Hitchhiker's Guide to Software Architecture and Everything Else - by Michael Stal

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Meeting Syndrome

Now for something completely different. In most of the projects where I am involved I tend to spend a significant time in meetings. While face to face meetings are extremely important for decision making and team building, most of them are a waste of time. Tom DeMarco gave a talk last autumn in Cologne where he pointed out exactly that issue. He was consulting the two largest printer companies in the US. One of them proved to only achieve half of the productivity of their competitor. Thus, Tom was wondering whether the engineers in both companies had different levels of productivity. It turned out that the skill and experience levels were almost the same. Guess, the actual reason for the productivity loss? The less productive company was exactly the one with the most meetings. That does not imply, as Tom illustrated, that meetings are useless. It shows, however, that less but more efficient meetings are a better strategy. Tom also mentioned that the most successful meetings are the ones where people are expected to find a solution or decision. Meeting is over when goal is achieved, not sooner! The less successful meetings are those where people are just sharing information with each other without any particular objective or sometimes even without any agenda or time schedule. What I really dislike are all those meetings for which I don't know upfront what will be the agenda topics or goals in the meeting. Note, that general items such as status reports, action item reporting or planning of the next meeting don't count in this context! Tom DeMarco expressed the opinion that many meetings are only intended to let people communicate with their superior. Thus, the meeting is not a team-like approach but more a one-to-many experience. According to Tom it is much more productive when the boss is spending five minutes with each of the team members than spending two hours with the whole team. Another point which makes me crazy about meetings is when these meetings are either unmoderated or when there is a moderator who does not care whether people abide to the time span they got for their agenda topic. First of all, it is my time that gets wasted when the meeting exceeds its original deadline. Second, in many of those meetings I am really afraid to die or at least get severly injured by information overload.
Why is this relevant for software engineers? We as software architects spend most of the time communicating. It is essential that most of this time is dedicated to personal communication than with meetings.

To sum up: Meetings are important, but in order to stay productive meeting culture should focus on quality and efficiency instead of quantity. Meetings by themselves have no particular value. It is the human interaction that counts.


  • It sounds like daily work experience in a big company you know very well.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:06 PM  

  • Excellent points. 2 pieces of advice: 1. Set a clear agenda and don't allow deviation and 2. Only have essential people appear at meetings and provide detail Meeting Notes for everyone else. Great way to save money and people will be grateful they didn't have to go to the meeetings.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:47 AM  

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