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Why Face-To-Face Meetings Are Overrated

It's an article of faith that creativity only happens when people meet in person. It's time to put that myth to rest.
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You know the feeling. Everyone’s sitting around a table, ideas are building on ideas, and intellectual sparks are lighting up the room. It’s tempting to think that this kind of magic only happens when people can see and touch each other.

Let’s assume for a second that that’s true: Breakthrough ideas only happen when people are interacting face-to-face. Still, the question remains: How many breakthrough ideas can a company actually digest? Far fewer than you imagine. Most work is not coming up with The Next Big Thing. Rather, it’s improving the thing you already thought of six months--or six years--ago. It’s the work of work.

Given that, you’re only going to frustrate yourself and everyone else if you summon the brain trust too frequently for those "a-ha!" moments. Because doing so means either giving up on the last great idea (the one that still requires follow-up) or it means further stuffing the backlog of great ideas. And a stuffed backlog fast becomes a stale backlog.

This is why at 37signals we don’t meet in person all that often. Our attitude is, we need a clean plate before going up for seconds. Only about three times a year does the whole company get together in the Chicago office. And even that can be a tad too frequent if our goal is to really blow it out on the free-riff idea ramp!

But what about those spur-of-the-moment rays of brilliance? First, few such rays actually warrant the label “brilliant”--more likely they’re mere rays of enthusiasm (and not to be confused with a priority). Second, you’d be amazed how much quality collective thought can be captured using two simple tools: a voice connection and a shared screen. Every time we use something like WebEx, we’re surprised at how effective it is. No, it’s not 100 percent as effective--it lacks that last 1 percent or 2 percent of high-fidelity interaction--but it’s much closer than you’d think.

By rationing in-person meetings, their stature is elevated to that of a rare treat. They become something to be savored, something special. Dine out every once in a while on those feasts and sustain yourself in the interim on the conversation “snacks” that technology makes possible. That will give you all the magic you can handle.

Reprinted from the book Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.  Copyright 2013 by 37Signals, LLC. Published by Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company. For more information, go to http://37signals.com/remote/

IMAGE: Adam Gault/Getty
Last updated: Oct 25, 2013




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