Why we Dislike Meetings, and Why Agendas make them Better

One topic that many software developers in our productivity studies are very vocal about are meetings. For example, in an online survey with 379 developers, 58% described meetings as a waste of time – one of the main reasons for feeling unproductive. In this blogpost, I explore reasons why meetings are so unpopular, especially for developers, and discuss why I think meeting agendas could make your meetings more efficient and successful!

In this post, meetings refer to internal gatherings with 3+ people in the same company, meant to brainstorm ideas, update the team, and make decisions. Of course there are many other forms, e.g. customer meetings, All-Company, formal 1:1s, but they usually happen more infrequently.

Problems with Meetings

One of our findings from studying software developers was that productive meetings include decision making, have a clear focus and goals, improve relationships in the team, and are used to help/support others. This, however, can only be achieved when everyone in the meeting is prepared. And, in my experience, this is almost never the case.

As a result, way too much time is spent updating everyone, the agenda is hijacked (by non-urgent things), and meetings drift-off to less relevant topics. In the end, the really important topics are only vaguely discussed, quieter people couldn’t express their opinions at all, and everyone is frustrated. So, we just organize another meeting to discuss these remaining points, right? No!

Stop Attending Meetings that Don’t have Agendas!

Preparing the meeting agenda in advance, and sending it out early enough (at least 2-3 days before) are crucial. That way, the organizer has to reflect about what the goals and expected outcomes really are, and how much time she wants to spend on each agenda item. This helps to understand how long the meeting should be scheduled for, and whether too many topics are planned for the allocated time.

This is also the perfect time to reflect about inviting the right people. Do these people need to sit through the entire meeting, or do I need them only for a part of it or a particular subject? Do we really need everyone I intend to invite?

During the meeting, the organizer (or another attendee) should annotate/extend the agenda, and live-log all ideas, decisions and action items. At first, leading and documenting the meeting at the same time can be a bit overwhelming and must be trained. My dad perfected these skills over multiple years. Today, independently of whether it’s an internal or customer meeting, the instant the meeting ended, everyone receives an email from him (or can download) the meeting transcript. As voice-to-text systems get better, this is also something that digital assistants might be able to support us with in the future (e.g. as recently demonstrated at Microsoft Build).

Being Unprepared is Impolite

The agenda should not only consist of the topic titles, but also a brief summary, necessary stats and questions that will be discussed – this is essential for the attendees to prepare themselves. Upon receiving the agenda, attendees should take the time and study the agenda before attending a meeting. This is not only the polite way to prepare a meeting, but also helps to understand if the persron is really needed in the meeting and can contribute something. Offering attendees the opportunity to opt-out of a meeting (or participate only in parts of it) if they feel they cannot contribute enough is important to avoid attendees who are not motivated and just sit through meetings, and allow them to focus on their work, priorities and responsibilities. Another advantage of studying the agenda before a meeting is that attendees can react in time in case they realize more information/data is needed for the meeting or an important topic they want to discuss is missing.

Above, I mentioned that it is crucial and polite that everyone prepares for the meeting in advance. This means that we respect each other’s busy lifes and time. Only when everyone is prepared can the meeting start right-away, without wasting time to update some attendees. Only then, the time can be used efficiently with discussing the topics and making decisions. It also prevents meetings being hijacked by someone, to discuss another, unintended purpose – leaving the organizer of the meeting in a situation where the original meeting goals are not met.

This doesn’t mean that urgent, unexpected topics should’t be discussed – they should be raised in the beginning of the meeting and a decision made on how much time can be spent on the issue, or if the original meeting should be rescheduled in case the urgent issue is really important.

Open-Mindedness to Foster Discussions

Sometimes, I sit in meetings that I organize or attend where I have the feeling that decisions have already been made, which defeats the entire purpose of the meeting. Being open-minded about new ideas and discussions, and considering (and encouraging!) crazy, unconventional ideas is what meetings are about. When everything is already decided or it’s just to update others (and not to answer constructive, critical questions), why do we meet at all? Then, one can just send-out an email with the info. Meetings are about collaborating in a team. About inviting everyone to speak-up and considering different opinions. About listening.

This is also why I love unconvential meetings; meetings that take place in unusual locations and in unusual formats. For example, at MIT-GROUP, we have a large standing-desk in the main meeting room. Since everyone is standing, there are less people “hiding” behind their laptops (and answering emails or browsing Facebook!), meetings are shorter, and generally feel less formal – resulting in a more creative flow of ideas. About a year ago I’ve started (and blogged about) inviting others to walk meetings. Since then, many have approached me to thank me for that suggestion: These meetings result in much richer discussions that lead to new ideas, improve the team spirit, and allow everyone to be a bit more active and catch the sun.

In case you are interested in a much more extensive and broader discussion of meetings (and why software developers particularly dislike them), I recommend to visit Steven Sinofsky’s Blog. He was the president of the Microsoft Windows division until 2012 and is now partner at the Andreesen Horowitz investment firm.