So You Don’t Like Meetings, Then What?

I have spent my share of time in pointless meetings.

Does that mean that all meetings are bad?

No.

Does that mean that you should avoid all meetings?

No.

So you don’t like meetings? Fine. Go ahead. Avoid them.

But consider this before you do.

That stuff you were going to talk about? How are you going to share it instead?

What is your plan for facilitating the decision making process?

Do you have the tools, the skills, and the discipline to follow it through?

Let me put this out there now. This is not a post praising meetings. This is a post about the importance of communication.

I react instinctually to negative comments on meetings. I want to ask “If you aren’t meeting, then how are you making decisions? How are you communicating?”

I don’t support meetings for meetings sake. I support communication. And if the only way it is going to happen is through a meeting, then so be it. A bad meeting is better than radio silence.

The alternative? Information spreads via chance conversations, or in the smoking shelter. It is gossip. With all the shortfalls of gossip, the half truths and twisted retelling.

Decisions are made in corridors. Sometimes on incomplete information. Sometimes without input from the experts, or with no consideration for those upstream or downstream impacts. Then to top if off, the reasoning is not shared.

Then we wonder why things don’t happen quite the way they expect. We wonder why no one is on the same page. We expect information to magically travel around the organisation.

I wish it was different.

Put another way, it is easier to hold a meeting, than it is to communicate via other channels.

The default option is a meeting. Little consideration is given to other options.

Let me say this again. Being the default option does not make that default the right option. It is just what it is, a default.

Defaults exist for a reason. They are there to ensure that there is some action. Some option available for the system to work. Without a default, the systems stops, waiting for for someone, or some thing, to take the initiative.

Some organisations choose a different default.

Communication in an organisation is important. You need to present decisions, consider the options, and decide. Then you need to share what you chose, and why.

That takes time and effort. It is easier to gather people in a room. Other approaches need the discipline and tools. Be honest, even you aren’t willing to make that effort.

So, yes, I have sat in too many meetings.

Yet even the large ones, for all their expense and inefficiency, have their benefits.

For example, on large projects there is the dreaded weekly status update. These are tricky to judge. As you go around the table and listen to everyones update, there is a lot you don’t need to hear. But there are things you do need to hear, and would never have heard if you had not been there. You would never have hear them via any other channel. Because the other channel doesn’t exist. But also because you didn’t know you needed to hear it. The person giving the update didn’t know you needed to hear it. So why would either of you ask?

Being in that room, on that call, is an easy way to stumble upon information.

That does not make it the best way.

There are alternatives.

Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp, spoke on an HBR Ideacast interview about how they try to find a balance. Using their own product, the team write their updates in Basecamp. Other team members can read the update at a time that suits them. The critical information is available. In this way they avoid the need for those weekly updates.

“People think it’s efficient to distribute information all at the same time to a bunch of people around a room. But it’s actually a lot less efficient than distributing it asynchronously by writing it up and sending it out and letting people absorb it when they’re ready to so it doesn’t break their days into smaller bits.

Certainly there are some meetings that need to happen. But my point is that I want to push back on the fact that the meeting is the first resort. I think it should be the last resort. Only when people really truly need to come together because they’re unable to communicate in another way and another schedule do they actually need to get together in a room.”

– Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp

* Emphasis is mine

For that to work you need your teams to write the update. That is a discipline many teams do not have.

Second, you need people who are good at written communication. Good at considering what people need to know, and making sure they cover all those points.

This links with another interview I heard. This time on the Inside Intercom podcast, and with another Basecamp employee, Support Pro Chase Clemons. When asked about his hiring process, what interested me, was how much attention they paid to an applicants ability to write well.

At first this does not make sense. But when you consider that they are a distributed team, spread across the world, it does. They rely on well written notes and records. Another member of the team must have enough information to pick up where others left off.

“I mentioned earlier, we look for people that are good writers. The reason for that is because you have to be able to communicate in a written form whether it’s talking to a customer or it’s pitching a new idea to the rest of the team or giving an update on a project. All that happens for the most part via written text. Granted, you can do video tours of a new feature that you’re working on or a new idea. You can sprinkle in all sorts of images and pictures and things like that, but for the most part your ability to write well directly relates to how effective you are at being able to interact with the rest of your team.

You’re also doing a lot of this not only for the moment in time, but also for people down the road that are going to come back and read this later. When we’re writing out the explanation for why a design is a certain way, or why the choices we made to do live chat rather than this, we want to be able to effectively communicate them. That way our new hire six months down the road can read it and instantly be up to speed on that conversation.”

– Chase Clemons

Hospitals do the same. Doctors, Nurses, Dietitians and others all write detailed handover notes. The next person to check on that patient must know what the treatment plan is, and where they are in that plan.

Basecamp is unique. They challenge the norms of most workplaces. Underpinning the above stories is how they think about their communication channels. This is is the point of this article.

For example, they promote what they call asynchronous communication. They have a preference for considered communication that happens over time. Recipients can read the response when they are ready, consider it in full, and then respond in full. They discourage the real-time communication behaviours common in email and instant messaging.

They make this point often, each channel has its place.

This is what is so clever. This is what the majority of us miss.

There are times and types of communication where instant messaging is appropriate.

There are times where email is appropriate.

There are times for more detailed communication on message boards.

And, yes, there are times where a meeting makes the most sense.

What impresses me is that they consider the alternatives and what is most appropriate, and use it. They set the default channels for different types of work. They don’t just say “no meetings”.

This is what bugs be about the anti-meeting critique. No one suggests an alternative. No one wants to make the effort.

It feels like they are saying “I don’t want to communicate.”

My challenge to you is this, think of an alternatives where you work, and try it out. Let me know how it goes.

Feature image is the Tate Modern, London, United Kingom, courtesy of Samuel Zeller from Unsplash.com.

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