Fix Your Meetings

Is there a single more consistent workplace complaint than crappy meetings? How many months of your life have you lost under fluorescent lights waiting for the sweet relief of “next steps” to wash over you? What percentage of meetings you attend add value to your work? What percentage of people in meetings really belong there? What percentage of meetings exist solely to solve inadequate followup from previous meetings? Why are they multiplying? Why are we feeding them?

A quick note before we dive in: Many of you have asked where you can see Urbach Letter back-issues. They’re available here along with other writing I don’t deem important enough for your inbox.

As much as we complain about meetings, we’ve done precious little to fix them. Trendy exercise meetings lost steam, videoconferences still barely work, and the SCRUM standup has been mutilated by businesses old and new who don’t understand its ethos. In this Letter, we’ll take a look at why meetings are such a scourge, and what we can do to ease the pain.

Status Report

There are only ever three reasons to meet within an organization: status reporting, blocker deconflicting, and brainstorming (planning).

The central problem with the modern meeting is that we’re all trying to pretend we need more than a status report. Years of bastardization of agile ethics into legacy businesses has convinced us that asking for a status to ensure individuals keep projects on timelines (heavens forbid) is inherently bad business.

This trend is compounded by the global flattening of hierarchies. Traditional management used to center around the one-on-one relationships between a manager and their direct reports. Now, it’s an activity which is done primarily through the vector of multiple-party meetings.

Sure, endless slideshows in windowless rooms have been an office staple since the Great War. But something has changed.

Meetings feel rushed and stressful even though they drag on forever. Schedules aren’t just punctuated by interruptions that kill momentum — the mere presence of mid-day meetings on calendars pre-empts productivity to begin with. Public declarations of blockers have subsumed rational immediate direct action to deconflict with counterparties. Brainstorming meetings turn into echo chambers where only the loudest are heard, and the meek are driven meeker by the insidious phenomenon of social loafing.

11 Cures for the Common Meeting

There’s little chance that the issues with meetings will ever be entirely resolved. The reasons for their irksomeness are as varied as the human personalities of which they’re comprised. But here are a few rules to take the edge off:

  1. No caffeine/carbs roller coaster. Just as omnipresent as the powerpoint, and far more treacherous, sits the little table of muffins and coffee in every conference room in America. First of all, if your meeting is long enough that you need to feed people, it’s too long. Second of all, no meeting has ever been made more productive by the addition of carbohydrates and caffeine as uppers and downers. Your “healthy” granola bites are fooling no one. In our meetings — including at client sites — there’s water, and that’s it. A little hunger builds character and keeps the mind sharp.
  2. Scrum of Scrums. So how do you coordinate between teams which are larger than 2 pizzas? Nominate representatives, and hold a meeting of delegates, known as a Scrum of Scrums. Then, each one of those representatives can be a single channel of information reporting back to their teams in their own smaller meetings. Bonus: less scheduling nightmare, which could and should be its own whole Letter.
  3. No energy wormholes. The modern conference is full of rectangles through which momentum leaks. Open laptops, even when used for note-taking, instantly change the tenor of the room from one of directed conversation to one of listless co-working. Likewise, you may see no harm in leaving a conference line open for Karen, who is working from home today. Indeed, if Karen needs to get information to the group, let her call in. But then, shut the line down and get her notes afterwards. You may not notice the effects in real-time, but your language, timing, and ability to focus will be modified. Trying to simultaneously communicate in-person and on the phone is anathema, the collision of two conflicting and deeply ingrained communication styles.
  4. Complacency with open phone use. Energy escapes through small screens just as efficiently as it does through large ones. The occasional furtive glance at a cell screen to ensure disaster hasn’t befallen civilization in the past 10 minutes is an unfortunate but unavoidable part of modern life. What’s not, though, is open scrolling or typing while someone is speaking. If you don’t need to hear what’s being said, you don’t need to be in the room. The principle of social loafing implies that the more the phones come out, the more the phones will come out.
  5. Two-pizza rule. The number of connections to be managed in any group is governed by a simple equation: (n*(n-1))/2. A small startup of of 7 people has a pretty manageable 21 connection points to maintain. This number grows geometrically. A group of 12 has 66, and a group of just 60 has an astonishing 1770 nodes to manage. Jeff Bezos is famous for limiting teams, and thus meetings, to groups which could be fed by two pizzas (but please don’t — see point number 1). This keeps the nodes down to a dull roar and makes individuals in the group more accountable and active in the meeting. Incidentally, 5 is the largest group which is organically able to maintain a single conversation at a dinner table.
  6. Look Skeptically at Recurring Meetings. Humans do a bad job of anticipating optimal meeting frequency. Try to schedule meetings around operational milestones as opposed to cardinal cadences or dates. Ever notice that recurring meetings either feel far too frequent or overly sluggish? That’s because they’re arbitrary. Free yourself from the Gregorian calendar and focus on effectiveness. That’s how we killed our weekly all-hands call, to great effect on morale and productivity.
  7. Non-intimate videoconference. Large-scale videoconferences don’t work, technically or socially. Webinars are effective because the lecture format is identical whether delivered on the computer or in person. Meetings, however, are collaborative by design. I’ve never participated in a mass VC that either worked correctly from a technology perspective or added value over a conference call or mass email. Limit your VCs to webinars, screensharing applications, or up to 3 faces.
  8. Do it on the phone. Just because you’re in the same city, or even the same office, doesn’t mean that it’s more efficient to meet in person. We forget, in 2019, that there is a magical middle ground between text and meetings called a phone call. For working groups of up to 3 (where someone can easily be conferenced in ad hoc), it’s often useful to employ a high-information-bandwidth format (spoken word vs text) without suffering the workflow interruption of moving the bag o’ bones away from the workspace.
  9. Timebox. No open-ended meetings. Decide how long they’ll be ahead of time. Stick to it.
  10. No agenda? No meeting. The goal of an agenda is not to tell you what to do in the meeting. It’s to set the acceptance criteria for ending the meeting. Decide ahead of time what decisions need to get made, and ensure all the information for making those decisions gets out with adequate time for digestion.
  11. Don’t have it in the first place. Think every meeting you schedule is the best use of your time? Marie Kondo your meetings. If they don’t spark joy (read: effectiveness), delete them and replace with written updates or ad-hoc phone calls.

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Mandatory Self-Promotion

After years building startups in NYC, and a stint helping McKinsey & Co. develop their startup accelerator, I’m now leading the charge @ Brandt & Co., a boutique consultancy serving investors and founders in the early-stage ecosystem.

If you like the Urbach Letter, the best way to give back is emailing me copious atta-boys to print out and stick on my fridge.

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