The Anti-Meeting Manifesto

Tis’ the season for much-needed productivity, but if you can’t answer, “Yes!” to these seven questions, then it’s time to say, “No” to meetings.

With less than four weeks of actual work time left in the year (thank you, holiday season!), it’s officially crunch time for many startup and expansion-stage software executives and managers.

The last thing any of those leaders needs is another meeting request to pull them away from the task at hand. Yet, meetings are far too often a daily (if not hourly) occurrence in the business world, and conventional wisdom suggests that they’re critical to a company’s ability to strategize, iterate, and problem solve.

But what if conventional wisdom is dead wrong?

“Two staples of work life — meetings and managers — are actually the greatest causes of work not getting done at the office,” writes 37Signals co-founder and CEO Jason Fried in this post for Inc.com. “When meetings are the norm — the first resort, the go-to tool to discuss, debate, and solve every problem — they no longer work.”

That’s why Fried believes meetings should be treated like salt — a sparse supplement to enhance the flavor of a dish, not a spice that should be recklessly poured over every forkful. “Too much salt destroys a dish,” Fried says. “Too many meetings destroy morale and motivation.”

The “Do I Really Need to Call a Meeting” Checklist

As we head into the holiday season and everyone’s time becomes even more precious, let’s take a second to pause and ask ourselves a very simple, but important, question: Do I really need to set up another meeting?

More often than not, the answer is probably, “No.”

So, as you prepare to fire off that next meeting invite, be sure to consider these seven questions before you click send:

1) Am I looking for a discussion, or just an update?

If it’s the latter, OpenView Analyst Nick Petri says emails, spreadsheets, and text messages should be sufficient for communicating those brief updates. If it’s the former and you absolutely need feedback before proceeding with an important decision, then it might be best to schedule a meeting — but, please, for the love of productivity, try to keep it as brief as possible.

2) Does this meeting have to happen in person?

More often than not, writes attorney Calvin Sun in this post for TechRepublic, the answer is no. Thanks to technology like web conferencing and (gasp!) the telephone, you should be able to organize a quick meeting over the web or a landline that saves people (and the company) time, money, and energy.

Tools such as wikis, blogs, and Microsoft SharePoint can also help streamline the information-sharing process, turning “meetings” into a 24/7, on-demand activity and creating a historical backlog of information that can be leveraged again and again.

3) Does everyone on my invite list really have to be involved?

At Google, meetings are capped to 10 people, while Steve Jobs had a habit of kicking the least necessary person out of a room to ensure that a meeting ran efficiently. The point? More isn’t always better when it comes to meetings and you would be well served to adopt a minimalist approach whenever you schedule or lead a meeting.

As Petri points out, excluding someone from a meeting doesn’t mean you don’t respect his or her opinion, either. It just means that different people have different responsibilities, and this particular topic doesn’t require that person’s input.

4) Is there a clear goal or result this meeting is designed to accomplish?

If not, scrap it.

As Sean Blanda points out in this article for 99U, Google’s philosophy is that important decisions should never wait for a meeting. Otherwise, the velocity of the company is often brought to a screeching halt while the meeting organizer tries to schedule a time when everyone can get together in the same place.

5) Do I have a clear decision maker confirmed to attend?

If you don’t, then what’s really the point of the meeting? The reality is that without someone present who is capable of making decisions, no tasks or takeaways from the meeting will be implementable right away, if at all.

In this post for 99U, Blanda uses Apple as a good example of this approach. At every meeting, the company requires a “DRI,” or Directly Responsible Individual, to attend. The DRI is someone who can attach his or her name to each agenda item and take responsibility for ensuring what he or she can get done.

6) Do I have a clear, realistic agenda?

Speaking of agendas, establishing one before you go into a meeting and distributing it to everyone that will be involved is critical. Not only will this process allow you to determine if a meeting really needs to be held, it will also ensure that the meeting attendees don’t deviate from the issues that need to be addressed.

7) Is there a planned hard stop time?

If there’s not, the meeting will likely run over — senselessly burning more time, energy, and, ultimately, money.

Of course, if you reach your hard stop time and the discussion or brainstorming you’re conducting is truly productive, then you shouldn’t necessarily feel required to shut it down for the sake of adhering to a pre-determined stopping point. The idea here is to respect the time of everyone in attendance and ensure that meeting conversation stays on-topic (sorry, Bob, no one really wants to hear why you think the office coffee machine sucks…).

It’s Not Too Late to Change Your Mind

checklist

We’re all business-minded here, so we understand your habitual inclination to call a meeting every time something goes wrong or when you’re suddenly inspired by a new idea or initiative.

But times have changed, and meetings are quickly becoming passé.

Thanks to a bevy of alternative communication and employee engagement tools — wikis, project management systems like Wrike and AtTask and collaboration software like Central Desktop and Basecamp, it’s easier than ever to exchange or share ideas, gather feedback, and make decisions efficiently. In many cases, using those types of applications can help you forestall the need for meetings altogether (insert celebratory fist pump).

Yes, meetings still have a purpose — namely, for major decisions and big picture brainstorming — but it’s important to remember that one hour-long, six-person meeting also means that you’re redirecting six hours of productive time that could otherwise be spent elsewhere. This time of year, what company can really afford that?

Do you agree with this anti-meeting manifesto? Share the checklist with someone you know who could use it.

Photo by Andrew Magill

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