Meetingitis

More often than not, meetings are abused. Let me tell you a short story to help you understand why you should prepare your next meeting if you expect me to attend.

The story

I was invited to a meeting through a Google Calendar invitation. The subject of the invitation was vague, and it contained no description or agenda. A similarly vague email was sent an hour before the meeting, but still, no specific agenda was provided. Unsurprisingly, absolutely nothing was accomplished during that meeting. Time wasted: 1 hour × 5 people. Casualties: 5, dead by meeting.

Another meeting was initiated much the same way, with an unspecific Google Calendar invitation. I requested a specific agenda, and said I would enforce my new rule: No agenda, no meeting. A few "topics of discussion" were added, which was better than nothing.

When the meeting came, random stuff was discussed for an hour, random ideas discussed and thrown in all directions, without any regard for the supposed agenda. All but one participant1 felt the meeting was productive (see why below). Some vague "next steps" were written down, but all were left unassigned.

Yet another meeting was initiated with an introductory email (a real email, not a Google Calendar invitation) that already included a clear agenda. The agenda contained a list of specific issues to solve during the meeting, and a list of actions that required everybody's presence. The email included a link to a doodle planner.

Five out of the six guests provided their availability through the planner; the sixth (who was traveling overseas) did so by IM after a personal reminder from the meeting caller2. The latter prepared a detailed wiki page and sent the link to the attendees in advance.

The meeting was run in a respectful but firm manner. All items on the agenda were addressed, all issues solved. All the participants felt the meeting was productive. Specific action items were explicitly identified, scheduled and assigned; the meeting caller sent a follow-up email to the attendees, thanking them for their participation, and including a link to the notes and the list of action items.

Why is the latter example the rarest?

De Conventibus

There seems to be a widespread plague of meetingitis, caused by a mix of laziness, and belief that More Brains is better.

First, laziness. More often than not, a meeting is just a way for people to avoid doing their homework. Most useless meetings I have been drawn into have had no preparation whatsoever. It's simply much easier to throw a bunch of people into a room and have them discuss to death, than to take some of your own time, organize your thoughts and prepare it to save everybody else's time.

Recently, a volunteer (rightfully) argued on the Wikimedia developers mailing list3 that concentrating Wikimedia tech staff in San Francisco was the best way to exclude remote staff (whether or not they're calling in) and worldwide volunteers. Similarly, concentrating staff in one location makes meetings way too easy, which means meetings get abused.

Most people who call a meeting have only a vague idea of what they want it to accomplish. They simply believe meeting will solve the issue, because then the work and responsibility are shared with other people. But, as has been amply demonstrated, throwing people into a room to "discuss" something, with no agenda and no guidance, rarely leads to any tangible outcome.

In this context, more is rarely better. For example, it's been long proven that group brainstorming sessions only appear to be productive4. In fact, not only does group brainstorming not foster creativity, but it can even hinder it5.

Until now, I've assumed good faith, because most meeting callers probably aren't even conscious of what they should (or shouldn't) do.

They shall learn.

Notes and references

  1. I'll let you guess who that was.
  2. I'll let you guess who that was, too. Hint: the answer is the same as above. And this third meeting actually happened before the two others.
  3. Community vs. centralized development, Aryeh Gregor, wikitech-l, September 2, 2010.
  4. Perception of Performance in Group Brainstorming: The Illusion of Group Productivity. Paul B. Pauhus, Mary T. Dzindolet, George Poletes, L. Mabel Camacho. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, February 1993, vol. 19 (1) p.78-89. doi: 10.1177/0146167293191009.
  5. Collaborative fixation: Effects of others' ideas on brainstorming. Nicholas W. Kohn, Steven M. Smith. Applied Cognitive Psychology, March 2010. doi: 10.1002/acp.1699.