How You Can Get Valuable Time Back: Part 1

Recently, I've been swamped with meetings.  I'm not talking Portfolio Planning, Release Planning, or even Sprint Planning meetings. I'm talking a lot of in-the-weeds type meetings.  After I walk out of some, I realize I could have been informed of the outcomes and action items and that would have been good enough. I didn't need to sit through the whole damn thing.  There are times everyone walks out an hour later, are looking around, and are asking how to get that valuable time back.  It got me thinking, I need to write about this!  Then, as I started writing, I realized that this was either going to be a seriously long long-form blog post or I was going to have to write a few parts to it.  Being the bloggy-blog type, I vote for short form and write a series.

The Scenario

You arrive to the office at 8am on a Monday, only to realize you are late for a meeting someone on Friday after 5pm scheduled.  You're not in the office 5 minutes and you're already behind schedule.  What the hell!?  How does this happen?  You look at your calendar. You have back-to-back-to-back meetings all day Monday and Tuesday.  When are you supposed to actually do your work?  Given the current conditions, you're going to need to catch up on things before or after work. This sucks!

The Problem

You have become a meeting hoarder.  That's right.  At any moment, A&E is going to show up at the office and start filming an episode about you.  In this episode, they follow you around the office.  They confront you and the addiction of accepting too many meeting invites.  Of course this is ridiculous but you really do need some practical strategies to deal with this problem and get back on the track.

Meetings are supposed to be about the exchange of information.  Unfortunately, they are wildly inefficient and offer limited value.  For the most part, they are waste of our time.  Nobody wants to listen to you go on and on about how many meetings you have, now that you're becoming a bottleneck in getting things done.

To start, I'm going to bucket meetings into 3 categories.

  1. Non value added but it is necessary.
  2. Non value added but it is NOT necessary.
  3. Value added.

I see very view meetings offer direct value to the customer.  Most meetings a non value added but we don't have a sufficient method to exchange the information so we settle for the meeting.  It's necessary.

Going forward, assume most meetings don't add value and you should make them prove their worth to you.

The Solutions

In this post, I'm going to give you a strategy to begin controlling the volume of meeting invitations coming into your calendar. First, stop accepting meeting invites for meetings that are less than a full day away.  If someone invites you to a meeting at 5pm on Monday for a meeting at 9am Tuesday, they are being disrespectful of your time.

Set Limits

You may have a standard eight hour work day but the reality is that only half of that day is likely to be productive.  With that assumption, you should guarantee you have 4 hours of productivity. If you don't, your day will be taken up with meetings, responding to email, browsing the Internet and related activities.  Block out 4 hours a day on your calendar for actual work. Make the events private.

Tip: Schedule your most important, high value tasks in the morning, before you get worn out from your current meetings

Turn On Your Email Auto-Responder

Until you can get your meeting addition under control, I recommend you begin using your email autoresponder.  I actually did this several years back, after reading The 4-Hour Work Week with very good results. When someone sends you an email or meeting invite, they automatically get an email from you (with the assumption that you have NOT read their invite).  This will buy you time to focus on real work and not just respond impulsively to the request.

Let’s look at a basic template


Due to high workload and too many meeting invites, I am currently checking and responding twice daily at 12:00 P.M. and 4:00 P.M.

If you require urgent assistance (please ensure it is urgent) that cannot wait until either 12:00 P.M. or 4:00 P.M., please contact me via phone at 555-876-5309. All meeting invites will require 24 hour notice. Though I appreciate the invitation, sending me a meeting invite does not mean I will be accepting your invitation.

Thank you for understanding this move to more efficiency and effectiveness. It helps me accomplish more to serve you better.

Sincerely, [Your name]


I can guarantee this is going to help, at least a little.  The more we can slow down the influx of meetings, the more we can assess the value of them and decide if we really need to accept them or not.  The autoresponder will put people on notice and inform them that your time is valuable but that you're not being unreasonable.  If this gets you out of 1 meeting, won't it be worth it?  I know it will do better than that.  Try it and let me know your results.

In my next post, I'll write about how to triage your meeting requests, so you can begin spending more time doing real work and less going to meetings.

Jazz Hands at the Daily Standup

While doing an Agile assessment in Des Moines, Iowa, we noticed a team would periodically do "jazz hands".  When we asked the ScrumMaster (Iteration Manager) what was going on, she said others within earshot of the daily standup complained about the team being too loud. In the past, whenever there was good news, the team would cheer and clap.  As a result, in order to continue to show their excitement, the team members now all do "jazz hands". Team "Seniom Sed" (Des Moines backwards), it has been a pleasure watching you all work for the last few days. Actually, it's been a pleasure working with each of the teams. I get one more day to enjoy your addictive enthusiasm.

Keep up the great work!

