The Perils of Meeting-Driven Culture

Does your organization have a meeting-driven culture? Not sure? Ask yourself how much time you spend in meetings. Are they effective? Search the Internet and you’ll discover that we spend way more time in meetings than we’re comfortable admitting. The Harvard Business Review claims that the figure has doubled in the last 50 years.

The designers of Scrum recognized this and deliberately kept the formal meetings to the bare minimum. It adds up to around 12-15% if you use the entire time box. Contrast this amount to many organizations and you will discover that Scrum is quite efficient.

Many organizations I’ve consulted for don’t have deliberate rules on how to conduct meetings. They’ve allowed the meeting culture to evolve on its own. As such, meetings are not very productive.

However, practising Scrum doesn’t automatically make you immune to this meeting burden. Teams still operate within the same office and with the same people. Scrum and Scrum Masters can help teams have better meetings.

Here is a typical example of the transition from meeting-driven culture. I was coaching a Scrum team and worked in the team room alongside the development team. On several occasions (over several weeks) I asked the team to review the product backlog and make estimates. They brushed it off and refused to do this work. Instead, they did this at Sprint planning, despite complaining that it made the session long and exhausting.

I wondered if the ‘familiarity’ of the team room discussions made the backlog work appear less important. So I created a meeting outside the team room and sent an invitation via Outlook. Everyone accepted.

I kept the meeting as a regular occurrence, and the backlog review work got done ahead of Sprint planning. The team was much happier.

Why did this work? It succeeded because the organization had a meeting-driven culture—that is, planned events sent a signal that important work requires a meeting. The extra meeting clearly wasn’t necessary, but it succeeded.

This exercise helped me realize that organizations have so many meetings because they have few ways to engage.

Many office cultures don’t promote face-to-face meetings. Could it be the desk arrangement? They don’t value the serendipity of impromptu meetings. In the absence of frequent, short, high-quality meetings, people are forced to meet in rooms away from their desks.

If you see this meeting-driven culture in your organization, it’s likely an expression of what it values. Improving it will require discussions on what you value more. Shall we plan a meeting?

When I train Agile classes (Scrum, Kanban), I ask the attendees to make a list of activities that they can start right after the class. Number one on that list is co-location. That is, move your team to the same space so that they are sitting beside each other.


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