To Meet, or Not To Meet…

Whether it’s “jeez, I’ve got back-to-back meetings all day — how am I supposed to do any real work?” or “there was zero point of having that meeting” to “what meeting? when did that meeting take place? Why wasn’t someone from my team involved?” the meeting is surely something every professional in business or politics has to deal with.

Smaller companies typically shun meetings — especially tech start-ups. They are viewed as a useless waste of time that encourage people to talk about taking action vs. actually doing so. The meeting is viewed as the epitome of inefficiency & procrastination typically reserved for large, bureaucratic corporations that move at the speed of turtles. Start-up types don’t meet to talk about approach & gain consensus because that slows things down. Instead, they take action quickly and make adjustments if necessary.

Larger companies, on the other hand, seem to fully embrace meetings. They are viewed as an opportunity to strategize the solution to problems and come up with a go-forward plan that teams can execute upon. As such, meetings are viewed as an effective & necessary use of people’s time. Might it slow down the company’s ability to act by a week/month/quarter? Perhaps. But is it better to do that than make a rash decision that cannot easily be undone? Probably.

I’ve had the rare opportunity to work for a company that was small when I joined the team (I think I was employee #15) and grew to as many as 4000 employees within 4 years. Pretty rare you get to witness that evolution of small to big company in such a short period of time. Back in the day, one of the founders would knock on the window of a conference room while passing by if he thought there were too many people in the room. That knock turned into a pound if we were still in there 10 minutes later… Nowadays, I sometimes carry a computer charger around with me because I’m in so many meetings that the laptop would die by mid-afternoon otherwise.

So which philosophy on meetings is the right one? I’d say that it’s a hybrid of the two: it’s good to have a healthy skepticism and fear of a culture that encourages “talking vs. doing,” but also good to ensure that the right people are consulted before key decisions are made and teams start spinning cycles to execute on things. If nothing else, one thing is absolute no matter the size or culture of the company: any meeting held must be an effective one, which means…

  1. The meeting has a purpose in the form of a clear agenda that defines the objective of the meeting, which should be to answer an open question or solve a problem, and define a go-forward strategy
  2. The meeting is run by someone who a) knows how to control/run a meeting, and b) is empowered by those in attendance to do so
  3. The meeting includes at least one representative from every team that is impacted by the problem or will be impacted by the solution. In my experience, it is this rule that is most commonly broken because a) meeting organizers assume certain teams don’t need to be involved and want to spare someone the burden of being in (yet another) meeting, or b) people don’t want to include dissenting parties that will “slow down the process” or get in the way of a “solution.” The problem is that often times when this happens, the decisions made end up having undesired/unanticipated consequences, which often result in revisiting the initial strategy and taking two steps back after one forward… not the most efficient strategy.
  4. The meeting ends with clear takeaways and consensus around accountability for action items, open questions, and timeline.

Admittedly, these guidelines are most important for big companies, where teams are spread throughout different floors (or even buildings) and can’t be as collaborative as teams at smaller companies. Running meetings this way ensures everyone is on the same page and executing plans more efficiently and effectively. Small companies don’t usually “structure” meetings because when everyone gets out of the room, they go sit in very close proximity to one another and can just follow up in real time about things. That said, it can’t hurt to apply these principles to meetings at smaller companies either. If nothing else, it makes the transition easier should yours be the next small company to experience hyper-growth and evolve into big company culture seemingly overnight…

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