Sunday, March 13, 2022

Three strategies to ease the meeting pain

“Since we started the new approach, I hardly ever get any work done, because we have so many meetings.” That is a sentiment, I here quite often when I’m visiting clients who have just started with some new approach. Surprisingly often that is the case if that new approrach is some flavor of “Agile.”

This seems more frequent if the client is a large corporation, but it certainly also happens at startups and SMEs.

And yet, on the other hand it seems to be increasingly hard to get any meetings scheduled. Let’s look at some approaches to make things a bit more manageable again

Once we start to differentiate between meetings that generate work and meetings that get work done it starts to get easier to handle the workload.

As described below, once we start making that distinction we can apply strategies like

  • planning the Work instead of the meetings (allocating time in my calendar for “getting stuff done” – especially helpful when applied –and negotiated– on a team or even multi-team level)
  • conscious capacity allocation (I will have 3,5 hours of working time and 3,5 hours of meeting time each day)
  • Actively keeping buffers open for unexpected, short term interactions (Putting blockers in my calendar that I remove only shortly before they are due)

Now let’s look at these strategies in detail:

Two types of meetings

Some people (maybe many) tend to view all meetings as “a waste of time” and “not real work” – I beg to differ.
I would say that we need to differentiate between meetings that leave us with more work than before and meetings that leave us with less work than before.

Work generating meetings (coordination time)

Some meetings leave us with more work than we had when before we attended the meeting.

  • Planning meetings, where the actual purpose of the meeting is to find or define work that needs to be done.
  • Status meetings, where the original intention is just to ”get in sync” but where it often happens that someone realized: ”oh, and we have to do X”
  • Knowledge sharing meetings, where not everyone affected is invited and thus we need to share the knowledge again.
  • Knowledge building and gathering meetings where the purpose is to better understand something, we didn’t fully understand before – be it a user interview in a product development company, a design session for something be build ourselves, some kind of process improvement meeting, or something else in the same vain.

This list is of course by no means conclusive, but it should give you an idea of the kind of meetings that could be put in that category.

Meetings that get work done (creation time)

On the other hand there are meetings that actually get work done. Especially for work that needs more than one person to complete it.

  • Design Sessions that end with decisions.
  • Pair-Writing an article or a piece of software
  • Co-creating an outline for an offer
  • Co-Creating the calculations for next years budget (if your company still does budgeting the old way)

Try not to mix the two types of meetings. At least not too much. Especially try to make the second kind of meeting really a meeting that gets work done. As in done-done. Make sure that there is no ”X will write this up, and we’ll review it it two days.”

If it’s good enough in the meeting, it’s probably good enough for work.

If we introduce some kind of follow-up work, especially follow up-work that has to be reviewed again, we actually prevent people from using the result of the work we just did in that meeting. Try to make it “good enough for now” and then let’s get on with creating value at other places.

And if it takes too long to create those documents in the Meeting with the tools you have available in the meeting, you probably have some great opportunity to re-think your choice of tools.

With this in mind, let’s look at the three strategies in a bit more detail.

And even though the strategies are persented in a specific order, there is no real ordering between them. Each of them works well on it’s own and you can combine them in any possible way.

Strategy one: Plan the work, not the meetings

Even if you apply only this one strategy it can be a real game changer.
Instead of keeping your agenda open for meetings and then work during the few times where no meeting is scheduled, no meeting needs preparation, and no meeting needs post-processing, switch it around.

Start by filling your schedule with “creation time” – time slots where you intend to do the part of your work that directly creates stuff. When you’re a knowledge worker in the times of a pandemic, this might also include meetings, but those should be only meetings that create tangible results. (This could be a design session with colleagues if you’re in manufacturing, it could be an editing session on a paper if you’re in academia, or maybe a pair- or mob- (ensemble) programming session if you’re in software development. Any meeting that outputs work.)

Only after you filled your schedule with a reasonable amount of time allocated to ”creation time” fit those other things, that I like to call “coordination time”, in some of the remaining spaces on your calendar.

This “coordination time” can include planning, status updates, learning and agreeing upon how you want to do things, understanding the challenge you’re currently working on, and so on. It is basically the coordination you need to efficiently get stuff done in the “creation time.”

Some people tend to call only “creation time” Work and the rest of the time Meetings. However, meetings that neither add value through creation nor through a better understanding of who is doing what when and how, should be eliminated altogether. And maybe replaced by an e-mail or

Especially when we work on process improvements or introduce new approaches we tend to start by planning when the related events (or ceremonies to use an older term ;-) ) should occur to include all the necessary participants.

I suggest to first try to agree upon the times out when all the participants can do their “creation work” and then fit the events and other necessary meetings around that.

Combining this approach with a conscious allocation on capacity makes it even more powerful.

Strategy two: Allocate capacity consciously

Don’t just look at the days of the week as a long stream of hours passing by. Make a conscious decision on how to invest the time beforehand.

If you’re involved with some kind of process framework you probably have some of the time allocation already done for you “daily standups”, “plannings”, “review” and “retrospectives” to name but a few.

But is the rest of the time really uniform? For most of us it isn’t. It consists of periods where I can just chop away at my work, of periods where I need information from other people and of periods where other people need information from me.

Creating even an informal and rough plan of how you intend to allocate your time helps a lot in reasoning about the number of meetings and makes the gut feeling a lot more tangible and negotiable.

Such a rough and informal plan might just look like this:

Allocation per Week (on average)
Process related       4h (8h in total every two weeks)
Creating stuff       20h (4h per day)
Helping others       10h (2h per day)
Slack for surprises   6h (a bit over an hour per day)

With this little list it is already much easier to argue for or against meetings. And if we start tracking how we actually use our time against this list, it usually gets even more helpful. You might want to give it a try.

Strategy three: Plan your slack ahead of time

Just put “Slack Spacers” in your agenda and remove shortly before their time comes up. This way if someone asks you whether you have time for them today you might well be able to say “yes” without having to move any other appointments.

To be able to react to things that are happening every systems needs some slack. If there is not enough slack in the system every little disruption or interference will wreak havoc on the system and might even result in a total system breakdown.

Back in the seventies it was “common knowledge” that in knowledge work one should never plan out more than 60% of one’s day. Simply because “things will happen.” How does that fit in with calendars that are filled up to the brim for the next two weeks?

If you allocate specific times for “creation work” and put them in your calendar you might already have one thing that absorbs some of the “things that happen”, but that’s not always quite what you intended to do with those allocated time slots.

A simple and effective strategy to deal with this is the usage of “Slack Spacers” – appointments with yourself, that are just in your agenda to make sure you don’t plan too much of time too far in advance.

Those could go from 30 minute slices which you remove on the evening of the day before they come up to 4 hour slots twice a week which you remove on Sunday evenings. Or any other sizing and timing that works for you.

Depending on your environment you might either declare them for what they are or hide them behind inconspicuous titles like “Preparation for the XYZ project.”


So these are three strategies you could put into effect right now

  • Foster collaboration by planning the time you work together
  • Get control of the amount of work you can do by allocating capacity deliberately
  • Create maneuverability by explicitly blocking time for work that shows up unannounced.

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

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