Our ground rules for meetings

Gareth Saunders
Friday 13 November 2015
Aerial view of five people sitting around a table
Atlassian reports that the average employee attends 62 meetings per month

Hands up if you love meetings. Anyone? No?

Here are a couple of ‘inspirational’ quotations for you:

Meetings are indispensable when you don’t want to do anything — John Kenneth Graham

The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favour of holding meetings — Thomas Sowell

No doubt, at one point or another, you have sat in a meeting wondering what the point of being there was. You daydream about being back at your desk getting on with some real work. You sit there wishing that you could have politely excused yourself and escaped this particular form of 60 minute hell. (Why are meetings always scheduled for at least an hour?!)

Over the last year, we’ve found the same thing. And often we were the ones calling the meetings. With ourselves. We had no-one to blame but ourselves.

It was all terribly British. Six of us would sit at the round table in our ‘room of requirement’ and painfully try to reach some kind of democratic consensus about some minor detail or other that could easily have been made by one or two people in a couple of minutes with the words, “We’ll try that… and if that doesn’t work then we’ll try something else.” Fail fast, and all that.

Meetings are toxic

A few years ago I read a book by the guys who built Basecamp, called Getting Real: The smarter, faster, easier way to build a successful web application (2006). The book is available to download for free in PDF.

They have a chapter called “Meetings are toxic”. No mincing their words, these chaps. Meetings kill productivity they argue.

  • Meetings break up the natural flow of your day into small, disconnected and disruptive chunks.
  • Meetings are usually about words, not real things like code or content or designing an interface.
  • Meetings contain a very low information-per-minute ratio: they are inefficient.
  • Meetings often attract morons who drag the conversation down cul-de-sacs of nonsense.
  • Meetings rarely stay on topic for long. I like Topics. Have you tried the new Snickers bars with hazelnuts? (See!)
  • Meetings rarely have clear agendas; often people turn up not really knowing why they are there.
  • Meetings often require a lot of preparation, which few actually do.

Meetings are really expensive. For those meetings of the six of us, it cost us about £100 per hour, just in staff time.

Ground rules

The digital communications team have come up with the following ground rules regarding meetings, which we remind ourselves of each morning at our daily stand-up meeting (which lasts 15 minutes). We have more rules about meetings than anything else.

  1. All meetings should have an agenda and objectives.
  2. Invite as few people as possible to meetings. The people invited should have a direct relationship to the meeting objectives.
  3. Meetings should be at most 30 minutes. Set a timer. When it goes off, the meeting ends.
  4. All meetings should take away action points (or have done those things at the meeting itself).
  5. Meetings may end as soon as the objectives have been reached.
  6. In meetings you have permission to leave if you have nothing further to add (this also goes for post-stand-up discussions).

We have found these rules to be really liberating. Our meetings have been cheaper, more efficient, more focused, and much more productive as a result. Give it a go, and see if it works for your department or team.

What tips do you have for running meetings?

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