Observations on Effective and Efficient Meetings (on meetings-1 of 2)
Most of the writing here is my aid to my thought process. Over time I have shifted to different rules for meetings in different companies (Microsoft, Bloomberg, Amazon, eBay, Uber), with the same or very similar observations/principles that lead to those rules. For that reason, I believe it is important to document the observations/principles which have given rise to those rules so that they may get some introspection and inspection.
Meetings come in all varieties, but here I’m referring to the type you have with your colleagues for business purposes, usually accompanied by a meeting invite. I personally don’t think sessions longer than an hour are meetings. They are working sessions run from a meeting room. Another example of working-session is war-room/peace-room meetings of days or longer.
Now on to describing the factual observations and ideal qualities of the meeting.
Observation 1: A meeting is but accelerated communication. Meeting’s purposes are communication and coordination.
Each meeting has its unique objective but all the meetings achieve meeting-objectives by accelerated communication between stakeholders. Synchronization of task statements, problems, ownership et Cetra are secondary functions of communication.
Meetings facilitate other task’s objectives. There are no tasks that have objectives ‘a meeting’ unless you are meeting Bill Gates. In that case, it is a good outcome for your work.
There could be nothing in a synchronized meeting (where all the participants are present at the same time) that can’t be done with offline collaboration, except for speed and efficiency. Always remember what a meeting is and that will help you find substitutions.
Observation 2: All meetings are unnecessary, to begin with.
All meetings are unnecessary in an ideal world, but they may be required to mitigate even bigger inefficiencies. This might seem a bold statement, but one could think of an ideal world as one with hive-mind like communication.
Every meeting has a cause, a situation, that necessitates a meeting. Before calling a meeting, understand and articulate ‘the situation’ to yourself.
This observation has two implications:
- Meetings are overhead and not work. Only a naive will measure productivity/output through the number of meetings he/she has had.
- You should always try to minimize the meetings and hours in a meeting while maintaining other objectives of the team. No meeting, with objectives achieved, is the most efficient meeting.
Observation 3: Meetings are costly.
Meeting has multiple costs and a short list for that is:
- The cost of the number of hours engaged from participant
- The mental context switch required while going to and coming from a meeting
- The physical distance traveled to/from a meeting
- The follow-up cost
- The opportunity cost of working on something else
In a typical company, the opportunity cost of people working on something else instead of that meeting will be the largest one. Apple has revenue per employee closer to 2 million dollars. So every hour of an employee is like $1,000 per hour opportunity cost, not counting the salary. (caveat — back of envelope calculation)
Also note that since a meeting is not a work (O#2.1), every hour spent in a meeting and every distraction created is an avoidable loss. If we could sum up all the meeting costs, we should put the meeting costs in the second column of expenditure. Pretty sure GAAP would disagree, but this is my opinion. :)
Observation 4: Meetings require ownership of one person.
Its a near impossible to have a productive and headless meeting. By headless I mean, a meeting where more than one person has come together impromptu, and the meeting was productive. Meetings have context and purpose, and they require orchestration to go from one agenda topic to another.
As in architecture, it is generally better to have things ‘flow’ from a single mind. The meeting owner can take suggestions from other people and modify things. In my experience, two owners for a meeting doubles the complexities of coordination and three owners would quadruple.
Sometimes there are symbolic owners and actual owners. You know this situation when you are doing it, and my suggestion is to avoid this for the sake of effective meetings.
A symptom of not having a single owner or meeting owner not being in control is when you see the first topic of the agenda of 10 items, getting dragged for the entirety of the meeting. It is up to that meeting owner to decide whether that agenda topic was so important that it should have taken the entirety of the meeting or she should have helped the meeting flow, instead of folks ‘enjoying’ an agenda topic discussion.
If there are indeed multiple leadership level owners, even then electing a single meeting leader owner would produce a more effective meeting.
Observation 5: It is what happens before and after the meeting that is important.
People tend to forget meeting is an event, that helps with communication (O#1), and underemphasizes the work that is to be done before and after the meetings. If you can not have the leg-work for the meeting or if there is no guarantee of the follow-up of action items, then don’t bother calling the meeting.
Ensuring the information required for a meeting shared and follow-ups being closed by respective owners in time bound fashion is operational aspect and I will touch upon that in part-II of this article.
Observation 6: Effectiveness and Efficiency of the meeting are, both important.
Effectiveness is achieving the original intent of the meeting, associated with the ‘situation’ that called for the meeting (O#2). Efficiency is about resource spent in achieving the objective, including the speed of achieving effectiveness.
Given unlimited resources (O#3) for a meeting, any problem could be solved. An executive intervening in an outage will push the things, but that is costing in the order of $10K per hour and the lost opportunity cost.
The obvious implication is one should try to reduce the cost as much possible, to achieve the objectives. That makes every single arranging meeting an optimization problem. I will talk about what can we do, what I try to do, in the long term to keep a check on this trade-off in part-II of this write-up.
TODO : [ajeet] write down ‘Opinionated rules for Effective and Efficient meetings’ by EoM.
PS: All images are from Dilbert.com