Recurring meetings must die

Matt Casey

Written by Matt Casey. Co-founder of DoThings. Author of The Management Delusion and We Need to Talk About Scrum.

February 19, 2020

Sometimes I worry about what happens when we die. According to most of the popular religions I’m not going to the good place, and if there is a hell, my personal one will be an eternity spent in recurring meetings. I’ll have to listen to someone talk about all the things they did last week that don’t affect me, while someone else asks them questions about those things that don’t affect anyone, and the rest of them torture me with their relentless alpha-off revolving around increasingly irritating buzzwords. I’ll sit there screaming inside, praying for the sweet release of oblivion, but it will never come. Sometimes I’ll crack under the pressure and beg with them all to let me leave so I can actually do some work, and I’ll be rounded on and told I’m being unprofessional by someone who just used the word ‘action’ as a transitive verb. If the universe is a cruel and terrible place, this will be my eternity. Hopefully I’ll just be on fire.

Thankfully while I occupy this mortal form, I don’t have to suffer recurring meetings anymore. Several years ago, I outlawed the recurring meeting in my company. When I decided to do this, nobody was onboard. They agreed that the meetings were dreadful, but they were convinced they were a necessary evil. I’m not a fan of putting my foot down, but I really wanted to see what would happen without them. So, we agreed to just try it. We agreed we’d stop having recurring meetings, and if everything was a disaster, we’d start having them again. The worst thing that could happen was a couple of weeks of disruption. That was Monday. By Wednesday, we’d unblocked everything that had been blocked, the right people were having the right conversations at the right time, and I no longer wanted to kill myself and everyone around me.

Recurring meetings are a lot like cigarettes. One of the things smokers claim is that smoking reduces stress. I used to be a smoker and believed this. If I was stressed and I had a cigarette, I felt less stressed. However, what you fail to realise as a smoker is that the stress you are eliminating is the stress of needing a cigarette. When you’re addicted to nicotine, the withdrawal feels remarkably similar to stress, so when you have a cigarette you alleviate this feeling and believe you have reduced your stress. But if you just didn’t smoke, you’d have been less stressed the entire time, not just when you finally got to have a cigarette. Smoking does not reduce stress for a non-smoker, far from it. In his excellent book The Easy Way to Stop Smoking, Allen Carr equates this to wearing an unbearably tight pair of shoes all day, just to feel the relief of taking them off for five minutes once every couple of hours.

With recurring meetings, we fall into exactly the same trap. The recurring meeting blocks communication for a whole week while we wait for the time we’re allowed to talk to each other, then it finally unblocks us when we get in the meeting, and we think the meeting helped us. We’ve parked things that we really could have just talked about right away, so by the time the meeting comes around everyone has a huge amount to talk about, and we all think “God, how would we cope without this meeting!?“. The truth is that the meeting caused the problem. Conversations that could have happened a week ago are happening far too late, decisions have been delayed, and work wasn’t being done that could have been done. The meeting is only solving a problem that the very existence of the meeting created.

The recurring meeting is yet another thing that persists from an age where it was the best solution. When we didn’t have the technology to allow a group of people to share information between one another quickly and efficiently, the most sensible way to organise would have been to schedule a recurring meeting. You couldn’t realistically round everyone up every single time someone needed to discuss something, so you accepted that the only way to work was to have a scheduled time and place where you’d all get together to discuss things. That’s no longer necessary. Technology allows us to have these group conversations on the fly. We do it every day. Most of us interact with several different Whatsapp groups or Slack channels daily. We don’t need to schedule a time we all have those conversations, we just throw information into them when we want to say something, and we read the information they contain when we’re free to listen. It’s easy, it’s something we’re all doing anyway, and it really should have signalled the death of the recurring meeting. But it didn’t, most companies still have huge numbers of these meetings. When I’ve been asked to help clients improve their efficiency, I almost always find that everyone attends at least one recurring meeting every single day. This is destroying their productivity for two reasons. Firstly, it means people’s time is far too structured, forcing people to think about things at specific times instead of just dynamically focussing their energy where it’s most needed. Secondly, it constantly disrupts people from their flow state, which for a lot of jobs in a modern company is essential to achieve good work.

One of the big push backs I got when I first decided to abolish recurring meetings was that people believed it would be impossible to get enough of one another’s time “Hannah is always so busy” I kept hearing “I need to get time booked in or I’ll never get to discuss things with her”. But Hannah is only so difficult to get hold of because she is constantly in recurring meetings. If she didn’t have those meetings, anyone would be able to contact her whenever they needed her. Getting rid of these meetings allows for agile, dynamic conversations to happen as and when they need to, with no fluff or time wasted around them. In a typical recurring meeting, most attendees really don’t need to be involved in about 70% of the conversations that go on. Given that people are often spending half their days in recurring meetings, that’s a lot of wasted time. And that’s not even factoring in the biggest way that recurring meetings kill your momentum. It’s not just the time they take, it’s the time all around them as well.

When someone has a meeting scheduled for 3pm, guess what happens before and after that meeting? Nothing. If I’m a software developer, the chances of me getting any high quality work done after lunch and before that meeting are really low. Sometimes it might happen, but generally I’m not even going to try. And after the meeting, it’s nearly home time so I might as well not kick anything off. If you drag 10 people into that meeting, that’s 40 hours of work time you just threw away.

That’s just the one meeting. Add up your scrum ceremonies, your one one ones, your departmental meetings, your steering groups, your all hands, and at the end of it you’re left with almost no time for any actual work to take place. When your job is creative - which 99% of the jobs in a modern company are in some way or another - the most valuable thing you can have is an uninterrupted block of time. Recurring meetings strip these opportunities to nothing. I have frequently worked with clients where not a single employee had the chance to work a full day uninterrupted. The value that can be gained from changing that is almost immeasurable.

The technology we have available now means we no longer need to subject people to these interruptions. When we created DoThings, one of our main goals was to make it so we wouldn’t need recurring meetings. As a result, it’s been years since I’ve attended one, and work is immeasurably better as a result. Sure, it makes the possibility of an afterlife even more terrifying, but at least I’m being productive while I’m alive.

In summary: don’t smoke, don’t wear uncomfortable shoes, and don’t waste your time with recurring meetings.

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