By Xavier Morera December 30, 2015

Protect Your Meeting’s Productive Time

Time flies.

Time is of the essence.

I don’t have enough time.

If I had only one more day.

These are some of the phrases that I hear on a daily basis in regards to time. It seems like the days pass too quickly and there is never enough time to get everything done.

Haven’t you wished a day could be 26 hours long?

In most cases, however, the problem is not that the day is only 24 hours long. The problem  is how you spend your productive time.

Time Is the New Currency

Antique clocksI recently wrote a Simple Programmer post about how to Protect Your Productive Time, in which I covered many of the reasons why most developers — and many other workers in knowledge-based industries — can’t seem to get enough done in time.

In most cases, the problem lies not in the amount of work they have to do, but in how they choose to invest their time.

How much can you do in a year? I consider myself a very productive person. For example, over the past year, I worked on enterprise search consulting with Solr and SolrNet; ran my own small support center; managed my micro hosting company that leverages AWS, Azure, and Rackspace; created a few training modules for Pluralsight; wrote a book for SyncFusion; delivered a few public speaking engagements and training for the Atlanta.NET User Group LIDNUG and Search Technologies; led development of my SaaS solution for used car dealerships; developed the next version of my VIN application www.consultesuvin.com; and, on top of this, continued being a dad of two extremely active little girls, as well as a very helpful husband.

Nevertheless, I’m put to shame by John Sonmez’s feat of creating a staggering number of training modules for Pluralsight–55 of them–in only a year and a bit more.

As a fellow trainer with John, I attended an open space with him this year at Pluralsight’s author summit, where he walked me and a few other authors through the steps to supercharge programmer productivity. To be honest, I was impressed.

But being impressed hasn’t helped me much. Rather, it’s been taking John’s advice to apply my own personal experience to meet day to day challenges that’s made all the difference for me. (For those of you who have not yet attended an open space with John, you can learn his method in his recently released course: 10 Steps to Learn Anything.)

So, let me offer you some tips and point out some areas of potential improvement for increasing your productivity. One of my main suggestions in my previous post was to minimize meeting time and instead focus on getting things done.

This was a tricky proposition, as meetings cannot just be skipped altogether. Meetings can be a powerful way of reaching consensus, communicating progress, and, as per the cliche, getting everyone on the same page.

I’ve also written a few times before on this topic, for Pluralsight’s blog on tips for meetings, for my personal blog about my take on meetings, and how to make your meetings rock.

However, I wanted to write this follow up post to cover how to improve productivity in your day to day meetings in more detail .

Meetings: The Green Eyed Useful Monster

Meetings are a double edged sword. They can be extremely beneficial, or they can be a great time waster.

Indeed, meetings are so consistently abused that my Outlook often cringes in pain!

Sometimes I’ve felt as if I’ve been party to a meeting inception. Have you ever seen the movie Inception where people get in other people’s dreams and then go one more level into the dreams within dreams?  That’s how it makes me feel!

In some of the projects that I have participated, it even feels like we have meetings to plan for meetings!

Eternal déjà vu. A glitch in the Matrix?

Most commonly, meetings are called to discuss issues that might not yet merit a meeting. In these scenarios, attendees are typically confronted with a set of unclear objectives, which are presented to far more people than are actually needed for the proposed initiative. Let’s dissect this idea.

Inviting Unneeded Talent

How many times have you been in a meeting and you see people staring directly at their laptop typing from time to time, appearing to be in their own personal bubble? What are these people actually up to? Three possibilities come to my mind:

  •          They might be watching Facebook/Twitter/CNN/Insert-Your-Personal-Time-Waster-Here.

  •          They are working. They had been trying to get stuff done, but they were summoned to attend this meeting, where they may or may not be needed. However, as we all know, declining meetings can be thought of by some managers as impolite, or even a sign of “not being committed to the team.”

  •          They are active in the meeting, and they are trying to find a valuable piece of evidence to present to the team.

What percentage of the time do you think each one occurs? I leave this to you to decide, but I’ve arranged it to descend from most likely to least likely.

Boring presentation. Group of young business people in smart casual wear looking bored while sitting together at the table and looking awayConsider this.  Time goes in parallel in meetings. Think of it in terms of billable time. If you summon 10 people into a room for a 1 hour meeting then it is not a 1 hour meeting. It is a 1 x 10 hour meeting. You just took away 10 hours of productivity time, or 10 billable hours, from a project. Let’s run some hypothetical numbers just for fun. If each person in that room is billed at $165 an hour, then your meeting just cost $1,650! You could’ve bought a new Lenovo Carbon X1 laptop with that time! And that's a pretty nice laptop, I must say.

How do we avoid this kind of waste? The first step is for the meeting organizer to invite only those that are absolutely required. Sometimes a general distribution list is set up, for example the Team Leads DL, and everyone is invited. This may be necessary for weekly checkpoints, where the meeting’s purpose is general review to make sure everyone is in sync.  For more specific issues, however, you should involve only the people that have something of value to add in that specific meeting.

And how do you determine this? Well, it is easy.

Clearly Defined Meeting Agenda and Objectives

Meetings are sometimes used by some as a way to appear busy. For them, attending a meeting is working. Do not fall into the trap of imagining an equivalency between meetings and work. Attending the meeting and being busy aren’t really the same as being productive. This mistake is common among underachievers who are big talkers. You may have noticed this group often includes managers. We all know a few.

