A Real Hangout Is Not A Toxic Meeting!

In some organizations meeting culture is out of control or, worse yet, toxic. In order to see how bad the situation is, measure the problem. One simple measure to understand how much of a workweek that is consumed by meetings is to calculate a burden rate (burden rate generally is the amount of non-engineering time divided by the total time expended on a project or sprint). In this case, we are focused on meetings rather than all of the non-engineering activities. For software or hardware teams I would not count specific working sessions such as pair or mob programming “meetings” — these are engineering activities that are specifically designed to develop functionality. I would, however, count all of the classic Scrum ceremonies. To get a sense of the range of possible levels of meeting burdens teams have to live with, I asked five different friends (a combination of project managers or Scrum Masters) to estimate the meeting burden rate for their entire team. 

I asked them to estimate the meeting time for the last sprint (or two weeks for the non-agile project. The responses ranged from 25 to 60% of the team’s total work time was taken up by meetings.  Anthony Mersino calculated a worst-case meeting load inherent in Scrum at 16 hours (20% of a two-week sprint), many teams need far less (I have observed a few high-functioning teams that only spend 8% of their time in sprint meetings). High meeting burden rates translate into either less functionality delivered, high levels of overtime, or high levels of technical debt. None of the outcomes are good!  Several problems drive problems in meeting culture. A few of the most problematic issues are:

  1. Lack of preparation – Most meetings require some form of preparation to enable useful participation. Preparation can include preparing your ideas, collecting thoughts, introspection, and even prereading material.  Far too many meetings start with bringing people up to speed or in discussions of topics that have already been addressed which were clear from the “required” pre-work. If you do not feel you need to do the required prework you should not accept the meeting. This can also be a reflection of uncontrolled work-in-progress.
  2. Lack of attention – Put the phones, laptops, Apple watches away before the meeting starts. Next time you are observing a meeting (or getting ready to zone out in a boring part), count the number of people in the room doing something else — including yourself. If the count yields a nontrivial answer use a retrospective to identify how meetings of that type can be made more engaging or avoided. Note: I used the term non-trivial purposefully rather than a percentage. For example, if the chair of the meeting or a key figure has checked out and is multitasking, 1 is non-trivial.
  3. Avoiding crucial conversations through data dump meetings. While meetings to personally convey complex or emotionally packed news can be important, using these platforms as a tool to avoid having a dialog (defined as “the free flow of meaning between two or more people” in the book Crucial Conversations) is a problem. If you are not inviting the free flow of information, consider recording your message on a video.
  4. Interruption of flow – In most corporate environments your calendar is owned by EVERYONE. If they see an unbooked time, it’s fair game to book a meeting even if you are working on the next big new idea or concentrating on a complicated business problem. According to a UC Irving study, it takes 24 minutes to recover from an interruption, meetings are interruptions even if they are great meetings. Techniques I use include blocking chunks of my calendar so that meetings can’t be booked and leaving times open that are less conducive to focus so that flow state tasks won’t be interrupted.  
  5. Failure to elicit action – Most meetings are held to elicit an action (the virtual coffee and big corporate announcement excepted) of some sort. Failure to facilitate the meeting to generate a decision, create an output, or agree on plan wastes everyone’s time. Meetings require facilitation. If you need help guiding a meeting to a conclusion, get help – that is what coaches are for.  

Late last year I sat in a stand-up meeting (sensing a problem?) with 40 people for a whole hour. That meeting used 40 hours that the firm can never get back to share status and for a high percentage of the people to answer emails. In conversations afterward no one was happy but no one wanted to address the issue, it was the “culture” of the organization.

Next — Let’s change behavior!