Which Meetings Should You Kill?
Meetings, ugh. Even those of us who like a good meeting have plenty of experience sitting through painful, boring, poorly-run meetings that seem to exist only to waste our time. Engineers hate meetings: they take you out of flow and (in the pre-remote days) away from your monitors so that you can listen to some manager drone on and answer a couple of questions. Pointless.
It’s not surprising that when a company takes a stand against meetings, they take a stand against big, boring meetings. Notoriously, Shopify has (more than once) cancelled all standing multi-person meetings in an effort to get rid of time wasters and give focus time back to their employees. I agree that it’s a great idea to revisit standing group meetings regularly, and get rid of the ones that are no longer serving a valuable purpose. But are the big boring standing meetings really the big problem, or are they the problem that senior managers face most often?
I do think there is a meetings problem, but I don’t think the problem is big boring meetings, and I certainly doubt that is the problem at a company who regularly goes through a public exercise of cancelling all standing meetings! Instead, I fear that the culprit is a surprising new factor, one that started before the pandemic but has gotten even more out of hand in the world of remote work: 1:1s.
One-on-one meetings are a quiet time waster
I realized this when I asked friends why they didn’t think it was reasonable to expect line managers to write code* anymore because they were too busy. That surprised me, because how many meetings can a line manager be in? Their team, their boss’s staff meeting, some planning stuff, management 1:1s, ok. If the line manager is creating a bunch of group meetings, you should work with them to cancel the unnecessary ones before they drive their team to quit, and that would also give them time back to do some hands-on work. But the issue isn’t stand-ups, or group status meetings, or any of the other annoying project management ceremonies, as I expected. Instead, it is an overabundance of 1:1s. And this can apply not just to managers, but to Staff+ engineers as well!
What are these 1:1s all about? Well, line managers meet with their direct reports and their manager, of course (do not cancel these critical 1:1 meetings!!), but also their peers, their product managers, designers, recruiting, skip level manager upwards, people from other teams who decided to reach out. Staff+ engineers might meet with all of the members of their team, other staff+ engineers, managers from other orgs, and more. These senior people also have a lot of interviews (arguably a form of 1:1 meetings, certainly not something saved by cutting out recurring group meetings). This 1:1 communication has become the de facto way for people to stay in touch, build trust, maintain alignment, and generally create a sort of eventual loose consensus about the work.
Now, I’m not gonna lie: to me this is ridiculously wasteful. A Staff+ engineer should not need to do weekly 1:1 meetings with every engineer on their team; as much as I agree that there is “glue” work to be done, in this case they may be falling into the trap of filling management gaps that they shouldn’t cover up. Engineering managers of peer teams only need to meet 1:1 weekly when their teams are collaborating on something critical, and otherwise should aim for a monthly-to-quarterly cadence (ok maybe you have a buddy you like catching up with weekly, but you don’t need to do this with everyone). And senior engineering managers should not overdo the skip level 1:1s to the point where they are spending half their time talking to their skips about their directs unless something is very broken in an organization.
As a leader, abdicating the responsibility of creating productive group meetings is the worst possible outcome, because all it does is lead to the never-ending grind of 1:1 meetings that don’t accomplish as much and take up much more of your time. You are responsible for setting up well-run weekly group meetings to fill the trust and alignment gap, rather than having your broader team go through the combined number of subset 1:1 meetings. Letting topics that should be discussed as a group turn into 1:1 topics has many negative consequences, because you never deliver the message the same way twice, the time lag between talking to people leads to drama and gossip, and you miss the opportunity for the group to discuss the problem and ask questions together.
I think this is happening because it’s easy to set up 1:1 meetings without a purpose, chat with someone for a half hour, feel good that you got some face time with them, and conclude that you’ve been productive. It’s much harder to bring a group together and run a productive meeting where you make decisions and move things forward: for one, they’re just harder to schedule, and then you actually have to prepare if you’re going to run the meeting without wasting everyone’s time. We’ve been so negative about boring group meetings that we’ve taught people to avoid them at all costs, and we’re filling the gap with inefficient 1:1s. I also think there’s a bit of a conflict-avoidance culture that these 1:1s enable; after all, was there really a conflict if you disagreed behind closed doors and then never resolved the issue?
If you’re still unconvinced, consider: Have you ever had to deal with the fallout of your manager thoughtlessly discussing something 1:1 with another person to a conclusion that caused you to run around and have several other conversations and meetings to resolve? This is the situation you are likely to create if you overdo the “quick” 1:1 meetings as the default communication channel. Similarly, you encourage people to make decisions in circumstances of plausible deniability, behind closed doors, by making it hard for them to have a regular forum in which to discuss things as a group. I truly cannot imagine the mental model of someone who believes that the solution to too many meetings is to cancel group meetings while leaving 1:1 meetings untouched, unless their goal is creating a kind of hyper-political anti-transparency culture.
Yes, it is true, many managers (and Staff+ engineers) have no idea how to run good group meetings, and group meetings can be much harder to run well over video than in person. It is easy to miss the subtle body language of someone who doesn’t agree but also doesn’t feel comfortable speaking up, in a group video meeting, and without practice we end up in a world where we think silence means agreement. We all need to build up better meeting execution skills whether in-person or over video, and as a senior person you should consider developing these skills a core part of your job.
So build up those skills, please. And yes, cut the pointless status update meetings where attendees show up and say at most one thing. Be thoughtful about peoples’ time, and don’t waste it; but don’t assume that a meeting is a good use of time just because it only has two participants, and watch out for replacing more-effective group communication with error-prone 1–1 time.
Note: Seriously, this is not a call to cancel your management 1:1s (the ones with your manager and your direct reports). Those are really important, you need to do them regularly, do not cancel them because of this blog post, please!
*Ironically, people have this idea that I think engineering line managers should not ever write code. Not sure where you got that idea but in general I think it’s good if you are managing a small team to still write some (ideally not critical path) code. Caveats abound, but let’s put this idea to bed that I ever gave a blanket statement on the matter!