Putting a stop to status-meeting hell

status meeting

There’s an impulse people have — particularly early in their careers — to make it known how useful they are. It’s the impulse that turns potentially productive meetings into status updates, and it shows up in every industry, big and small.

“I did X and Y this week, next week I’ll do Z and maybe innovative thing A if I have enough time.”

And this behavior is reinforced over and over through managers who like to micromanage productivity and use peer-pressure to motivate people who don’t ship often enough.

But no one likes that meeting. Low-level employees fear the wrath of management if they don’t say they accomplished enough, and high-level employees know to intuitively check something — anything — off a list before the meeting starts so no one will bother them while they get real work done. Then the meeting facilitator, who is usually a manager, gets to check some tasks off a list to prove to their bosses that “substantive things” are getting accomplished under their watch.

It’s a stupid cycle that will perpetuate until the end of time unless it’s fought against. And the way to do this is to get to the root of what this meeting disease is all about. Basically, people want to please their bosses so they can continue receiving paychecks, and bosses want to be reassured that things are getting done.

Two things need to happen for this behavior to stop:

  1. Employees need to know that they were hired for a reason, that mistakes and slow-downs are ok, and that issues will be addressed directly rather than through public shaming. They also need to trust that management knows the difference between tiny wins and sea changes — it’s hard to prioritize the right things when the reward for completing many menial tasks is greater than solving huge time-consuming problems.
  2. Employers need to do their due diligence to know what’s being worked on day-to-day, and what tasks on the list will move the ball furthest. And they need to have enough intuition to A. raise the right questions at the right time, B. know when a plan isn’t working, and C. know who to talk to to enact change with minimal disruption. A lot of that requires listening to employees on all levels — sometimes the most junior employees will see cracks no one else does because they haven’t created unconscious workarounds yet. Listen to everyone, always.

Being a remote team, our new strategy to squash this status-meeting hell is to replace our face-to-face weekly product meeting with asynchronous weekly check-ins in one of our chat rooms. And instead of listing what you’ve done and are about to do, two questions are asked every Monday:

  1. Is there anything you need from anyone else to make this week more productive? Be specific. (This one was adapted from a talk I watched recently by Dan North.)
  2. Are you not sure what you’re supposed to do next? If that’s the case, please ask and project management will help you find your way.

Beyond that, the expectation is to continue to update the project management app when things are done, pair up for 1-on-1’s when needed, and ask for help early rather than late. And if someone has a specific agenda that needs to be addressed as a group, the meeting time-slot is always free.

(Chris O’Neill, the CEO of Evernote had a great quote I read recently: “My teams used to hold biweekly status updates with dozens of people, but I realized this was a waste of everyone’s time. Now, I limit meetings to eight people and maintain a “no agenda, no attendance” policy: If the meeting host doesn’t share an agenda beforehand that makes it clear what the meeting is for and what they need, I don’t attend.”)

Basically, you work here for a reason, help is always available, and the plan and expectations are all on the table. Let’s build something awesome (or, at least something).