Debug Teams

Meetings are dead, long live meetings!

Brent Barkman
October 2023

Make more time for meetings. Wait…. what?! Yeah you heard me, you need more meetings and you need to make time for them. And while you’re at it, write longer emails too please. And more docs, that’d be great. Thanks!

Seems antithetical in this era of teams being squeezed to the breaking point for efficiency, headcount reduction, more distributed than ever, and being told they need to figure out how to actually get MORE done than before. Then Shopify publicly canceling all meetings and people riding that bandwagon. But as a recovering engineering middle-manager I want to let you in on a little secret. Meetings aren’t bad. They are great in fact. They’re just used really poorly by default in most organizations.

A duel of words… people love working sessions. We have a hard problem to solve, let’s lock ourselves in a room and not come out until we’ve solved it. It’s fun, we’re accomplishing something together! But meetings? Nah, that’s the let’s listen to Bob run through the 32 slides we’ve already read on content we know, or let’s all go around the room and give our update while everyone zone’s out until it’s their turn. Finished our agenda early? Doesn’t mean the meeting is over, it’s scheduled for another 27 minutes. At least it’s usually Zoom now so you can get some laundry done during it.

The crux of the problem is that fast-moving engineering teams have a really hard time staying in-sync whenever you have more than a small team working on something. So we resort to expensive human time to force it, at the risk of being misaligned and inefficient. It’s hard to trust without the verify. And we don’t question it because that’s how it’s always been. Daily standups for engineers, weekly status meetings for managers, monthly business reviews, quarterly OKR reviews, yearly or worse planning sessions. I always chuckle at the adage “Plans are useless, planning is priceless”.

It’s part human problem, and part accepted cost of doing business. Which is terribly ironic given we’re the part of the organization that builds innovation and new efficiencies for everyone else!

So what’s the solve?

Make more time for meetings, the good kind. By canceling the bad kind, recurring update ones. Hard to schedule a working session when you’re triple-booked 3 weeks out. Write more i.e. more async. Random Idea: I think a calendar tool that made you write an explanation to your boss anytime you made a meeting recur would go a long way to improving eng org efficiency.

How do you cancel recurring meetings and work more async? Adopt a system where you don’t need to have a recurring meeting to stay in-sync and move things forward. Something that can extract the signal and make sense of all the noise across all of the tools. Save the time for actual collaborative working sessions not updating or information hunting. Shopify has one, they built it out of necessity. Most other iconic companies do too, they realized they needed it along the way, that’s a big part of how they scaled. And if you’re not in a place where you can build your own, we built one for you. We think it’s pretty good and would love for you to try it out, it’s called KATA.

And if you lead a bunch of people and this sounds a little scary to you, just know that NVidia, the most recent company to hit a $1T market cap, doesn’t have status updates, and the CEO doesn’t do 1:1’s. They have a clear system for seeing progress that he stochastically samples and progress is clear to everyone. If they can do it, so can you!

So here’s to getting back to building. Meetings are dead, long live meetings!

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