The best ways to organize pointless meetings

Posted on Sat 25 March 2023 in IT, meta

All good meetings are similar, but each bad meeting is shitty in its own way. I could also say that it's hard to formalize elements that make meetings ineffective, but that's not true: I have a neat list. All summarized to one point is: being lazy. Organizing a good meeting requires work upfront, done before the meeting happens -- hell, even before you send out the invites! A shitty meeting is a waste of time, and everybody would much rather take a walk in the woods rather than sitting on a pointless chat. So don't be lazy, do the work. Because if you, as organizer, are not putting in preparatory work, you are effectively asking other people to put in their own time so that you could save yours.

But by all means, if you enjoy pointless meetings, then read this as a do-list. You will end up with some of the worst meetings ever. You can thank me, but please don't invite me.

No agenda

We're not getting a coffee to catch up with our lives and spontanouesly hear the story of the time you hitched hiked through Kazakhstan. And you're not here to hear me speaking from the top of my head. Be clear about what the point of the meeting is: do we need to come to a decision? Do you need to show something? In that case, can't you email it? Do you want feedback about something? What the hell are you claiming x minutes from me for? Make it clear to all participants what the points up for discussion are, share any material upfront, and ensure you state out the questions/points you are looking for feedback on.

If I don't know what the point of the meeting is,
a) we're likely gonna spend the first 5 minutes figuring out what to talk about;
b) I'm gonna have to hear your mumbling and build the context myself;
c) you're gonna get feedback from the top of my head (and, guess what, you get a better feedback if I'm given time to think), and you're gonna get it verbally (which gets lost).

No clear next steps

When somebody says "this was really a nice meeting", and it's not clear who is going to do what as soon as we part, I wonder if their diplomatic piece of bullshit was rather an appreciation of the tea the drank during the meeting. If we don't spend the last 2 minutes wrapping up and making sure everybody has a clear idea of what the next steps are, all the time was a waste.

No meeting notes

Words get lost in the air, and there's a million reasons why writing down what happened during your meeting is a good idea. It happened that, when I missed a meeting and asked what the gist of it had been, it was suggested that we schedule another meeting to update me. How ironic. Other people wondering what decisions were reached and what discussions happened have to rely on other people telling them. Not to talk about the misunderstandings and forgotten bits two months down the line.

But hey, there's a special place for you in hell if the meeting notes you take are on the lines of "discussed branching strategy". Be clear whether the notes you take are for you to remember, or for others to read. In the second case guess what: it needs to be informative.

More than 3 participants

This is not a birthday party. When you organize a meeting with > 3 participants, you give away that you don't know what you are doing. Taking a decision when 2 people are involved is already hard, so what do you expect to happen from a meeting with > 3 people? It's just gonna be a nice flea market where everybody gives conflicting opinions and, at best, a diplomatic fight emerges, and, at worst, we skip over the friction points not to piss anybody off.

Usual justifications for large gatherings:

  • we want you to be aware of what's happening
    Sounds great, send me the meeting notes.
  • we want everybody to feel involved in this decision
    Sounds great, make a pool and a written discussion thread.

Either it's a lesson that you are holding, or just don't.

No clear leader, or wrong leader

Who is leading the meeting? Are they aware? Who is going to take decisions? What happens if there are two conflicting opinions? Are we all gonna look the other way and pretend there is agreement, or is there somebody invested with authority who is going to say "we do this way and I don't care you if you disagree"? Are they entitled to take decisions, or is it a paralympic-table-tennis-player-turned-tech-manager deciding what frontend framework to use?

Showing a shitty presentation

Mamma mia, the dread when someone has something to show, and then they show up with these slides full of text that everybody just reads. Why don't you write it down nicely and send it over? It's gonna take you 1 hour to write, and 5 minutes for me to go through it. If we are a team of 10 people, the total time amounts to 60+5x9 = 105 minutes. If everybody needs to sit in a meeting for 30 minutes, that's 30x10 = 300 minutes. But yeah, you guessed it: the work is on you.

Longer than 30 minutes

After talking for 30 minutes, I'm already covering childhood traumas. What is it that's gonna require more than 30 minutes? If you feel like you need a lot of time, and you're not holding a lesson, it's a sign that you're probably falling prey to one of the pitfalls above. Too many participants makes it lengthy. No agenda makes it hard to nail down the discussion points and tackle them effectively. Showing slides crammed with text takes a lot of time.

I'm sure you can keep it below 30 minutes, if you do the preparatory work. If you are too busy lazy, why do you expect others to put in their time?

Recurring meetings

Give any team a time slot and a title, and some conversation will emerge. It might even be thoughtful. But was it of any use? I'm very skeptical of recurring meetings -- if managed appropriately, they require a lot of time: agenda, notes, roles ... half hour of meeting requires another half hour of work. And in most cases, it's just a time filler. People say "we are going to join and, if nobody has anything to bring up, we'll split straightaway". Expect I'm not really gonna get anything done in the 25 minutes I "got back", since I had planeed to be in a meeting. So I'd much rather call for a meeting when needed, rather than cancel one on the spot.