This is a summary from a recent Twitter thread I shared (which does explain the short paragraphs, I hope).
If there‘s one thing I see most companies we work with struggle at is that most communication still happens in meetings. As they push towards a more remote culture, meetings are still the place to disseminate information and make decisions. Why is that?
But let‘s be frank here: most organizations struggle with this, whether they‘re pushing towards remote (or already claim to be), or whether everyone‘s working from one or more offices. This “culture of meetings” exists everywhere.
And a disclaimer before I go on: I‘m not here to dish out on meetings in general. They can be useful and productive. If they are both, more power to meetings!
It‘s worth looking at this from a systems perspective rather than preach that meetings should have a clear agenda, a facilitator, proper preparation of documents, and follow-ups. They should have those things, obvs.
So why are we having so many meetings? Because it costs literally nothing to schedule one. All you need to do is go to your calendar app, click a button, call the meeting a „Sync“, add a few people, and your work is done.
It doesn‘t matter whether the people you invite have time blocked on their calendar. It’s still easy to add more to their plate. They‘re likely to just say yes to the meeting, because it might be important, urgent, or they might miss out on something. Or they just want to help.
The meeting time approaches, everyone gathers, one or more people might talk, heads are nodding, everyone‘s feeling either good (you did make progress on something very important after all, right?), others might feel like their time was stolen.
People setting up meetings and other people saying yes to them is a vicious cycle. A feedback loop if you will. As long as enough people say yes and show up, why would you not keep going and schedule more meetings? Nobody‘s telling you otherwise, so you keep going.
Hey, this sounds like a systems thing. So how can we use that knowledge? We look for ways to influence the feedback loop. We need to get it to spin differently, such that meetings are only ever scheduled when they are truly the right medium for the problem at hand.
First thing we can do is say no. I know, that feels awful. After all, someone invited you to a party and you‘re not coming. And of course you can‘t just say no to all meetings. Maybe you could? You tell me.
This one is personal and structural. It‘s worth asking yourself whether you truly have anything to add or gain by being in this meeting. Or whether being their is more about making you and others feel good. Or whether they could just inform you afterwards what they decided on.
By always saying yes and always being there when someone calls, you‘re conditioning them. They‘ll know that you‘ll always respond positively to whatever they might need. You‘re giving them full permission to use your calendar at their leisure.
A calendar is just another inbox you need to maintain. And just like you (most likely) don‘t read or respond to every email or Slack message (even though you and I both know that it‘s hard to resist not reading them), you need to apply similar care to your calendar and meetings.
But here‘s the kicker: you and I know that there‘ll be little follow-up after these meetings, so you gotta be there, right? Otherwise you might truly miss out on important information or decisions. That brings me to the next thing you can do: pull a Mathias.
Next time you get a meeting invite for a meeting with no information on what it‘s about, respond to the author and ask what the purpose of this meeting is, what the agenda is, and what they think you can add to the meeting.
If none of that is clear (or clear enough), you can either decline or ask them to settle these things first and reschedule the meeting. You basically put up a little barrier of entry for folks creating meetings. Hey, we‘re back with systems, neat!
How many meetings do you have on your calendar that are called „Something Sync“? If the number is zero, I salute you! But we both know that sooner or later, it will come.
How many of these (or similar meetings you had in the past) have a clear purpose and agenda and run on time every time? If the answer is every single one of them, why are you reading this thread? Just kidding, thank you for being here!
Should you have a meeting like that on your calendar, or when it does come your way, I invite you to „pull a Mathias“ and to be the person who doesn‘t just let their calendar get clogged up with other people‘s meetings.
This is still a Quixotic effort. You need to do that with everyone sending meetings your way. And you might be known as the meeting grinch. I can imagine worse than being called that (the line is „to pull a Mathias“ for a reason, I assure you).
Meetings are a cultural issue, a set of behaviors and systems that, unless actively counteracted, will always default to more meetings, and unstructured ones at that. Here‘s where we come to the idea of well-run and well-prepared meetings.
The ultimate barrier to avoid empty meetings is to have a clear structure. If this sounds like too much process, consider it from a systems angle. The purpose of clear meeting structure is to steer the feedback loop away from meetings as time sinks.
But this barrier won‘t work without the described behaviors being lived every day. People might still default to their old ways. After all, it is still pretty cheap to schedule a meeting. So it does need people to remind these folks of the expected and established standards.
And yes, it does take time to prepare a meeting and it does take time to take care of all the follow-ups. That‘s why the default behavior is more likely to be yet another meeting. Because ain‘t nobody got time to sit down, without distraction, and write these days, right?
But through preparation and disciplined follow-up, you show everyone present that you respect and appreciate their time (and yours!). What‘s the key way of doing that? Right, you write things down. You need to schedule a meeting with yourself first and make the effort.
That brings us back to saying no to meetings. If you can be certain that you‘ll know upfront what will be discussed and that results will be shared in writing after the meeting, you can truly decide whether or not you have anything to add to the meeting.
Even with established meeting standards, someone might still need to „pull a Mathias“ every now and then, and they need to have everyone‘s support for doing so.
And to the bosses out there relying on meetings and one-on-ones to share information and updates: you do need to put in the work and write things down. Thinking about ways of managing with the highest leverage, writing things down is truly one of them.
You’re not just respecting other people’s time. You’re saving yourself a ton of meetings, freeing up time for more high leverage work. And you can be sure (or at least surer) that everyone understood the same thing when you shared the information.
Thank you for making it this far. I‘m curious to hear from you (reply on Twitter!). Have you experienced the ominous „Sync“ meeting that shows up on your calendar without a clear agenda and purpose? What‘d you do? Did you attend? Could you have said no?
What struggles are you experiencing with meetings in your organization? Too many? Or too few? Are meetings the only way information is spread in your team? What others ways exist to break a culture of meetings? Should I trademark „pull a Mathias“?
If this and similar organizational topics interest you, allow me to point you in the direction of our forthcoming book „The Intentional Organization“. And do sign up to be notified of its release!