Meetings – efficiency vs. human element

Recently I read an article about the (alleged) fall of Holacracy and one part related to meetings draw my attention. I’m interested in the topic of meetings efficiency for quite a long time. It reminded me of a novel way of facilitating a meeting that I witnessed during a Sociocracy 3.0 training some time ago. What I read in the article somehow resonated with my own feelings and thoughts.

But let me start with the prevalent opinion about meetings nicely expressed by this tweet:

Surprised? I guess not. I know many people who think that “meeting = waste of time”(And BTW. my observation is, that the same people who complain about the meetings, act themselves in a way, which makes meetings a nightmare.)

Now, if you search for it, you will find a gazillion of advises on how to make meetings more efficient.

…but what actually happens when you try to squeeze the time spent on meeting to minimum aiming at making them as productive as possible? People should be happy, right? Hmm… not so fast. Read this quote from the aforementioned article:

As Zappos onboarded its employees to the system over the past four years, one of the biggest complaints, far and away, was around the rigid meeting format, which provides the guardrails for the system. Tactical meetings […] tightly govern how and when employees can speak up. The meetings, which typically are held once a week, open with a check-in round and then dive into checklists and metrics. […] there is “no discussion” during the check-in and closing rounds. In other words, there is no natural, back-and-forth conversation that begets camaraderie, respect, trust, and connection. No small talk.

Whoa, wait! That is really interesting, isn’t it? At one hand people are tired with meeting taking too long and often not bringing expected results. They are dead tired with some talkative assholes who waste time of everyone in the room. They want to reach decision quickly and go back to their work, right? They would love to end the endless debates and discussion.

And what happens when you actually give it to them? They are disappointed because “there is no natural, back-and-forth conversation that begets camaraderie, respect, trust, and connection” .

I find this really intriguing. Recently, when trying to start the process of effectiveness reviews, I experimented with strict facilitation rules (rounds & no discussion & no preamble). And I felt that some participants were not enjoying this formula (even if they witnessed its effectiveness). I wonder if what I try to achieve is so much against our human nature (and thus destined to fail) or maybe – and this is what I hope for – it is only an initial pain of doing things in a new way? Will see about this. 

As for now, my plan is to have the following deal with meeting participants:

  • during meetings, we get rid of “human element” as much as possible – we aim at efficiency,
  • after the meeting is finished then whoever feels like he wants to socialize does so (and let me tell you that our office provides plenty of ways to socialize!).

Would that work? Or maybe we are so used to the fact that the meetings are about socializing and small talk, and endless discussions that we won’t let it go no matter what?



  1. Tomek,
    great observations. You favour efficiency. I like that. On the other hand I do not believe we can ignore the human element in communication.

    For example I noticed that I use the small talk at the beginning of business meetings to tune into the meeting and subject. That is probably because I did not prepare as much as I could or because I had a meeting on a completely different topic just before that one. It even happened to me that the host wanted to start talking business and I said that I need another five minutes small talk. I was lucky and the host of the meeting, the head of development, agreed. Then we had a productive and good meeting. Weird isn’t it.

    When we work alone all day – and do not pair or mob program – we might need this “natural, back-and-forth conversation”. Maybe we can find other times and places for that, too.

    Especially for a such review, I (for myself) would need some small talk up front to build up the mood and trust to be able to share true concerns or criticism. And also maybe afterwards to make sure that nobody got insulted or sad.

  2. Try the efficiency-first approach and report back after. I’m expecting ppl will complain while some will be satisfied (and some of them might even tell you about it). The problem is that you have both those who want a meeting formula (rigid or just unchanging) and those who see meetings as a “social time”. Artificial compromise (and perhaps a rotten one) would be to allott some social time at the beginning and at the end (if you’re done with meeting main topic or problem).

  3. Thanks for sharing!

    Here are some methods I find particularly useful, as a host:
    – we agree on meeting rules (e.g. no phones)
    – focus on places we disagree, not ones we agree on,
    – do as much as possible of the work async (pairs prepare solution proposals, in a meeting we discuss them),
    – many meetings are optional. Ppl have to decide for themselves what to involve in
    – turn agenda into a “meeting kanban”

  4. It’s like a classic battle of control vs freedom.

    To counter your suggestion, how about this, something more on the side of freedom:
    Not so many rules, but warnings. For example, instead of rules otherwise put in place to avoid people rambling on, let it be known before the meeting that there is this thing called rambling, with some clear examples, so that people will know what it is, and then be allowed to call someone out for it. Maybe some vocabulary could be provided to call people out with, and for some restrictions, some clear lines at the extremes, say if a person has clearly taken the meeting off topic, or the meeting has stayed on a certain issue for longer than a suggested max.

    The only reason meeting rules and restrictions are enforced are because of the potential problems. But too-restrictive rules can become their own problems afterwards. Focusing on the root, how to handle the potential problems, what alternatives to being too controlling are there?

    Possibly, being more prepared by being responsive/flexible, instead of laying down restrictions from the start? “Educating” before meetings, or “training”, eg. passing out preparatory reading on these ideals for meetings?

    Also, after reading other comments: Maybe it could be stated in the beginning of the meeting the reason/topic of the meeting, plus the estimated time that was allotted, and whether others are in a rush or have time.

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