I recently saw this post below on twitter about the real-time tracking the cost of meetings.
It wasn’t real, but it got me thinking about the cost of meetings, how wasteful meetings can be, and how frequently new agile teams complain about meetings. Many teams find that when they first move to agile, they are in many more meetings. We all know there are a lot of meetings in Scrum (some say too many).
Meetings are viewed as expensive and wasteful. Many people will argue that “real work” should take priority over meetings even though we all know that real work can get done in meetings if facilitated well. Still, is it time that we rethink how we approach meetings?
Seems To Be a Lot More Meetings Since the Pandemic
One of the outcomes of the pandemic was a large uptick in remote work. And with it came an onslaught of new meetings.
Managers needed to call a meeting to check in with people (and to make sure they were working).
People found it more difficult to have hallway meetings while working remotely. You don’t bump into people in the cafeteria or breakroom. You can’t simply pop in to ask a few questions.
As a result, more of the manager check-ins and quick discussions became formal meetings so much so that many people found themselves in meetings for their entire workday! Ouch! People were getting burned out.
Things have not yet returned to what was considered normal before the pandemic. They may never.
What Makes Meetings so Wasteful
Without a doubt, meetings can be expensive. But that doesn’t mean they are wasteful – they can still be a great investment.
When aren’t meetings a good investment? Here are some of the most common problems with meetings that make them wasteful:
- Meetings that are held just to have a meeting, particularly those that could have been an email.
- Meetings where the participants are multitasking rather than paying attention. Many people are not paying attention or giving the bare minimum in case they hear their name called. They are working on other things with the hope of boosting their productivity. This happens even when people have their cameras on but is much easier when cameras are off. What they don’t appreciate is that multitasking is not productive and they only make matters worse for everyone. When people don’t pay attention, the entire meeting takes longer. This causes a negative feedback loop where people are in more meetings and need to make up for the time multi-tasking during those meetings.
- Meetings include people that are not needed. This wastes their time and causes meetings to take longer.
- Meetings expand to fill the time available. This is especially prevalent for scheduled meetings like weekly department meetings. If it is on the calendar for an hour, it is likely to take all of that and sometimes a little more.
- Scrum Teams have a set of events they are expected to join even if they have other company-mandated meetings. And those Scrum events can take as much as 15-20% of their working time.
Now that we have looked at some of the causes of waste in meetings, let’s look at some tips to help you avoid that waste.
10 Tips to Help You Avoid Wasteful Meetings
Here are my top 10 tips for improving your meetings. I’ve also included two bonus tips that are specific to those using the Scrum Framework.
1. Make all Meetings Optional – The idea for making all meetings optional came from a TedX talk by Chuck Blakeman called the Participation Age though I suspect it has been around for a while. In his related article, Blakeman references the Open Space rule called the Law of Mobility or Law of Two Feet. Simply put, the law says that meeting participants should either be learning from the meeting or contributing to the meeting. Otherwise, they should use their two feet to leave.
2. Use Agile Meeting Techniques – Modern meeting approaches like OpenSpace, Lean Coffee, and Liberating Structures allow participants to choose the meeting topics and their level of engagement. The approaches cater to the attendees, foster engagement and require a timebox for discussions. The techniques boost engagement and productivity during meetings.
OpenSpace goes further in that it allows for multiple discussions to happen at the same time. Participants are encouraged to join and leave conversations to maximize the value they get. That same type of thinking should go into everyday meetings.
3. Reduce the Attendees – One of the frequent complaints about meetings is there are too many people. We are not spending the time upfront to think through who is required in the meeting and limiting their attendance. Just like the decreased productivity on agile teams when they go beyond the optimal size of 5 or 6, this also applies to meetings. As an organizer, make sure everyone is needed. Don’t invite people ‘just because’.
For those meetings that you are invited to attend, check to make sure you are actually needed. It may be faster to get a summary after the meeting.
4. Timebox the Meeting – The weekly 1-hour staff meeting should be killed. Meetings rarely need to be 1 hour; they could be 30 minutes or even 10. Otherwise, the meeting expands to fill the time available. Further, each meeting should focus on one topic or a small group of related topics instead to avoid spending an hour of ping-ponging back and forth among topics.
5. Facilitate Meetings Well – Meetings facilitation is an important skill that can be learned. We have all experienced both bad and good facilitators of meetings. Moving through various topics, engaging participants, leading participatory decision-making, and bringing things to closure are all skills that can be mastered. Good facilitators use techniques like parking lots to avoid rabbit holes and boiling the ocean. They use a kanban board to organize and prioritize discussion topics and track them to completion.
