What I hear when you tell me your company doesn’t do meetings

the co pour

I know what you want me to hear.

You want me to hear that you’re modern and amazing. You want me to hear that you respect the maker schedule. That you aren’t afraid to break ranks with corporate dogma. That nobody else will admit how awful meetings are, but you will. You want me to hear that you move fast, and that nothing great was ever designed by committee.

That’s not what I hear.

I had coffee with a leader at a startup a few weeks ago. He asked me for some advice about ways to get his teams aligned around product and strategy decisions. The teams don’t work together well, he said. And no one knows what’s going on. And it means we move too slowly. I asked what tools he uses right now — how communication happens and where the opportunities for alignment are. He winced, and explained that their company had a meetings-free culture, so a lot of the things I was describing weren’t options.

When you tell me your company doesn’t do meetings, this is what I hear.

You don’t understand the privilege of executive context

It’s true that your people are sometimes excited about a meeting-free environment, at least at first. But making it a company-wide policy (or even an aspiration) comes from the top. And, in a way, it’s not too surprising. For a founder CEO who isn’t paying attention to his or her people, meetings feel like a waste of time.

Here’s how the argument goes: Meetings are expensive. Every CEO tells the same story. You know the one? It goes, “imagine a giant clock ticking off the combined salary of everyone in the room as we talk about this crap.” Of course you’ve heard that story. We all have. And surely a scrappy, driven startup can do better than to indebt themselves to that clock.

If you’re just communicating status? Use Slack or email. Coordinating work? Use Google Docs or Jira. Have a shift in strategy? Just share around the board deck and ask for comments inline.

It takes an astonishing amount of effort to get people to hear a thing.

As a CEO, especially in the early days, you have maximum context about the state and goals of the business. For you, meetings are operational exercises — who does what — and they seem inefficient. But your people do not have all the context. For them, meetings are both operational exercise and context sharing.

Getting rid of meetings to focus on the work sounds intuitive, but only because you can’t feel the loss of context that happens. You don’t suffer that loss, at least not right away. But your team does. A question in a marketing meeting about why the marketing looks a certain way starts a short sidebar about who we’re targeting. The marketers thought that was obvious because to them it is. But three people in the room didn’t realize it at all, and will do their jobs better as a result. Unless that meeting never happened.

Could they have read it in a slide deck? Yep, but they didn’t. Because…

You also undervalue narrative and alignment

Humans can’t help it. We love stories. And when you put a bunch of us together, even our operational updates get context woven in. It makes things seem less efficient, but the truth is that this is how we hear things, and decide to care about them.

It takes an astonishing amount of effort to get people to hear a thing. I remember John Lilly’s rule was that he had to say a thing three times more often than he thought he should have to, if he wanted people to hear it. In hindsight, I suspect he’d agree that number’s still low.

Sometimes alignment happens in grand gestures like a team offsite or a strategy session (which, to be clear, are also meetings). But those big opportunities are too infrequent. You miss the chance to nip alignment issues early.

ask an investor

Effective leaders are always adjusting alignment, re-telling the story, bringing us back to our core, and applying it to new problems. Not just because they’re enamoured with their company’s origin myths. They repeat these points over and over because they know that narrative drives behaviour change like nothing else.

Those stories get told in 1:1s (those are meetings) and in all-hands discussions (also meetings!) but working meetings are often the ones where narrative has the most impact. In a 1:1 you can say “We value this thing.” You can say it in a town hall, too. But it’s in a planning meeting, or a decision-making discussion, where you can say, “We value this thing and therefore we should…”. Watching those values and narratives in direct application is a major piece of how they drive an organization. It gives your values life. And, like plants, they need regular watering or else they wither.

And you threw that out. Mostly, if we’re being honest, because…

You don’t know how to run an effective meeting

This is really the crux of it all. And it’s such an unsatisfying reason. I’ve heard people say this about various elements of business and it always sounds absurd to me.

“I had 1:1s at this one company and they weren’t very useful, so we’re not doing them here.”
“Our last all-hands was poorly run, so we’re not going to do them any ore.”
“Those planning meetings are two hours long and terrible so we’re just not going to have them.”

It wasn’t easy and perfect the first time out, so screw it? My toddler has more gumption.

Meetings — discussions between colleagues about the work to be done and the reasons for doing it — are important. I shouldn’t have to say it, but here we are. But just because they’re important doesn’t mean they organize themselves. And this is what I see trip people up.

People understand that there are systems to accounting. There are systems to project management, and sales, marketing message development. And there are systems to meetings. Lots of them.

If you’ve never bothered to apply one of them I’m not sure why you’ve given up. I can’t do the topic justice in a hundred words, but if it whets your appetite, they typically boil down to four questions:

1. Who is running this meeting?
2. What is the output of this meeting?
3. Who are the right people to produce that output?
4. How are we going to get to that output?

How you run meetings can and should adapt to your culture and your models of decision-making and collaboration.

If it’s a product decision that needs to be made, maybe the product owner runs it. The output is a decision. You can’t make the decision without marketing, engineering, PM, and design in the room. And our process is to have the PM outline the problem and the three possibilities. We’re going to talk down each of the options for 10 minutes, and then the product owner is going to make the call and we’re all going to get behind it.

If it’s a change in business strategy maybe you say: CEO runs it. Output is shared context and understanding, and a set of follow-up jobs. Whole company needs to be there. We’re going to get there with a prepared walk through by the CEO followed by Q&A.

The fact that there ought to be a system doesn’t mean you can’t make it your own. How you run meetings can and should adapt to your culture and your models of decision-making and collaboration. How do you distribute materials and solicit feedback to respect different introvert/extrovert communication styles? What are the right ways to ensure your remote employees don’t have to struggle to get a word in? How do you rotate ownership to give junior team members an opportunity to grow? What training do they need? All of this stuff matters. But if you don’t have a system at all, I don’t understand how you hope to stay effective as you grow.

Can you hear me now?

I know how hard it is to build a business. I know the temptation to dump the stuff that’s hard or not working well. Who’s gonna go to the mat to defend meetings, of all things?

But I want to believe that, if you’re building this thing, you want it to grow and mature. That you want to have an impact on the world, and bring along a growing team of people who believe. People who see what you see, and who will help make that future clearer and nearer.

Whether it’s meetings, or performance reviews, or parental benefits, or diversity work, or basic fucking decency. Whatever the core business function is that you feel tempted to just punt on, my best advice to you is to see that ignorance for what it is. Use it as an impetus to get better. Tech has changed a lot about what’s possible, but it hasn’t made people stop being people. If you don’t like meetings, stop running bad ones.

This article was syndicated with permission from The Co-Pour


Johnathan Nightingale

Johnathan Nightingale is a founder and partner at Raw Signal Group. He is co-editor of The Co-pour and co-author of a book about modern leadership (coming fall 2017). Johnathan has built and operated organizations from 2 people to 250. He was the Vice President of Firefox for Mozilla during a period of intense turmoil inside Mozilla and in the web at large, helped build and launch the first Firefox offerings on Android and iOS, and still cheers every time the open web wins. After Mozilla he joined Hubba as their Chief Product Officer, and helped that team triple in size while improving their diversity stats instead of watching them slide. He is proud to sit on the board of Creative Commons, and is a big believer in the power of mission-based organizations. He has strong opinions about your coffee infrastructure.

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