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How to have less meetings

Meetings are such a common cause of misery that we bond over them.  If you ever find yourself in an awkward silence with a programmer, all it takes is a “Meetings, amirite?” and within no time you’re best pals.  We groan at the bureaucracy and busywork of planning and attending meetings when all we really want is to get things done. Yet they are generally tolerated as a necessary evil.  What’s going on here? The unfortunate fact is: we are addicted.

Yes, meetings are addictive, in the worst kind of teeth-falling-out giant-lobsters-are-following-me way.  Don’t be emboldened just because you see the cool kids and the mayor of a major metropolis getting away with it. You are not going to be so lucky.

So it’s time to kick the habit, but how on earth do we possibly do that?

First, let’s rule out the obvious. You won’t have less meetings simply by scheduling less meetings.  If that’s all you do, you’ll only end up backsliding into emergency meetings (the hard stuff).

Now I hear you say “It’s those other people that make me need to have meetings.” “I can stop any time I want.” “All well and good for you to go meeting-free, you don’t know the kind of stuff I have to deal with.”  

These are classic denial behaviours of someone with a problem.

You may perceive that a lot of your meetings truly are necessary.  They probably are.  The key is in recognising that the reason they are necessary is due to a prior breakdown in communication. Something lead you to the point where your only option was to interrupt a group of people and put them in a room together.

Think of a meeting you had recently.  When you look closely, can you see traces of any of these prior failures of communication?  If you had access to a time machine, what would you have to change in order for meeting to have never even been needed?

I was lucky enough to have stumbled upon a solution in a roundabout way.  It all changed one dark night, when my walk home was suddenly interrupted by a car pulling up beside me.  With a hiss of steam Doc Brown leaned out of the hatch. “Get in! There aren’t many roads where we’re going“, he said. Wait… I’m getting confused with the movies, that was just a creepy guy with crazy white hair and a prius.  Just keep walking if you see him.

But I digress. My point is, I began doing something which would change the course of my future. Something very simple, and yet it had a Deep Impact.  Just like that time wh- no, movies again. Let’s keep going.

What was it I did? I started keeping a journal.

Dear Diary…

It began very simply. I kept everything in a single file, and whenever I was starting something, making progress on something, finding interesting links – I just added an entry to the journal. If I had a conversation with someone or just some random thought popped into my head, into the journal it went.

The trick for me was to make the method of entry as mindless as possible. Append-only, fire-and-forget. No question about how I should categorise it, or what tags to use. When you write to other people you inevitably filter in order to make it relevant and meaningful to them, but writing to yourself removes this extra overhead. Just dump it.  Writing this way means you don’t engage the critical part of your brain, which would quickly derail your train of thought.

Image: example of writing journal entries

The next big benefit came when I invited others into my journal.

At X-Team we are 100% distributed so we use Slack as our primary form of communication, but most group chat tools will work just as well for this. I created a private channel for my journal and invited the rest of my core operations team. Now whenever there was a journal entry that related to my work in that team, I pasted it into the chat.  Suddenly my team mates could see a little glimpse into what was going on in my head.  With only a tiny amount of extra effort they had a significant gain in awareness of how my various activities were panning out.

Soon after, a pleasantly surprising thing happened: I noticed one, then another, then another of my team mates creating their own journals.  Off their own bat they had recognised the benefits of this form of communication and were trying it out for themselves.

Usually when people report status they only give you the current standing and maybe a few key recent events.  It would be too much to list every little thing that lead up to that point.  But when you see these events rolling in over time it organically layers to give you a richer context. You follow along in their footsteps, pick up on the lessons learned, share in the frustration of dead-ends, and celebrate with all of the little advances that add up to the journey’s destination.

We found that part of the effectiveness of sharing journals in this way is how unobtrusive it is. Team members can easily tune-in or out as they like, so you can share a large amount of information without feeling like you’re firehosing someone.

We also noticed something: on the occasions when a colleague was unable to attend a team meeting they didn’t suddenly go invisible. Having this kind of ambient communication means you maintain a feeling of connectedness with each other that can smooth over any minor hiccups.  Our team only has a few meetings every week, and even so we are finding that some of them can be happily called off.  It’s apparent that everyone is already on the right path and collaborating as needed.  You don’t disturb that when you see it.

Many of the meetings we have now are just an enhancement, an added extra that we can opt into with no compulsion. The real communication is there all the time, and continues whether there are meetings or not.

Kick the habit

So whenever you feel the unnecessary overhead and waste involved in your meetings, don’t despair. Don’t make excuses or look around for someone to blame.  Start by asking yourself and others: “What would have needed to happen to make that particular meeting unnecessary?”  Start forming good habits like journalling. You’ll find it not only benefits yourself directly, but when the rest of your team cotton on you’ll also have the level of ambient communication that allows you to understand more about each other, while interrupting each other less.

Finally, when you are able to break your dependence on meetings you’ll find that the ones you still do have are completely changed in nature. You’ll begin them with a deeper shared context, and end them satisfied that this was time well spent.  If you decide to still have daily standups you can skip that part where everyone proves it’s possible to fall asleep in a vertical position.  You already know what everyone is up to and where they’re blocked, now you can launch straight into discussing solutions.

So please. Meet responsibly.

Are you using journals in your team? Drop me a line, I’d love to hear about it!

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