Facilitation is a learned skill and worth the investment. Scrum.org recently introduced training in facilitation with their Professional Scrum Facilitation training course; that might be a good starting point.
6. Replace Meetings with Emails or Videos – If your meeting is mostly a monologue of the HIPPO providing pearls of wisdom, why not make it an email or a video instead? The information uptake will likely be the same.
7. Establish No Meeting Days – Some organizations have found that setting some boundaries on meetings helps to create more non-meeting time for people to get work done. Frequently Friday is chosen as the non-meeting day.
8. Set a Meeting Time Limit or Quota per day or week – Here is an idea – limit the amount of time any one individual has to be in meetings. This could be 3 hours a day or 10 hours a week. Let the individual determine which meetings they should spend their quota on.
9. Require Cameras on? I like to see people in the meetings or training sessions I lead. That said, being on camera can stress people out. Often it stresses them out because they are doing something else – eating, multitasking, or even using the restroom.
Requiring that participants have their cameras on is one attempt to reduce multitasking. But does it really work? Why not just allow people to leave the meetings instead?
10. Allow Meetings within the Meetings – Perhaps the answer to multi-tasking is not to fight it. What about enabling it?
A growing trend that I see in my training courses is for attendees to have a steady stream of comments going on in a chat thread during my training. At first, the practice annoyed me, but now I see the value in having parallel discourse, even when it means multitasking.
Written comments may be easier or more attractive to some participants who are less comfortable speaking up in a meeting. They can make a comment or ask a question. Plus, it allows people to follow related threads of thought without derailing the flow of the meeting. Rather than trying to squelch sidebars, create a space for them.
Here are a few bonus tips for teams using the Scrum Framework:
11. Create a Definition of Ready and Definition of Done for meetings – Some agile teams find it helpful to develop a Definition of Ready that serves as entry criteria to bring a development item into a Sprint and the Definition of Done as exit criteria for a sprint. That helps them avoid the waste of working on items that cannot be finished or poor quality for calling something done that is not done. So how could that be applied to meetings?
Definition of Ready for Meetings
A definition of ready (DoR) for a meeting would serve as a gating mechanism. The meeting should not be scheduled until all the criteria have been met. Here is a starting point for a DoR for meetings:
- Prioritized Agenda
- Required and Optional Participants are Identified
- Timeboxed Discussions
- Any Required Decisions are Identified
- A Facilitator is Identified for each Topic
Definition of Done for Meetings
A definition of done (DoD) for meetings would serve as the exit criteria for meetings or when to end them. Sometimes meetings keep going because people linger or show no hurry to get back to their other work.
Unlike applying the definition of done to backlog items, ending the meeting would only require one of the items on the DoD to be met. Consider ending your meeting when you meet any of the following criteria on your definition of done list:
- The Timebox is exhausted (that’s it, time’s up!)
- Decisions Made (so we agree, let’s end it here)
- Agenda Covered (that’s all we have for today, have a great rest of the day).
11. Rename Scrum Events to Activities – The events in Scrum are nearly the equivalent of meetings, and most people think of them as a meeting. Are they meetings? Why aren’t they called that in the Scrum Guide?
Here are some key differences between everyday meetings and Scrum events:
- Scrum Events should be well facilitated
- Scrum Events have a purpose and attendees
- Scrum events are active, not passive. Attendees are expected to be attentive and active during Scrum events and they should contribute to the meeting.
Each event in scrum has a distinct purpose and set of goals; these are not passive as most meetings are
- Sprint Planning – Create a Plan for the Sprint
- Daily Scrum – Revise the Plan for the Sprint and coordinate daily activities to achieve the Sprint Goal
- Sprint Review – Review the Product Increment, gather feedback and decide on the next steps
- Sprint Retrospective – Reflect on past performance and define ways to improve
I would argue that the Scrum Events should be called Scrum Activities. No one should multitask during the events.
12. Hold Scrum Events at the same time and place – This is in the Scrum Guide, but that doesn’t mean that people always follow it. If you are going to have a Scrum event, may as well remove the friction and waste to make it as effective as possible.
As soon as you start moving the event time or day, you risk losing people. Plus, changes like this often create a not-obvious ripple effect where everyone has to move things around to accommodate the change.
BOTTOM LINE – Tips for Reducing Wasteful Meetings
It is unlikely that meetings will go away anytime soon. Do your part to reduce wasteful meetings. While you may not have the power to change the policy for meetings in your organization, you have power over the meetings you schedule. Consider the participants you really need and whether a meeting is even required.
And you may have more power than you think over meetings that you are invited to attend. Consider pushing back and asking the question, “Do you really need me for this meeting?” You can also book meetings with yourself to protect your calendar from filling with the meetings scheduled by others.