The Law of Triviality, formulated by British author C.Northcote Parkinson is often referred to as the bike-shed principle or simply bikeshedding. According to the law, members of an organization give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. Parkinson provides the example of a fictional committee whose job was to approve the plans for a nuclear power plant spending the majority of its time on discussions about relatively minor but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bike shed, while neglecting the proposed design of the plant itself, which is far more important and a far more difficult and complex task.
Who among us hasn’t felt the reality of this principle while sitting at a Monday morning staff meeting thinking of all the important tasks we could have been doing instead? But are meeting a necessary evil? Could they be made more effective if we set ground rules and follow them or are they an outdated form of communication that can be eradicated altogether with the help of technological alternatives?
Meetings are notoriously dreaded by employees (if you don’t believe me, look at all the Dilbert cartoons on the subject). They often inhibit the production process instead of advancing it and research shows that work meetings cost a huge amount of time and money. Despite this, many managers continue to initiate lengthy staff meetings, treating them as a necessary evil or simply failing to come up with a better alternative. Even team leaders who consciously try to avoid time-wasting discussions, sometimes prefer face to face communication as a way to get everyone on the same page.
In search of a way to make meetings as scarce and effective as possible, if not obsolete, I compiled a list of the different approaches to what I like to call ‘minimal meeting management’:
The Structured Approach
There’s nothing that’s sure to waste your time quite as much as a meeting that hasn’t been thought through. To make a meeting into an effective huddle which everyone leaves with a boost of motivation, the first thing on your agenda should be an agenda. Here’s how to make sure your meetings won’t be a waste of time:
- Set a clear purpose for your meeting and make sure everyone knows what it is. Strive to be as prepared as possible and encourage your team to go over relevant materials before you meet. Meetings should be about making decisions, not going over all the alternatives.
- Make meetings short and to the point by setting a predefined time frame and sticking to it. It goes without saying you should start on time, ending on time is sometimes harder but not less important.
- Limit the number of participants in each meeting as much as possible. Office politics sometimes means half of the people sitting at a meeting don’t actually need to be there, but those cordial invites aren’t doing anything for your productivity.
- Create action items and accountability. Use the ideas and decisions developed during the meeting to create action items. And when these action items are created, assign them to members of your team.
The Scrum Approach
The Scrum software development method is a short “sprint” approach to managing projects. This work process includes quite a few mandatory meetings where the team gets together to brief each other on their advancement. Essential Scrum meetings include sprint planning, done before each leg of work, and sprint review once the sprint is complete. During a sprint, all team member meet for the Daily Scrum – a short update done standing up to increase productivity. Teams additionally may need backlog refinement sessions where the product manager can prioritize features. While this approach is far from being low in meetings, it creates the conditions for the meetings themselves to be as efficient as possible. The predefined and orderly aspect of Scrum also means everyone knows exactly when the next meeting is and what will be on the agenda, so there’s less room for things to get out of hand.
The Digital Approach
I’ve talked on this blog before about what working with remote teams has taught me. The feasibility of working together while in different parts of the globe is dependent on making do without face to face meetings. When I was just starting out e-mail was the only way for these teams to get in touch, but thankfully, we’re not dependant on it anymore. Video conferencing and chats have emerged as an alternative, making it possible to work with anyone, anywhere. While holding a meeting via video seems a natural choice, it’s often dependant on factors like sound and internet quality and can be somewhat frustrating. Text chats and collaboration tools, on the other hand, are ideal ways of sharing information within teams. Apps developed for this purpose, such as Slack, have the added benefit of keeping all previous conversations visible and organized, so your work-process is documented while you correspond,
If you’ve read this far, you probably get that while I’m not a fan of meetings, I too think doing completely without them is probably impossible. I do believe, however, that we, as an Agile Product Managers, should strive to keep the number of meetings in our agendas to a minimum. What’s even more important, is that we take every measure for the meeting we do initiate to be as effective as possible.