On meetings and coming together


It is hard to justify calling a meeting. Do all five of these people need to be here for the next hour? Are we brainstorming? Is something unclear?

Brainstorming during a meeting is not always a good use of time.

When is the last time that, when called upon, you were able to summon all of your creative energies to focus into a burst of inspiration about something, anything? Can you do it in the next 10 minutes? Hour? Or in a room with all these other people, at the same time? In the ideal situation this would be a difficult task, in reality, Mary didn't get her coffee yet and is a little tired, Billy is slightly distracted about his weekend drive to Eerie, and Joe is still wondering about his latest code taking O(n!) time. That is to say, people had other things going on prior to this meeting and will need to reengage different other-things after this meeting.

And if this meeting was about an idea - ideas need refinement and refinement takes time. Concepts that float in the air may come into focus much later today, tomorrow, or the next day given proper time for development and pondering. Adressing issues in an hour long meeting is not the best way to do things, because it's confining. If the purpose was to share ideas and grow an elegant solution, boxing it down to an hour would seem counterproductive.

We have been using Basecamp by 37signals internally for some time now. We use Basecamp as a solution for meeting, planning, figuring out who's doing what, what was finished last, and where did we last leave off talking about implementing the auto-reloading-chicken-launcher. For me, Basecamp works. And more importantly, Basecamp works efficiently.

After dividing up projects in Basecamp, ideas can be discussed, clarified, redirected/reassigned to specific people when needed, and involve only as many people as needed at any given time. Looping in a business developer for a message or two is an awesome feature, talk to exactly who is needed only about what is important to them. By contrast, putting 7 people in a room to plan or map out an idea is, arguably, a poor use of a lot of time. Does your designer need to sit there for the entire hour and a half to speak for five minutes? Does anyone?

For the new people coming on board, each item in Basecamp has a discussion progression that is ordered and they can follow it sensibly. A trail that can be the breadcrumbs to follow until whoever is dropped into a project is up to speed. Nothing gets lost and everything is tracked.

Meetings now can be as simple as campfire chats, logged and visible. The entire team can drop in and out of a room and always be able to rewind to see what was missed. Or, simply, idle all day and never be more than a few key strokes out of touch with the team for help, answers, and pictures of cats.

Most often though, for me, I find detailing what needs to be done is usually sufficient to get the ball rolling to bypass a more structured meeting and side discussions break away from the group, as needed.

Doing things in this somewhat informal manner is effective, keeps everyone happier and more productive. If we level the worth of everyone's time to a flat value, multiply that by the number of people attending and again by the total hours spent in a meeting and any subsequent follow-up meetings, the opportunity cost grows steadily into the thousands of dollars. Now consider any meeting where your mind has wandered and the need for a better solution arises.

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