One Kind of Meeting You Should Never Have
Many workplaces have frequent meetings where everyone on a team gets together (either physically or virtually) to give oral status reports of their respective projects.
These "update meetings" (aka "staff meetings") are supposedly useful because they encourage "better communication." I beg to differ.
As I see it, communication should take place only if it's necessary to coordinate the activities of team members. If that need does not exist, "better communication" is only creating distractions.
For example, programmers working on a commercial application don't need to know the status of the marketing campaign. Similarly, marketing folk do not need to know the specifics of technical milestones.
As a general rule, business communication should be on a "need to know" basis, not because it's secret but because if you don't need to know something, you're wasting time and energy if you're thinking about it.
For the sake of argument, though, let's suppose that your team actually does have a need for better communication. If so, it's far more productive for everyone on the team to write and distribute a summary rather than to have an update meeting.
Do the Numbers
Let's imagine you're on a team of 10 people. If everyone in an update meeting gives a 15-minute update, you've consumed 150 minutes per person for a total of 1500 person-minutes (i.e., a 2.5-hour meeting with 10 people in attendance).
By contrast, if everyone spends 15 minutes writing a summary, you consume 150 minutes in writing time but, because most people can read (or skim) 10 times faster than they can listen, you're adding only 15 minutes per person (i.e., 1.5 X 10) for a total reading time of 150 person-minutes. The grand total is therefore 300 person-minutes.
Thus, writing summaries is five times more efficient than an update meeting.
However, let's suppose that everyone on the team is a slow writer and takes 30 minutes to write the status summary. That's 300 minutes spent writing.
Let's also suppose that everyone on the team is a bit dense and takes three minutes to skim over each summary. That's 300 minutes in reading time, for a grand total of 600 person-minutes.
That's still two and a half times more efficient than giving the updates at a meeting.
Forced to Focus
There are other advantages to summaries over meetings. Writing a summary forces you to concentrate on what's really important. It also allows team members, when reading, to skip over information that's not relevant to them.
Furthermore, to have an update meeting, you must coordinate everyone's schedule, which means travel time, setup time, futzing with equipment, and so forth. By contrast, writing and reading summaries takes place at the convenience of both writer and reader.
Update meetings also have a tendency to degenerate into BS sessions, where everyone must prove he or she is important by commenting on, or objecting to, everything that everyone else says. If you've ever worked anywhere, you know what I'm talking about here. Such activity is not just unproductive; it's actively counterproductive.
In addition, update meetings, in my experience more so than other types of meetings, are prone to descend down rat holes.
For those who haven't heard the term, a rat hole is a discussion about something you can't do anything about (like the economy) or something that's inherently stupid (like "does our product really conform to Web 3.0?").
It's not unknown for update-meeting attendees to surface rat holes because their status report contains bad news and they want to run out the clock. That tactic, however, doesn't work with written summaries.
In short, although it may make sense to have kickoff meetings and meetings to discuss what needs to happen next, having a meeting simply to update everybody is flushing time (and therefore money) down the toilet.
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GEOFFREY JAMES | Columnist
Geoffrey James was recently named a "Top 40 Social Selling Marketing Master" by Forbes, and his blog has won awards from the Society of American Business Editors and the American Society of Business Publication Editors. His writing has appeared in publications as diverse as Wired, Brandweek, and Men's Health, and he is the author of numerous books, including The Tao of Programming, Business Wisdom of the Electronic Elite, and, most recently, Business Without the Bullsh*t: 49 Secrets and Shortcuts You Need to Know.