Nobody likes meetings. Well, not “nobody” – that older guy with the beard that nobody seems to know personally that comes to every meeting? He likes meetings, because he gets a free donut and a nap. But other than him, most people see meetings as way too unproductive and time-consuming to be likable. Necessary, sometimes, but not likable.
There are a lot of reasons why meetings can waste more time than they’re worth. Of course, meetings can be ill-planned, without an agenda (or worse, with an unclear agenda) and no real goal in mind. Meetings can often become the battleground for intra-office politics as well, with everyone’s time wasted while the office Alpha and Beta chest-thump at each other.
Other ways meetings waste time have to do with factors external to the meeting. They interrupt whatever you were working on at the time, regardless of whatever kind of flow state you might have been in. There’s always someone essential who runs late, forcing everyone to cool their heels waiting, or to start and then waste time when they finally show up and need to be filled in.
And, finally, there’s the structure of the meeting itself. Brainstorming meetings stall as people on whom the concept of brainstorming is lost run feasibility checks on each idea thrown out. Informative meetings stall when leadership encounters resistances they hadn’t foreseen and fumble, unprepared, for responses. And meetings overall fall down as voices and egos raise in a clamor for everyone to be heard – and to be right.
Five Alternatives to Meetings
Like I said, sometimes meetings are necessary, but rather than a first-response, meetings should be reserved for special occasions, when only a face-to-face meeting will do the job. In other times, try one of these five alternatives and see if they don’t save some time and some hassle.
While Instant Messaging (IM) is likely to be viewed more as a time-waster for teenagers and lonely geeks, a lot can get done via IM. IM allows you and your partners to maintain a long-term virtual “presence” as you work, posting questions, updates, and ideas as they strike you or as you come across problems in your work. Since IM programs maintain a full record of the chat session, there’s no danger of missing anything or losing it – just scroll up.
There are a couple of rules to follow for productive IM’ing.
- Cut the chatter. To keep things focused, each person should speak only a) when they have something important to add, or b) in response to a question.
- No frills. Today’s IM software comes with voice and video capabilities, avatars, face-morphing functions, multi-colored fonts, and more. Leave those for your twelve-year old daughter – you’re working, not playing IM.
If more personal contact and real-time sharing is needed, try a teleconferencing system like Adobe’s Acrobat.com or GoToMeeting. Most services allow screen sharing, collaborative whiteboarding, and other substitutes for same-room presence – without the commute to the meeting (even if it’s just down three floors), the incessant interruptions for coffee and bathroom breaks, the face-to-face socializing, or the forced absence from your desktop while you wait for that crucial email. Since most also create a transcript, you don’t need someone taking minutes, either.
Wikis provide a collaborative environment that is ideal for the development of working documents and statements, as well as material that will need to be referred to again and again. For one-off projects, an online wiki like WetPaint or PBWiki are ideal: free, easy to set up, and easy to use. For more mission-critical material, especially when you plan to use it repeatedly, and where security is a major concern, your organization can fairly easily set up an internal wiki on your intranet, using advanced software like MediaWiki, the software that runs Wikipedia.
Wikis are self-organizing and easy to create and edit, and they keep track of changes made along with a record of who is responsible for each edit (no more dickering over credit!). Where real-time interaction isn’t a necessity, building a wiki over a long period of time can be far more productive than a chain of meetings – but make sure to assign responsibilities and allow time for wiki work.
Another solution where real-time interaction is not a factor is the old-fashioned email list. Somewhat out of fashion these days, email lists can still be quite productive ways to get things done as a group – and both Yahoo and Google offer services that are free and easy to set up.
An effective email list should probably have a moderator – not to approve messages, but to remind people when they’re going off track. Good etiquette is essential in this environment; something about the medium encourages flame wars. But with a few precautions, email lists can still be quite effective tools, allowing for thoughtful, considered exchanges and automatically maintaining a searchable archive of past discussions.
Finally, effective use of a project management application can forestall the need for most meetings. Systems like Wrike and Basecamp allow notes to be exchanged, tasks to be assigned, and files to be shared. They also offer a number of ways for users to interact: SMS, email, online, RSS, or using a third-party application through Basecamp’s API.
If full-fledged project management is too much, consider using online services like Google Docs (which can be installed to your own domain via Google Apps) alongside Google Talk or another IM – you can share documents, add to and edit each others work, and create a repository of materials at the same time.
I am not trying to claim that all meetings can be replaced through online services or desktop applications. Sometimes an in-person meeting is the best and most eficient way to get things done.
But don;t let meetings become the default mode of itneraction. All too often, meetings represent a failure of communication, not the advancement of it – they’re called when nobody’s on the same page anymore, or worse, when the [stuff] is about to hit the fan. More effective planning and use of resources can often prevent the need for meetings, and let everyone involved spend more of their time doing work rather than talking about it.