About PM4Web

The PM4Web blog was born as an outlet to return knowledge back to the web development community. My goal is to share my experiences as a project manager from over the years in a manner which helps you succeed with your own projects.

14 November, 2008

The Scourge of Unnecessary Meetings

Tactics for reducing time spent in unnecessary meetings.

As a project manager that used to be a programmer, I can recall how much I loathed sitting in meetings. My train of thought was commonly along these lines; “why am I in this meeting talking about the project when I could be out there coding it?” Because of this, I do my best not to subject programmers to meetings unless it's absolutely necessary. Obviously not all managers come from a technical background, so this empathic understanding may not be present.

Ad-hoc meetings are a growing trend, but its not always convenient for three or more people to stand around discussing the details of multiple projects in an open-plan environment. When it’s realized that an impromptu discussion is probably disrupting other people around you, the common suggestion is “lets take this to the boardroom”. Now you have an ad-hoc meeting which has become the real thing, a meeting which can potentially turn into a lengthy discussion.

This brings us to the topic of written agendas, some swear by them, but are they in keeping with the spirit of Agile? Having someone write up an agenda is added bureaucracy. For short meetings at least, I believe agendas can be substituted with presence of mind and self-discipline. You need to be able to say two things in a meeting without being viewed as negative; “we’re getting off track here” and “we need to move on to the next item”.

Ideally, a project manager should do everything they can to shield programmers from meetings. If operational management is going directly to programmers for project status updates, then the project manager isn’t being allowed to do their job properly. It is not unreasonable to expect a project manager to know exactly how a project is progressing at any given point in time.

How does a project manager keep abreast of project status? Simple, by maintaining a project schedule which programmers go into 1-2 times per week and update their particular sections (e.g. when Jane finishes the validation for the sign-up form, she marks the task as 100% complete). Most other situations can be handled as one-on-one meetings, by email, or via MSN.

The only time all programmers need to be in one room at the same time is when they all have to talk to each other. Senior programmers must bare an additional burden; they are commonly needed in meetings to provide technical expertise.

Development team meetings are an exception; by this I mean meetings with nothing but programmers in them. These meetings are rarely superfluous, programmers will be itching to get back to their computers and continue with their work so they wont waste time on unnecessary matters.

I hear you saying “but if you keep programmers out of meetings, they wont interact with other staff and wont know what’s happening in other departments”. You can’t cajole a team to ‘jell’ by putting it into a contrived environment such as a meeting, which is an inherently formal situation anyway.

You’re more likely to build a sense of internal community by organizing events which are obviously social gatherings (e.g. everyone leaves the office at 4.30pm to go for pizza and bowling). Another way is to provide a pleasantly furnished communal eating area where people can sit and chat during lunch time.

I have seen it suggested that coders answer project status queries by saying something like; “it’s in the bug log”, or “it’s on the wiki”, or “I sent you an email about that”. Even if you assume a manager understood the reasoning behind such a statement, it’s still mildly rude at best and politically insensitive. Perhaps a better version would be “I’m happy to meet with you to discuss it, but it is in the bug log. And to be honest, I would much rather be coding so we can delivered sooner”. Would such a statement work? Who knows, but at least it wouldn’t come across as being negative.

Using MSN as a communication tool is a topic of potentially heated debate. Some companies ban it outright, others embrace it and reap the benefits. I have been at one company where everyone had it on their machines and it worked-out just fine.

Admittedly, sending a message like “can I talk to you when you’re free?” to a person sitting three feet away does feel kind of weird. However, walking over and interrupting them midway through a task is likely to break their train of thought or disturb others sitting near by. There is a degree of ‘knowing what a person likes’ here, if you know a person prefers emails, send them emails, if a person prefers face-to-face discussions, so be it, accommodate them.

At the risk of being facetious, I would say programmers love MSN. This is because it offers a degree of control. An instant message can be left for a few minutes without being answered and doesn’t break concentration the same way verbal interruptions do. I’d say MSN is more suited to specific questions like “will the file upload feature be ready today?” rather then vague queries like “how’s the project going?”

MSN is also great for giving simple instructions like “a friendly reminder Tom, I need you to go into the project schedule today and update your areas” or “the client has logged a few bugs, I’ve assigned them to you, go get them when you’re ready.”

The main danger managers see with allowing programmers to have MSN installed on their computer is that they will talk to their friends; and they will, but sometimes you have to take the good with the bad. Personally, I fritter away maybe 20 minutes per day talking to friends on MSN (e.g. “did you go for a ride on the weekend?”, etc). The problem is when the amount of time spent on MSN becomes inordinate (e.g. 2 hours plus), but this is a matter of self-discipline and only occasionally affects some programmers.

Now we come to one of the most disturbing causes of unnecessary meetings, ones which have been called for the sole purpose of stroking a manager’s ego (nb. this may be on a subconscious level). Tom DeMarco in Peopleware calls these 'status meetings'; not because they are about getting the latest status on a project, but because they are about affirming the bosses 'bossness' status within the organisation. There may be little that can be done about this situation, after all, they are the boss right?

I have seen one company where the managing director would have weekly meetings which went for an hour. During each meeting, he mostly talked at people. Programmers said maybe four or five words in total during the meeting, this was a good indicator they didn’t need to be there.

Dilbert Meetings

The bottom line is meetings are here to stay, including the unnecessary ones. This is simply a product of a corporate environment, managers are social beasts who like to talk, programmers are technical beings who like to code.

I have seen programmers suggest other approaches for alleviating the blight of unnecessary meetings. For example; require that an agenda exist before accepting the meeting request, insist off-topic items be discussed at another time, keep a log of time spent in meetings to use as ‘evidence against your boss’ when projects slip, etc. All idealistic and pragmatic, but unfortunately whilst the balance of power remains with the managers, the tilt will remain towards verbal communication.

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.