Rethinking Meetings In A Remote World

In a short podcast episode, Seth Godin makes the argument against using remote work to copy in-person working habits, especially meetings.

Meetings give us insight as to who’s up and who’s down. Who’s being honored and who’s being disrespected. We live in a meetings culture. It is very hard to change it even if you’re the boss.

He argues against shifting from 8 people in a room to 8 people in a zoom chat. Instead, if the meeting really about making a decision, have everyone spend time before the meeting to write down what they actually believe.

From the co-founder of Basecamp, a successful remote company:

In Basecamp’s company’s handbook, they share more nuance around these beliefs. I suggest reading the whole thing, but here are some of the selected principles on written versus verbal communication:

#6: Writing solidifies, chat dissolves. Substantial decisions start and end with an exchange of complete thoughts, not one-line-at-a-time jousts. If it’s important, critical, or fundamental, write it up, don’t chat it down.

#7: Rule Speaking only helps who’s in the room, writing helps everyone. This includes people who couldn’t make it, or future employees who join years from now.

#8: If your words can be perceived in different ways, they’ll be understood in the way which does the most harm.

#27: Communication is lossy, especially verbal communication. Every hearsay hop adds static and chips at fidelity. Whenever possible, communicate directly with those you’re addressing rather than passing the message through intermediaries.

This advice suggests that we should aim to use meetings, when necessary, for decision making or other matters which require presence. Thinking should be saved for time outside of meetings.

Do The Thinking Before The Meeting

Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has argued similarly and has worked with organizations to help them experiment with only meeting once people have already prepared their decisions:

You may want people to write down the decision they are in favor of before the discussion starts. Its going to give you a broader diversity of points of view and it forces people to be better prepared.

Running these kind of meetings takes work and shifts the norms beyond what many are comfortable with, especially the manager.

Yet in his work with actual organizations Kahneman found over and over again that managers didn’t want to adopt a new approach. Why?

Too much work.

Most meetings don’t accomplish much of anything and most managers are perfectly content with that fact.

Imagine Worst Case Scenarios

Another idea for meetings may keep some of the meeting-as-thinking-space in tact, but make it more useful. The idea is Gary Klein’s “pre-mortem.” The concept involved travelling to the future in which the project has failed and try to come up with a list of reasons why the failure occurred:

A typical premortem begins after the team has been briefed on the plan. The leader starts the exercise by informing everyone that the project has failed spectacularly. Over the next few minutes those in the room independently write down every reason they can think of for the failure—especially the kinds of things they ordinarily wouldn’t mention as potential problems, for fear of being impolitic.

and then

Next the leader asks each team member, starting with the project manager, to read one reason from his or her list; everyone states a different reason until all have been recorded. After the session is over, the project manager reviews the list, looking for ways to strengthen the plan.

With this method, the team can then work backwards and make choices that may improve the odds of success or help them steer around guaranteed challenges.

Time For a Meeting Jubilee?

Similar to Kahneman, most meetings I went to in my career were places where people started thinking about the work, shared information in a ritualized weekly performance or showed up to impress very important senior people about the status of a project.

In one job I spent nearly the entire 2+ years at the company doing the work for a “major project” that could have been completed in two months. I spent hours every week preparing updates and coming up with new and better ways to show the same two or three options. I would then attend meetings with very important highly paid people and they would talk through the options. |They would give thoughtful reactions in executive-speak without making any decisions. I would go off to find more information and present the same information the following week.

Eventually I begged to be taken off the project at the expense of my career trajectory but to the benefit of my own sanity. This kind of meeting is happening at most companies across the world right now and I’m begging you to use this shift to remote work to question it!

In Godin’s podcast, he shares the story of his friend Toby who runs a company with 1000+ people:

One weekend he wrote a script for their company wide google calendar and what he did was he cancelled every single regular meeting that was on the calendar. And then he sent an email to everyone in the organization. I just gave you four hours of your life back every week. If that meeting that got cancelled was important, feel free to replace it. If you really need to have the meeting, go back and put it on the calendar.

If you’ve gone remote, use the opportunity to rethink default business behavior. Cancel the meetings. Have people write out what they think instead. Schedule a 15 minute Zoom meeting to make the final decision.

Let’s stop pretending meetings work. Give people back time to do real thinking and some of their sanity at the same time.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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