and what actions came out of the meeting.

If you are invited to a meeting:

  • Question it: Are you really needed? Look at the agenda, if there isn’t one ask the organiser to explain why you are needed and ask for an agenda.

  • Turn up on time: Apart from it being polite, going back to the time issue, if there are 6 other people in the meeting and you are 10 minutes late you have wasted 1 hour of time.

  • Be prepared: Read the agenda and any papers before the meeting, for a 1-hour meeting it could take you up to 30 minutes to prepare.

  • Pay attention: i.e. no technology; if you are at a meeting give it your full attention or leave.

  • Follow it up: Make sure you note any actions you agree to do during the meeting, and also any that you need to be done by someone else. (Something for a future post on how I use Trello).

I have to admit I have not been keeping to these rules, but after reading that article and putting these notes down, I want to make sure I do in the future.

For more information on how to run a successful meeting checkout: