Meetings, meetings, meetings. Our working lives are filled with them. In my work I have met some people who claim to attend thirty hours a week worth of meetings in a forty-hour week. When are we supposed to find time to actually WORK?
I suppose that is a curious claim, but let’s examine this notion. When is value actually created? Is that the purpose of an Agile ceremony or a staff meeting? I assert that actual value is never created in meetings or ceremonies – they are about discussing how value will be created, or or determining which value is most important.
Realistically, value is created in the “Gemba.” Gemba is an untranslatable term from Japanese that loosely translates to “the place where work is accomplished.” It has its roots in the Toyota Production System (TPS) to discuss ways to maximize productivity by creating an ideal work environment for assembly line production. The “Gemba Walk” is a principle that involves leadership spending time in the Gemba to see work actually being accomplished and to interact with production workers, or — in our case — knowledge workers.
Do we ordinarily give thought to why we seem to attend so many meetings? How did it get that way? How did we get to the point where many upstanding people work extra time – time they could be spending with their families or otherwise enjoying themselves? The dilemma seems deeply rooted in corporate culture. Nonetheless, it seems to be high time that this imbalance be studied and corrected.
Don’t do for a group what a group can do for itself.
― Emily M. Axelrod
Meetings vs. Ceremonies
Before we get into this analysis, I want to make a clear distinction about meetings and ceremonies. Ceremonies have these attributes that a meeting does not have:
- They have an agenda and a “time box.”
- They are facilitated and not “led.”
- They involve an entire team focusing on one team activity.
- They have a rigorous set of ideas or artifacts that must be brought.
- They have a definite set of products or an informational state that is sought.
- Their activities are in alignment with Agile and Lean principles and values.
I have heard a complaint more than once that Agile requires “too many meetings.” If this is a sentiment you share, make sure you have this important distinction in mind. Perhaps it’s not the Agile ceremonies that need to be curtailed?
What Makes a Meeting Effective?
I propose that there are certain subjective factors that can be used to understand the effectiveness of a meeting for any individual. These ideas are focused around an economic view of time spent. For example:
- Pertinence – Did I need to be there? Was there something I was expected to personally contribute?
- Purpose – Was there a specific intention or goal to the meeting? Could the same goal have been achieved in a more collaborative, relaxed environment?
- Plan – Was there an agenda for the meeting? Was it followed? Did it come off the rails at any point?
- Payoff – Was the intention of the meeting met? Do we know more now than we did before? Was anything communicated or clarified?
It is interesting to propose a scale that we can assign to these considerations. Let’s conceive of zero being the ideal effectiveness and a three meaning worst possible scenario. Thus, we end up with an overall score of zero being the perfect meeting and a score of twelve being a complete waste of participant’s time.
Calculating Your Meeting Effectiveness (ME)
At the end of your work day, take some time to think about the meetings that you attended. List each meeting you attended and then add up values for the four effectiveness factors that we have discussed. Use the scale below to determine the four values for that meeting and add them.
- 0 – I personally needed to be there – there was no one else who could have attended in my place.
- 1 – I could have missed this one, but it was still useful.
- 2 – A few things on the agenda needed my attention.
- 3 – I still don’t know why I was there – does anyone know?
- 0 – It was just-in-time with the right audience members and size, and clear goals.
- 1 – Some goals needed my input or influence.
- 2 – A few things crossed into my sphere of influence.
- 3 – Just another recurring, habitual meeting without a fresh agenda.
- 0 – The well-conceived agenda was adhered to and time boxes enforced. The plan helped participants execute a productive, informative meeting.
- 1 – The agenda had no time constraints, prompting some topics to be discussed at length and others minimally.
- 2 – Loose, shifting agenda lent no structure to the meeting.
- 3 – It was free-for-all, at time argumentative and/or punctuated by soliloquy.
- 0 – The meeting benefitted me; my time was well-spent.
- 1 – Most of the agenda was beneficial to me and my work.
- 2 – A few items were of interest or benefit to my work.
- 3 – What, this again? Nothing learned – time wasted.
When we add up these values, we will get a ME number for each meeting. For meetings that are longer, multiply the ME by the number of hours of the meeting. For meetings that are one-hour long or less, we do not adjust the ME.
The value scale runs from zero (perfect meeting) to twelve (complete disaster):
- 0-3: Good to excellent meeting
- 4-6: Fair meeting, needs improvement
- 7-9: Bad meeting, needs rethinking
- 10-12: Disastrous meeting, wasteful and morale-killing
So – let’s apply this to an imaginary staff meeting we attended at 10AM today:
- 1 – I have to be here for every staff meeting whether the subject matters being discussed pertain to me or not. Everyone has to go.
- 3 -We talked about the same things we always talk about with no action plan to change anything.
- 2 – We never seem to have action items or goals for this meeting.
- 2 – We discussed holiday calendar and vacation day accrual, but nothing important.
This calculation gives us a meeting effectiveness of eight (1+3+2+2 = 8) for a one-hour meeting. This could be interpreted as a bad meeting and should be reconsidered and reorganized.
Calculating Daily Meeting Effectiveness (DME) and Weekly Meeting Effectiveness (WME)
We can add up the ME values for any day and come up with a daily figure (DME), or calculate the weekly figure by adding up the values for all days in a week (WME). These values can shed some light on where you stand with regard to your productivity in attending meetings.
If you find yourself with a WME of high value of perhaps 100 or more, you should be concerned about the overall effectiveness of the meetings you attend. The higher the WME, the more precious time is being sacrificed to ineffective meetings.
I would say that a good goal for WME would be forty (40) or less. Remember that the ideal WME is zero – this does not mean that you do not attend any meetings – it means that the meetings you are attending are purposeful, collaborative, efficient and effective.
You can track your WME week-to-week individually, as a team or even for teams-of-teams. This will paint a more vivid picture of how your organization is using its people’s time and energy with regard to meetings. Making a concerted effort as part of an organizational change could involve an overall effort on the part of leadership to use people’s time in way that maximizes value production and minimizes time lost to bureaucracy and organizational “white noise.”
People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.
— Thomas Sowell
Continuously Improving Your Meeting Effectiveness
As an attendee:
- Learn how to decline invitations to meetings that you feel are not absolutely crucial to advancing value – no matter who is calling the meeting.
- Collaborate with your teams to interleave meetings in such a way as to minimize time spent away from time that you need to do actual work.
- Use retrospective techniques on meetings to ensure they are targeted, collaborative and contribute positively to value delivery.
- Don’t focus on ensuring knowledge is spread to every single individual in an organization.
- Keep the number of collaborators down to people who actually contribute to a conversations – reduce the number of people who are there merely for passive “informational” purposes or as “representatives” of leadership.
As a meeting facilitator:
- If you are sending out meeting invites, empower people to say no as well, trusting invitees to determine their value-add. Mandatory meetings must provide value for all attendees, whether it’s information or action items.
- Keep an eye out for overlapping and redundant meetings.
- Set an example: review each attendee you invite to your meetings to ensure they need to attend and can spare the time away from their desks.
- Do not cram your team’s inboxes with synopses of meetings, unless they are directed, targeted action items that result from meeting activities or other items that require further discussion.
- Learn how to have discussions face-to-face (or person-to-person) without having an audience present.