It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in — the pace of change is frenetic. Competition, disruption, the drive to respond to customer needs and changing market conditions all result in enormous pressure. Pressure to deliver more of the right stuff, faster and better than ever before.

We all know that responding to this pressure requires agility and effective collaboration. Being Agile is about being responsive and adaptive in the face of complexity and change. In larger organizations, coordinating change, strategy and execution also means aligning diverse and often competing interests. One thing stands in the way of achieving true business agility: bad meetings.

Despite their potential down side, meetings still remain one of the fastest, high-bandwidth ways to quickly solve complex problems and achieve alignment. But when meetings aren’t executed well, they become an impediment with potentially devastating consequences. Bad meetings kill agility.

The Agile Theory

Agile practices like Scrum are supposed to solve this problem. Scrum is very clear in that it calls for only 5 meetings that, collectively, take around 10-20% of a team’s total available time. Specifically, the meetings are:

  • Sprint Planning
  • Daily Standup
  • Backlog Refinement Sessions
  • Sprint Review / Demo
  • Sprint Retrospective
That’s the theory anyway. Participation in any other meetings should be by rare exception only.  And for very simple, smaller organizations that works pretty well. If you have a small organization with a single product and minimal dependencies, you can make it work. But that theory doesn’t match the reality that many of us face.

The Reality

Larger organizations encounter diverse challenges to the simple Scrum ideal. Most of us on development teams face many more meeting demands. And those of us who are managers and executives face a literal crush of meeting requests. The joke is that a manager’s job is to turn coffee into meetings. Numerous studies show that most managers spend between 50%-80% of their time in meetings.

Individual contributors in larger organizations face many legitimate meeting obligations as well. There are cross-team problem solving meetings, hiring interviews, communities of practice and technical coordination sessions to name a few of the most common. Some things can be done to collaborate outside of meetings. But the truth is that in larger organizations, meetings can be one of the most effective ways to collaborate. These are not frivolous meetings — they serve real ends important to the organization, the teams and the individuals.

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Managers' time in meetings

What’s Driving All Those Meetings?

Much has been written about the deep cultural and management shifts that must accompany a successful Agile transformation. Transparency, decentralization, empowerment, co-creation. These are some of the most common headline terms. I strongly agree and support these changes as necessary to true agility. However, I believe they are often the source of many more meetings. This is because co-creation by empowered teams requires more collaboration than traditional “command-and-control”. That is not inherently a bad thing. 

Meetings Don’t Have To Be Bad!

Anyone in business will likely tell you that meetings are a poor way to spend their time. I think that says more about our skill at running meetings than it does about meetings themselves.

We need to think differently about meetings. Meetings done well, with purpose and discipline, are the work of collaboration. That is, sometimes we work alone in front of a computer, sometimes we work by visiting customers, and sometimes we work by meeting with others.  It’s all valuable work (or should be). 

The problem is that we are not very good at collaborating. It is a skill that few are taught. We mistakenly think of meetings as “just talking”. For those who are unskilled and undisciplined, a lot of meetings are just that. And grandstanding. And politics. And escape from other work. And socializing. Rather than get better, it seems the tendency is to throw up our hands and say that meetings are hopelessly broken. Woe is me.

Meetings are Critical to Agility and Business Outcomes

If the essence of Agility is decentralized, empowered teams, then collaboration becomes critical to business success.

“Agility is undermined and disrupted by a constant churn of ineffective meetings…”

If you move away from command-and-control authority, then diverse teams, products, projects and disciplines must establish and maintain their own alignment. In small organizations (fewer than 20 people), this process is fairly easy and natural. It doesn’t require as much skill. The larger and more complex an organization gets, the harder this collaboration becomes.

There is extraordinary attention and money given to the problem of software team collaboration. But we do relatively little to establish discipline and skill outside of the team unit, particularly around meetings. Considering how much time we spend in meetings, this seems like an major oversight. The consequences are predictable. Agility is undermined and disrupted by a constant churn of ineffective meetings and the organization suffers.

It goes way beyond time wasted. Let’s look at one example to illustrate the problem. In a typical large-scale software or hardware organization, product leadership sets strategic direction (vision, goals, KPIs, etc.). This strategy is often based on a variety of inputs including market research, customer feedback, customer experience advocates, partner input, finance, overall corporate strategy, engineering concerns, and so on. This is a complex, collaborative process of inputs and outputs. In an agile organization, this process is always evolving.

Managing and aligning that process is exceedingly difficult. It requires problem-solving, negotiation, consensus building, vetting and so on. This is real, valuable work that must be done; it is the work we do in meetings (among other means). When our meetings are broken, we see the symptoms clearly: thrash, indecision, in-fighting, lack of clarity, conflicting goals, and unengaged employees. We see product management making last-minute changes, wasting lots of individual-contributor time, reversing course, sponsoring ill-defined initiatives, requesting unrealistic functionality and so on…

Meetings are the Glue of Agility

I argue that when you get to any scale beyond a team of two, effective meetings (and other forms of collaboration) are the glue that holds agility together. Show me an organization that meets poorly, and I will show you an organization that struggles with nearly everything else it does.

If you’d like to stop bad meetings in your organization, check out our guide to conducting Agile meetings.

Sources on Manager time in meetings:

The majority of a manager’s typical workday (69%) was spent in meetings, more recent surveys have suggested that meeting loads are increasing.

Mintzberg, H. (1973). The nature of managerial work. New York: Harper & Row.

A study with senior managers showed that these managers were sitting in meetings for 23 hours a week on average and expected to have even more meetings in the future.

Luong, A., & Rogelberg, S.G. (2005). Meetings and more meetings: The relationship between meeting load and the daily well-being of employees. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 9, 58-67. doi: 10.1037/1089-2699.9.1.58

“Today, there are more than 25 million meetings per day in the United States alone”

Newlund, D. (2012). Make your meetings worth everyone’s time. USA today. Retrieved June 12, 2013 from http://www.usatoday.com/USCP/PNI/Business/2012-06-20-PNI0620biz-careergetting-aheadPNIBrd_ST_U.htm.

Studies of Managers and knowledge workers reveal that they spend between 25%-80% of their time in meetings

“Meeting Analysis: Findings from Research and Practice “ Nunamaker & Romano, 2001

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Michael Ball

Co-founder, Product Lead at Instant Agenda
Michael was born a squalling, helpless MVP and has struggled ever since to obtain product-market fit. Experiments have included Peace Corps volunteer, ops engineer, scrum master, product owner, agile coach, husband, father, armchair philosopher, and, most recently, lean startup founder. Michael is still working on his exit-strategy, but his earliest angel investors seem generally proud of his accomplishments.
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