Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Meetings sucked but they don't have to anymore!

Today I attended a seminar about the modern meeting. Thank you to Logitech who sponsored the seminar, and also to Microsoft and Pexip who presented, and finally to the guest speaker, Dave Michels, who gave an excellent talk which i will borrow from and expand upon below. These are my words and ideas, but Dave reinforced them and made me want to write a little about them here.

Let's reflect on a simple truth - meetings suck.

They are an anachronism from a time of TPS reports and heavily regimented hierarchical structures incompatible with the modern American organization.

Do you come out of a weekly 60 minute status/team meeting and feel 120 minutes older?
     I know I do...

Meetings must die.
     Long live the meeting!

Just to get started, here are my recommendations for meetings:

  • Never host or goto a meeting without a clear agenda or purpose
    • Include the agenda in the meeting invitation and relevant documents with the meeting (or even better - links to them)
  • Never schedule a meeting for something that can be handled in email or IM
    • Remember that status reports and project updates should be a part of a project management system and not a meeting
  • Schedule meetings for WAY less than an hour - think 15, 30 but never more than 45 minutes
    • Ask yourself, "do we NEED this meeting/time?" - remember this is probably time that everyone can be more productive doing their jobs
    • Ending early isn't "giving you back your time," it's just a good idea
  • If you don't need to be there, then you shouldn't have the meeting
  • Meeting time isn't social or complaint time so a leader should direct the conversation so the agenda/purpose of the meeting can be completed efficiently and quickly (wrap business up before the social sessions)
These simple things are a first step in making meetings better.  Notice that they also discourage meetings. I intend to preach this idea far and wide because "meetings" are evolving; the act of consciously devoting cycles to stopping work and talking about your work has been componentized and redistributed in function by a number of different tools. Decades of thought have gone into this but the changes have come very quickly and are remain is a huge state of flux as the competitive markets see who wins.

What is changing these meetings? 
In the IT world a dozen or so years of Project Management, ITIL, and many other methodologies have standardized business practices. When we all work the same way, or at least have an understanding of how we should work towards a goal, we don't need to meet as often to figure out how we will wing our way through the next week. Standardization helps!    With this, we have many tools to track projects, assign tasks, and fiddle with all kinda of levers that traditionally we had meetings for. Just look at email - it killed the memo and has been leveraged to avoid meetings for forty years now! Many other areas have seen similar standardization and tools come into regular usage and we can always use them to reduce wasted meeting time.

Video and voice conferencing has become pervasive in the workplace and in our everyday lives. We've tied these into our phone systems and added messaging and made them all work from everywhere. This rapidly changing technology is nearly commoditized such that everyone everywhere can communicate as if they were in an old-fashioned meeting but in a short ad-hoc impromptu way. This can avoid the interruptive nature of a scheduled meeting yet still allow the face to face productive benefits than single model communications cannot.
Think about communications in the different models we might use: written < verbal < documents < visual. Each model provides more information and therefore more context than the previous but also requires more attention. Retention also increases with each as well.
The coming revolution might lie in what Dave referred to as "Work Stream Apps." I like that name as it appropriately describes what Slack, Cisco Spark, Microsoft Teams and similar can do. Think  about those models I just described; each was completely separate not long ago. Talking to someone on a phone required a very separate set of infrastructure than sending them a document but how often did you have to do both at the same time? A work stream app allows you to multitask your communication (or meeting) such that textual messages exist in the same space as the documents they reference and those involved can start a voice call about the topic instantly without leaving the same app, or even add in video participants. 

When we consider Work Stream Applications, the traditional meeting does not need to exist. We have distilled it down into a concentrate that fits better into the way we work. When a team or functional group is working on something from diversa locations and times, they can keep each other up to date without ever having interrupted their work. This isn't even an EOD handover - it's an active ongoing conversation (ok, a never ending meeting). When there is a situation that the keyboard/finger combo turns to head/desk, you can push a button to start using your words OR gesticulate a little. 

As I said, these ideas are in flux right now as the pioneers see the big guns crowding the market with their different take. Everything will change in the next few years. It is possible that "work stream apps" become too monolithic and are rejected by users. It is hard to tell for certain, but having seen how componentized these things are I am confident in saying that if you are in Collaboration, Telecommunications, Unified Communications or Messaging and you are not paying attention then you are behind the ball.

Meetings? Are ya with me?

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