Does Management REALLY Mean Death by Meeting?


Image Courtesy of Richard Rutter


I’ve been trying to figure out best practices for, well, just getting stuff done with other people.  Somehow, it seems like we use email when we should use a meeting, a meeting when we should use a quick face-to-face, and a quick face-to-face when we should use email.  I’m constantly left feeling somewhat, uh, unsatisfied with the way we get things done, and I’m using this post to try to figure it out.  Any and all insight would be appreciated!

Email Errors

Last week, a coworker & I went out for lunch, grabbed a beer, and took 30 minutes to figure out a transition process.  (A transition process that we and others were actually pretty darn happy with, actually.)  Had we tried to do this via email, it would have taken eight thousand years, and I’m not sure we would ever have gotten it done. Yes, we did some prep work via email and drop-bys (and I am a Salesforce data geek, as we found out), but we got it done much more efficiently in a quick meeting than we ever could have done it via email.

I was also part of an email chain last week where we could have cut through it with a couple of cubicle drop-bys.  In fact, I got so sick of the email chain that I started walking around the office and talking to the people involved just so we could get the darn thing done.

Face-to-face Follies

That’s not to say that everything can or should be done face-to-face.  We have a bunch of consultants and salesfolk here who are almost impossible to get in front of–they’re on the phone constantly.  As such, email is absolutely vital for communication.  I’ve also been known to wander the office for many minutes looking for the person with whom I want a quick chat, only to forget about it after I got back to my desk.  Email can be vital for in-the-moment communication, so that nothing gets lost or forgotten.  Email can also include lots of parties and save people from having to wait for three weeks in order to put a meeting on everyone’s calendars.

At the very least, it’s a good idea to chat with someone face-to-face, return to your computer, and send a follow-up email to make sure everyone both remembers the conversation and is on the same page.  You can also loop in folks who weren’t part of the conversation but should be aware of its occurrence.

Meeting Madness

As you can see from above, I definitely think that quick meetings have their times and places, but should be minimized overall.  If you have one-way “vital” information, an informal “pull someone into the conference room” can often do the trick.  (As I write this, I realize that I’ve scheduled several meetings already today–all of which involved multiple people or really needed the 1:1 sit-down function of a meeting.  No, really!)  I think it’s entirely too easy to decide to schedule a meeting rather than communicate more openly and constantly.    But overall, I’m still trying to figure out the threshold for holding a meeting vs. one of the other communication efforts above.

Does anyone have any ideas?  Do you have any specific “I hold a meeting when…” criteria?  Please share!

6 thoughts on “Does Management REALLY Mean Death by Meeting?

  1. It sounds like the positive meetings you’re referring to are one-on-one. It may well be that it’s increasing the number of participants that gradually transforms a purposeful, useful meeting into a capital-M Meeting with all its attendant horrors.

  2. Great post, Jenn. I have the exact same frustrations, some of the same findings, and no awesome ideas 😉

    What I tend to do with meetings, if you have to have them at all, try to make sure everyone agrees on a concrete goal for the meeting. I try to make it so it’s not just a discussion that can disappear into meaningless meandering.

    Personally, I try to default to email first, at least to try it. I like that because email is async and people can respond at their leisure. If I see that the email thread is not converging, or verging off-topic, then I often try a quick face-to-face, unscheduled chat. If that fails, I go to a meeting.

  3. Timely post Jenn. I think you have to decide if the communication needs to be re-inforced, further explained beyond the e-mail or is an issue that has to be dealt with face to face. You don’t always have to schedule a formal meeting. For example, I have situation in which an e-mail was sent that moved duties between individuals without any background or reason for the change. This has led to speculation about why the change is occuring. In response, I will be pulling 5 engineers into a conference room to explain the reasoning behind the change in an effort to end the speculation.

  4. Hi, Jenn. Definitely a topic that is worth considering and a really hard one to figure out. To highlight Yoav’s point, I think the number one problem with meetings is the purpose is rarely well-communicated (if that’s a word). This presents 2 problems. First, to Yoav’s point, the danger of going astray is far greater if the goal is unknown and second, it sort of sets the meeting up for failure because expectations going into the meeting could vary immensely.

    There is nothing fundamentally wrong with meetings. They can be quite useful, as we all know. It’s how they are structured and organized that makes them succeed or fail.

  5. As Yoav suggests, it’s vital to understand what the purpose of a meeting is. If it’s an informational meeting (one-to-many communication), that can sometimes be covered by email, but it’s useful to do in-person occasionally so that questions can be asked. If it’s a get-something-done meeting, smaller is better – only people who are vital to achieving the goal should be there. One-on-one adhoc meetings are great for “taking the temperature” of how things are going. And so on.

    I also think that regularly scheduled meetings are almost always a bad idea, because they take on their own momentum rather than helping anybody accomplish anything. Any such meeting should have to defend its existence regularly or be deleted from the schedule – deletion is often handy to determine if anybody actually misses the meeting.

  6. Unfortunately, in most companies, yes. However, during my time at the Hub, Volpe used to have Marketing ‘scrum’ meeting while standing up and that seemed to cut down time. It also felt and also felt very transparent, which I liked. My solution? Meetings that last 15 min with a tight agenda. Anything else, discuss over email or im.

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