Making meetings work

A 2009 article from paulgraham.com is doing the rounds this week, identifying why meetings annoy a substantial subset of their participants. The 30 second summary is that most meetings are organised by people who spend a lot of time in meetings and hence are used to doing non-meeting work in small blocks (context switching fairly quickly). Participants, notably people who make things or write software, are used to and most productive in an environment where they have long uninterrupted time to focus on getting things done. Putting a meeting in the middle of that block of time causes a disproportionate loss of productivity (a 1 hour meeting in the middle of a 4 hour morning more or less trashes the entire morning's productivity).

The remedy recommended, which I'd heartily endorse, is for the "maker" people to set aside "office hours" for meetings, one or two chunks of time in the week when they are fully available for meetings and hence won't be planning any deep-dive productivity session. Scheduling meetings outside those times should only be done rarely and for a really good reason.

I have encountered many types of meeting, organisers and participants in my time, and the article rings very true. Doing any interesting software development or testing requires a good 30-60 minutes to get really engaged, focused and productive. An interruption after that time provokes the same kind of reaction as waking a sleeping baby - serious grump and sociopathic behaviour.

I would go further, though, and encourage meeting organisers to think hard about who they invite to meetings. Too often I've seen half or more of the meeting participants figuratively asleep in their chairs - they don't see any value in listening to one or two prima donnas drone on, but daren't refuse to attend. Personally I'd require the organiser to shoulder the burden of proving the value of attendance: unless you can make a good case why each attendee needs to be physically in the meeting (instead of reading the meeting notes), they should be at best an optional invite.

Just to show there's no favoritism, if the organisers adopt this model then it's incumbent on the attendees to prepare themselves; they should read the agenda and prep notes (circulated at least a day before the meeting) and come ready to offer specific opinions and solutions, rather than try to catch up as the meeting occurs.

According to Miss Manners, if a meeting organiser refuses to provide a meaningful agenda but insists you come, you are quite within your social rights to spend the entire meeting breaking wind loudly. (Admittedly I skim-read her book, but I'm sure I picked up the essentials.)

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