Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Meetings: Where Work Goes to Die

How many meetings did you have today? This week? This month?

Now ask yourself how many of those meetings were worthwhile, versus the work that you could have accomplished in that same time.

Meetings, the practical alternative to work

This might lead one to wonder why we even have meetings at all.

At GitHub we don't have meetings. We don't have set work hours or even work days. We don't keep track of vacation or sick days. We don't have managers or an org chart. We don't have a dress code. We don't have expense account audits or an HR department.

Now, I'm sure Tom was being facetious when he said that GitHub doesn't have meetings, because I sure as heck saw meeting rooms when I recently visited their offices to give a talk. Who knows, maybe they use them to store all the extra forks.

Although some meetings are inevitable, even necessary, the principle he's advocating here is an important one. Meetings should be viewed skeptically from the outset, as risks to productivity. We have meetings because we think we need them, but all too often, meetings are where work ends up going to die. I have a handful of principles that I employ to keep my meetings useful:

  1. No meeting should ever be more than an hour, under penalty of death.

    The first and most important constraint on any meeting is the most precious imaginable resource at any company: time. If you can't fit your meeting in about an hour, there is something deeply wrong with it, and you should fix that first. Either it involves too many people, the scope of the meeting is too broad, or there's a general lack of focus necessary to keep the meeting on track. I challenge anyone to remember anything that happens in a multi-hour meeting. When all else fails, please keep it short!

  2. Every meeting should have a clearly defined mission statement.

    What's the mission statement of your meeting? Can you define the purpose of your meeting in a single succinct sentence? I hesitate to recommend having an "agenda" and "agenda items" because the word agenda implies a giant, tedious bulleted list of things to cover. Just make sure the purpose of the meeting is clear to everyone; the rest will take care of itself.

  3. Do your homework before the meeting.

    Since your meeting has a clearly defined mission statement, everyone attending the meeting knows in advance what they need to talk about and share, and has it ready to go before they walk into the room. Right? That's how we can keep the meeting down to an hour. If you haven't done your homework, you shouldn't be in the meeting. If nobody has done their homework, the meeting should be cancelled.

  4. Make it optional.

    "Mandatory" meetings are a cop-out. Everyone in the meeting should be there because they want to be there, or they need to be there. One sure way to keep yourself accountable for a meeting is to make everyone optional. Imagine holding a meeting that people actually wanted to attend, because it was … useful. Or interesting. Or entertaining. Now make it happen!

  5. Summarize to-dos at the end of the meeting.

    If your meeting never happened, what would the consequences be? If the honest answer to that is almost nothing, then perhaps your meeting has no reason to exist. Any truly productive meeting causes stuff to happen as a direct result of the decisions made in that meeting. You, as a responsible meeting participant, are responsible for keeping track of what you need to do – and everyone in the room can prove it by summarizing their to-do list for everyone's benefit before they leave the meeting.

It's not that we shouldn't have meetings, but rather, we need to recognize the inherent risks of meetings and strive to make the (hopefully) few meetings we do have productive ones. Let's work fast, minimize BS, and get to the point.

[advertisement] What's your next career move? Stack Overflow Careers has the best job listings from great companies, whether you're looking for opportunities at a startup or Fortune 500. You can search our job listings or create a profile and let employers find you.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror