Is ‘Meeting’ Really a Dirty Word?

Is ‘Meeting’ Really a Dirty Word?

Group Meeting

Just the other day at stand-up, I heard a dev team member say: “Yesterday I didn’t get anything done. I had a day of meetings.” As the team’s coach, I said nothing at the scrum, but took the opportunity afterwards to ask a question of the team: “Have you heard of ‘The Law of Two Feet’?”

I received many questioning glances. So I elaborated:

  • If you see a meeting as an opportunity to connect, learn, educate, share, collaborate and/or inspire, then by all means, use your two feet to join it.
  • On the other hand, if you find no value in a meeting (proposed or in progress), be polite and see if you can get things on a better track. If not, use your two feet and walk away. (Feel free to steal a line my friend Jay Hrcsko uses: “Excuse me. I have to return some videotapes.”)

I don’t read the minds of my teammates, but I’m pretty sure at least a few folks thought that I had finally gone off the deep end. “Don’t show up or (gasp) walk out of a meeting that an SVP called?!”

They’d rather sit there, multitasking, pretending to be engaged? Maybe I need to print up some get-out-of-jail-meeting-free cards.

Only Two Kinds of Meetings

Let’s cut to the chase: there are only two kinds of meetings: good meetings and bad meetings. That’s it. Nothing really in between. Sure, we could start to subdivide the good meetings into types: alignment, creation, one-on-ones, etc. But let’s stick with big buckets.

Good Meetings

There’s a simple formula to evaluate if what you’ve been invited to / are attending is a good meeting. It’s a formula that I learned from Lyssa Adkins: Good Meetings = P+O+W+E+R

  • Purpose: Is there a clear, anticipated purpose to this meeting? For example, make decisions, solve problems, exchange ideas and information. Do we plan to discuss the “right stuff”? Is there a selective agenda? (An upfront purpose doesn’t rule out the possibility of some good improv….)
  • Outcome: Are we all clear on what we expect to gain, produce, decide, solve or get as a result of this meeting?
  • WIIFM: Do I know what’s in it for me? Will I gain value? Will I provide value? Am I interested in the items on the agenda? Will this empower me and / or my team? In his book, “The Agile Team Facilitator,” Martin Alaimo breaks the WIIFM variable of the formula into two parts: recognition and attraction. These tell each invitee why their participation is important, and explains the benefits they can obtain by showing up.
  • Expectations: Are things like start time and end time clearly communicated? What kind of preparation is needed? Is there sufficient time to prepare? Is everyone clear on the decision-making process (e.g., majority vote, full consensus, consensus minus one, unanimity, etc. See Decision Making Patterns for Teams)? Are there clearly communicated expectations about listening? How about actually showing up? If you aren’t in a culture where all meetings are optional, clarify things.
  • Roles: Will everyone who needs to be there actually be there? Who’s facilitating the meeting (some folks call this role the referee)? Who’s leading which topic on the agenda? Who’s taking notes? Who’s the timekeeper? Who owns each action item produced? (Another sign of a good meeting is that we don’t have to have it a second time.)

Bad Meetings

There’s an even simpler formula to tell if you’ve got a bad meeting arising: 

  • Ask, “Can what this meeting is attempting to accomplish be done any other way?”

If the answer is “yes” – you’ve got a bad meeting. Or as VM Brassuer defined it many years ago: Selfish, Haphazard, Informational and Tardy. Which has a nice acronym to it. Those are the meetings you don’t want to step into.

First: Consider Asynchronous Communication

Before you go ahead and schedule that next meeting simply out of habit, pause and figure out its purpose. You might start by roughing out an agenda. When you have that, ask yourself: Is there another way we can address these items beside having a meeting? For example, would some other communication method like chat, email, wiki, etc. work just as well, if not better?

The advantage of async communication methods over a scheduled interruption – whoops, a meeting – is that the “conversation” can easily be quarantined. Someone who doesn’t mind being interrupted can monitor these channels and respond – if they choose – in near real time.

Someone who is in the zone can minimize their Slack/HipChat/email window, turn on DND and respond at their leisure. (See Disturb / Do Not Disturb.) 

A word of advice: when you go async, make sure your communication style is actionable. Don’t rush things. After all, you’ve got extra time now that you don’t have to go to a meeting. Use it well. (See Slowing Down to Speed Up – Effective Asynchronous Communication.) 

When You’ve Ruled out the Impossible... Have a Meeting

It seems to me that Sutherland and Schwaber must have had an aversion to meetings. They avoided the word completely back in 1995 when they codified Scrum. The framework has a number of prescribed events that to the uneducated observer look a lot like dreaded “meetings.”

These events or ceremonies really are accomplished best via synchronous communication and discussion: retrospectives / post-mortems, 1-1 reviews, sprint planning, kick-offs, backlog estimating, demos. Add in monthly and quarterly strategic planning sessions and yep, we’ve got ourselves some meeting time.

So why don’t we make the best of use of that time and, like any good agilist, inspect and adapt how we are using it?

Feedback Loops

Find out how your meeting went by using a retro technique from Growing Agile. Reserve the last two to five minutes and ask the participants:

  • Was this meeting valuable? Why or why not?
  • Did you pay attention all the time? Why or why not?
  • Did everyone else pay attention all the time? Why or why not?
  • Which parts felt great? Why?
  • Which parts felt awkward or odd? Why?

 If you don’t yet have sufficient psychological safety so that people will vocalize their thoughts, hand out sticky notes instead. Ask people to populate a feedback wall, right next to the exit door.

The Value of Synchronous Communication

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t yet found a way to get rid of meetings completely. And I’m not sure that should be the goal, although I heard someone say that was their definition of a successful agile transformation: No meetings!

Cut meeting time in half, and then half again? Yeah, I can do that. I’ve made it a point to schedule short meetings. If I think we need 30 minutes, I’ll schedule 20. An hour? I’ll book 50 minutes. But get total meeting time to zero? Unlikely.

Planned, as well as ad-hoc synchronous, communication, aka meetings, reduce the potential for misunderstanding (provided folks say what they mean and mean what they say). Good meetings provide the opportunity to come up with meaningful solutions to difficult problems, to collaborate, to get to a point of common understanding efficiently – more so than 20 back and forth Slack, JIRA or GitHub comments.

Good meetings help make sure teams don’t just “get stuff done” but that they get the right stuff done at the right time. Your time is a limited resource, use it, along with your two feet, wisely.


Andy Cleff is an experienced and pragmatic agile practitioner. He take teams beyond “getting agile” to “embracing agile” via mentoring, coaching and facilitation.

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