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How to reduce formal meetings and get more done

(Image credit: Image Credit: Coffee / Pixabay)

Most software development teams I know would prefer to focus their energy on creating high-quality code and delivering great software rather than sitting in meetings. Meetings can seem like an unwelcome interruption - and often a costly one. If a team is working well, communication and collaboration will naturally flow as a part of getting stuck in and doing the work. In my experience, waiting for a meeting to happen before you make a decision often kills momentum and progress.

Formal meetings have acquired a bad reputation for wasting people's time and usually for a good reason. The challenges exist far beyond the time taken up by the meeting itself. Before the meeting invitation is even sent it can already be a source of stress and tension: Who should be invited? How can we find a time everyone can make? How will it be run? What decisions will we actually make?

There’s a perception that we need meetings to decide on direction, on a project plan and actions for everyone to work on. Still, much of this can only really happen when teams work together on the actual work, iterating on ideas and solutions, and finding the right path for them through a combination of established processes and the cumulative experience of the team. This avoids time wasted scheduling a meeting and offers a more agile, iterative approach.

When a software delivery team is working well, communication is fluid and free, and modern tools allow progress reporting to be easily automated and transparent. So while meetings to make over-arching decisions and set strategic goals are sometimes necessary, regular meetings to report progress or for the sake of having a catch up are often pointless.

Here are a few of my top tips on how to minimise meetings and increase productivity:

1. Meetings are not the only answer

Meetings are expensive. The time spent in the meeting is just one aspect, but if a meeting takes you away from the task you were working on there’s an added cost of the recovery time before you can refocus fully on the task. A good rule of thumb, is to ask what would happen if you cancelled the meeting? Could you achieve the goal without a meeting? Is the time cost to your business justified?

2. Involve stakeholders upfront and empower teams from the outset

Teams need to feel empowered to make the necessary decisions to progress without losing momentum. If you get the right people together at the beginning of a project and agree on the overall strategic goals, project milestones and timelines, it will help you keep the number of meetings throughout the project lifecycle to a minimum. Strategic direction must be agreed and adhered to, but if a formal meeting setting is required to make smaller decisions, this suggests the team lacks autonomy.

3. Integrate goals and timelines

Rather than merely recording these in meeting notes, filed for the next meeting, instead integrate these goals, milestones and timelines within the tools the team is using. This will ensure the team stays focused and eliminate status meetings to check in on progress and remind teams of their goals.

4. Governance on the go.

Having project governance in place is vital. Ideally, automate as much of it as possible to save time. In some instances, code and infrastructure changes can be audited automatically to ensure progress is not delayed waiting for the right people to make decisions. It also allows developers to iterate rapidly and ensure compliance on the go without the need for status meetings and endless reporting.

5. Reduce the formality and encourage spontaneity

A formal communication channel, like a meeting sets expectations that ideas shared need to be shared in an equally structured format. Regular communications and the use of more informal business communication channels like instant messaging tools, for example, can be a better way for teams to communicate. They improve the speed at which teams communicate and can also enable greater spontaneity and fuel creativity. For instance, new ideas can be validated quickly via a short chat avoiding the need to wait for the next meeting to discuss them or to waste time preparing formal ways to present them. They may also spark further ideas fuelling creativity.

If you work with remote teams, ensure they are equipped with good quality video conference tools and headsets so they can quickly jump on a call and share an idea.

6. Tackle contention in advance

Meetings create uncertainty and politics. For the organiser, there is a concern that they will offend people by not inviting them and those invited are concerned that a failure to attend reflects a lack of engagement in the project. Everyone wants to be involved in a meeting, so they don’t miss out on decisions made there, and on understanding the rationale behind those decisions.

Anticipate any potential contention and tackle this in advance. By sharing clear information on the content to be discussed, setting clear expectations around attendance and contribution from different parties and explaining how the discussion notes will be shared, you can mitigate many of the potential issues. It may seem like extra work, but it can also resolve a further costly issue of inactive participants wasting time and creating a negative atmosphere in the meeting. Tools such as Slack, i.e. chat tools, and wiki including Confluence can help streamline this process, so it simply becomes part of the regular people’s day to day work.

7. Keep it small and focused

Around half of the meetings are considered unproductive. They require time prepping to present, which fuels frustrations by interrupting the natural flow of work. The negativity caused by these ‘unnecessary distractions’ can in turn, limit creativity and problem-solving. Productivity seems to decline when there are more than eight attendees in a meeting.

A common cause of large meetings is that you try to accomplish too much in any one meeting. Having shorter, smaller meetings focused on a single outcome increases focus and ensures the active participation of everyone in the meeting, creating a more positive - and productive attitude to the meeting. This is particularly critical with the meetings increasingly taking place online with remote workers calling in. Naturally, the temptation to multitask and work on other projects increases when you’re not physically together around a table. But a short, focused meeting can deliver far higher levels of engagement with remote teams expanding the sense of connection to the broader team.

8. Keep it brief

Parkinson’s law states that work expands to whatever time is allotted to it and invariably, we schedule meetings in half-hour or hour-long sessions. By sharing materials ahead and setting clear expectations, the meeting can then focus on key discussion points and decisions. Psychological research suggests that when you add a little extra pressure to a group, they are more focused and they perform more optimally. The bonus of a short, focused meeting is that if you are sharing the notes or a recording, these will also be brief increasing the likelihood that anyone who couldn’t attend which actually read them.

In conclusion, if you need to have meetings, make them micro-meetings, or huddles instead to unblock progress and ensure that everyone is equipped with the technology to keep conversations free and spontaneous.

As Basecamp founder and CEO Jason Fried says “meetings should be like salt—a spice sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish….Too much salt destroys a dish. Too many meetings destroy morale and motivation.”

Matt Saunders, leader of London DevOps meetups and Head of DevOps, Adaptavist (opens in new tab)

Matt Saunders is leader of London DevOps meetups and Head of DevOps at Adaptavist.