Optimize Collaboration, Not Meetings

There’s a lot of internet out there about meetings.

Sturgeon’s law applies here. There’s some good advice, tho, too. Where I come from’s different. What I see, as with so many other topics, is how hard we try to fix problems our assumptions created.

There are a lot different ends to which folks want to apply meetings as means.

Three common ends are the "orders meeting", the "report meeting", and the "decision meeting".

  • In an orders meeting, we’re there so that a boss-type can give us our orders conveniently.
  • In a status meeting, by contrast, we’re there so that a boss-type can get a report on each attendee’s progress.
  • In a decision meeting, we’re there to argue something out and come to a conclusion.

To be honest, none of these three ends are best met via meeting, generally speaking.

Please note: generally speaking.

The best way to get a status report from everyone you’re interested in getting it from, is to go find them and ask them how it’s going. I know. It sounds like you’re optimizing that by getting them all in the same room and asking them. But. You’re not. The reason is because a roomful of people, some entirely disinterested and some looking to find flaw, is a terrible place to get at truth. In the interests of optimizing your time, you will very likely be misleading yourself and encouraging others to mislead you.

The orders meeting is less obviously flawed, provided that you want to give the same order to everyone in the room. But you’ll note that constraint’s gonna make for a lot fewer meetings w/a lot fewer people. Cuz you mostly don’t. Mostly, tho it feels like one goal in your mind, hence one order, you want different folks to do different things to help hit that goal.

The third meeting type, the decision meeting, is the most readily justifiable in organizational theory, but by far the least effective. What you want is for your team to work together optimally towards an outcome. To get that, you need them to build a consensus on how to get there. Strong consensus is virtually never created in meeting sessions.

Consensus takes time & thought & dialogue & energy. Meetings constrain time and drain energy. They cloud thought, and they reduce dialogue.

Once again, the bugbear of efficiency raises its head. On paper, the most efficient thing is to get everyone in a room & hammer it out. The world is not made of paper, though. Your team is not made of it. Your team is made of people. People need to iterate. They need to negotiate. They need to take time to mull & reflect. They need to consult. None of those things really goes very well in a room full of people that’s big enough to include many views, many ideas, many agendas.

If you’re a team’s boss, grand-boss, great-grand-boss, and so on. Your primary focus is really on optimizing collaboration in your team. That really is the job.

To optimize collaboration, you need to obsess over how people work together most effectively. Almost no matter what your status is as an overling, you’re also an underling. Let me ask you: do you collaborate best in meetings?

Realistically, far better reporting, order-giving, and above all, emergent consensus, come from your many non-meeting interactions in a day. You know this. Because if you’re effective at all in your organization, you do it every day. How many dozens of hallway/lunchtime/just-passing-by interactions do you do during a day?

To my original thesis, then: If u assume a meeting is the way to go, you’re locking yourself into trying to solve "the meeting problem".

If you can let go of that assumption, you might very well find yourself using techniques other than meetings that are far more effective. If you’re a leader, you owe it to yourself to give this a try. Pick just one of your concerns, & try to manage it with no meetings.

You won’t pull it off at first, it’s damned hard to let go of meetings all at once. But that’s okay. Give yourself a break, & some practice.

And let me know what the experiment tells you, one way or the other.

Oh. One more thought. Carry a kitchen timer into every meeting. Practice setting it shorter & shorter. Practice starting. Practice leaving.

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