Before you select who to invite, you need to have a clearly defined meeting agenda with a list of objectives.

But more important this, ensure that it’s crucial that the meeting take place. If the objective is not immediately important or required, then simply defer it until it is the right time.

A meeting without a clearly defined agenda typically ends up going on a tangent. Time is needlessly consumed and, very often, a follow up meeting is required. There’s another potential laptop lost to a useless meeting.

A good tip, especially when you are starting to make meeting objectives very clear, is to use a board for tracking the progress of your meeting’s objectives, ideally a Kanban board. It helps track progress so that all objectives are visually clear and a feeling of productivity is felt as you move along.

Scheduling Meetings

Argumentative persuasive businessmanBe sensitive to your team’s needs when you’re preparing to schedule the meeting. I understand how hard it is to work around everybody’s busy schedule. Depending on your specific role, you will view time in a unique way. A developer needs uninterrupted focus to be productive and create, whereas a manager’s responsibilities involve knowing what the developers are working on, so managers tend to view time in a different way.

Nevertheless, it is necessary to find a way for both of them to work harmoniously and get all their stuff done. This is why meetings are essential to meet production goals.

When it comes to scheduling meetings, try to find a time that allows for developers to maximize productive time.

A good strategy is to schedule meetings at the start/end of the day or before/after lunch. This protects blocks of productive time in the middle of the morning and afternoon.

Which brings me to my next tip: establish a working agreement to protect core working hours.

This is a practice that many organizations employ, wherein a team sets a schedule determining when meetings may be held. The schedule is respected both by the team and other bodies within the organization.

Here’s an example of a working agreement:

Big Data Inc. team’s daily scrum is at 8:30 am every day. From 8:45 am to 9 am all emails and inquiries will be responded to. Then, the team goes into core working hours from 9 am to 11:30 am.

During core working hours, all team members will focus on work items and bugs based on priority, critical, and high defects first. Important features are next in line. Further, during core working hours, developers will focus 100%, leaving IM, emails, and meetings until after core working hours are done.

Additional focused time can be scheduled individually by team members in the afternoon, priorities withstanding. The only exception is when there is a critical emergency that needs to be addressed and can’t wait. For example, a production down incident, in which case only specific and required team members may be required to help

Also be mindful that even during non-core working hours, you should interrupt developers as little as possible. As I said it before, developers need blocks of uninterrupted time to design/create software or fix bugs. Conversely, managers tend to see their time as 30 minute or 1 hour blocks that are perfect for scheduling meetings.

For the sake of both ensuring productivity and making sure everyone is working together, a balance must be created.

Talkers vs. Doers

We’ve all worked with very different kinds of developers. We all know the guy who is really good at talking, but usually doesn’t work much and instead gets others to do his work.

Then there’s the guy that sits quietly in a corner not saying much, but works like an ant.

When both attend a meeting, it will very likely be the Talker who takes the microphone and rants for a while–often about things that aren’t relevant to the meeting. At this point, the guy who needed to talk, the Doer, sits quietly in a corner.

How does a meeting organizer manage these different types of people to ensure they’re contributing meaningfully to the meeting and getting the most out of their coworkers’ contributions?

Well, first of all, you should have an agenda, so stick to it to limit the potential for others to go off on a tangent.

And second, on each point of the agenda, the meeting organizer must make sure that all parties involved in the issue under discussion speak their mind.

This can be tricky, but it’s fully achievable.

Action Items and Objectives

When your meeting is over, your team should have an actionable outcome or have made a decision regarding the points under discussion.

If a decision can’t be made over one or more meetings, you might be going directly into “analysis paralysis”.

I’ve been in that frustrating situation where repeated meetings never brought the team closer to a solution. It was like being on the set of Groundhog Day, but in a billion dollar corporation! Again, a lot of everybody’s time is being wasted.

If you keep having the same meetings again and again, reinforce the advice that I just offered and escalate if need be. Rinse, wash, repeat, and tame the green-eyed useful monster: meetings!

Do your best to make progress and move forward.

Summary

man points with fingers in the right sideLet’s summarize some of the points that I covered:

  • There never seems to be enough time to get everything done. The problem in most cases lies not in the amount of work, but instead how people choose to invest their time.
  • If you manage your time well, you can be very productive. But no matter how productive you are, there is always the potential to be more productive. Increase your productivity by protecting your productive time.
  • Meetings are a double-edged sword, as they interrupt your productive time, but are also necessary to make sure everyone is working together efficiently.
  • So whenever a meeting is required, invite only those that are most necessary.
  • Make sure you have a clearly defined meeting agenda.
  • Schedule meetings at times where they don’t interrupt the productive time of developers.
  • Get everyone to speak to the points that are of concern to them.
  • And do your best to have an actionable item, or make a decision by the end of the meeting.

I wish you a very productive time inside and outside of meetings!

About the author

    Xavier Morera

    Xavier is an entrepreneur who has spent a great deal of his career dealing with all kinds of projects including complex enterprise software solutions, delivering every time. His main focus is .NET web applications, Agile methodologies and enterprise search using Apache Solr. His usual roles include project manager, Pluralsight and Syncfusion author, speaker, trainer, Certified Scrum Professional & Scrum Master, and Certified Microsoft Professional. He is passionate about technology and always excited to tackle new challenges where can improve his skills so he can teach others what he has learned. Find him on Twitter @xmorera or on his website.