Say Goodbye to that Expensive Meeting

WowBack in August (2010) I wrote about attending a $17,904 meeting.  It was painful to watch the PMO have a 3 hour meeting every month that seemed to cost so much but deliver so little value.  As a follow-up post, I wrote about the value proposition for the expensive meeting. I am happy to report that the meeting in question has been cancelled indefinitely.  In one year alone, the cost savings is $214,848.  Wouldn't you like to have that kind of money added to your budget?  I want to be clear that I'm not being a hater of meetings.  I'm being a hater of waste.  Time and money are precious and I strongly believe we need everyone to communicate more.  But it's about communicating effectively.  I can facilitate the communication of more strategic information, without saying a word, by using a enterprise level Kanban.  I can facilitate the communication of more tactical information, by having Daily Scrums or Stand-ups.

Though the cancellation was months in the making, I commend those who finally made the difficult (but necessary) choice.  It's easy to complain about things but accept the status quo.  It's hard to ask why and then act on it appropriately.

Drawings by Pictofigo


Zombie Meeting

Zombie MeetingOne of the things I like about the zombie metaphor is people get it.  We all know a zombie when we see it.  It doesn't matter if it's a zombie project, customer, vendor, co-worker, or...a meeting.  Oh yes, the dreaded zombie meeting.  But what if you're on the fence when it comes to identifying zombie meetings?  I've written a few posts of what makes a good meeting.  It's time to now list what makes a bad meeting. But wait!  Why the negativity?  Isn't this blog mostly positive information?  Sure, but I recently read, on Dan Pink's blog, an explanation of why you should come up with at least one bad idea today.  I found that the idea really worked.  I would say I decline around 80% of meeting invites.  But, why do I decline so many?  Here are a few reasons why.  Each reason identifies a potential zombie meeting.  If you go to these meetings, you risk being sucked into the horde already attending.  Take a moment to review the list.

You may be in a Zombie Meeting if...

[1] No purposed reason for the meeting, with actionable events in mind. e.g. “Provide an updated status, identifying risks and opportunities, and identify new action items.”

[2] No defined attendee list, mapped to the actionable events listed in step 1.  There is a difference between an attendee list and a communications distribution list.  I get meeting invites sent to a program level distribution list.  My name isn't even on the email.  It just states "If you're interested in attending, the meeting..."

[3] No agenda. Never schedule a meeting without a written agenda. A meeting without an agenda will just wander aimlessly, until you run out of time or someone kicks you out of the room.

[4] No predefined leader, is running the meeting.  Zombies don't have leaders.  They usually group into a horde.  If there is no leader, the meeting will just drift.

[5] No predefined note taker, identified to document action items or take notes.  It should not be the same person.  Both [4] and [5] should know their roles before the meeting begins and it can't be the same person.  Ever go to a meeting with the intent of being an active participant only to be asked to take notes or lead the meeting, a few minutes into the meeting?  It will totally change your focus.

[6] Discussion points do not align to the agenda. This part is challenging because you are already in the meeting.  You had no idea it was going to turn into a zombie meeting, before accepting.  These is no easy way out.  If the conversation drifts off topic, either recommend taking the discussion to another forum or start thinking of an exit strategy.

[7] Meeting ends without having the note taker read back discussion points and the action items. Make sure there is a consensus before the meeting ends.  If you see meetings ending without a review, add it to the agenda.

[8] Meeting minutes are not sent out within one to two days. Did the meeting even happen?  If the minutes are not distributed and approved, then it is like it never happened. Use a distribution list to ensure all necessary people get a copy.

[9] Meeting starts late. If you don’t start on time, you can’t finish on time.  Zombies are in no hurry.  Those who will arrive late should just call in, rather than disrupt the meeting.  I'm not saying you should board up the room entrance with plywood or anything.  It's just rude to arrive late to a meeting.  If you stick to a schedule and you know the meeting will be a zombie meeting, calling in or use something like GoToMeeting to help shield yourself from the zombies.

[10] There is food. I'm not referring to a cup of coffee or a scone.  If there is a food, get it distributed and get it out of the room.  Whenever I go to a meeting where there is some kind of food tray, there are always a few attendees who will graze.  They're thinking more about the food than they are about the meeting.

Like the drawing?  You can find the original for free at Pictofigo


Meetings: Get To The Point

Upon a brief review of my site analytics, I noticed something striking. For the month of February, almost nine percent (9%) of my page views are for one thing:  Free Meeting Minutes Template Back in March 2009, I wrote a post about helpful tips for running a meeting.  With it was a free copy of my meeting minutes template.  So, I think it's time for a brief refresher with a few updates.

Free Meeting Minutes Template Trend Data

When Hosting a Meeting:

[1] Write out the purpose of the meeting with actionable events in mind. e.g. “Provide an updated status, identifying risks and opportunities, and identify new action items.”

[2] Identify your attendee list but only keep those you can map to the actionable events listed in step 1.  There is a difference between an attendee list and a communications distribution list.

[3] Create an agenda.  Never schedule a meeting without a written agenda. A meeting without an agenda is inefficient and a waste of time.

[4] Identify who will run the meeting and who will take notes. It should not be the same person.  Both people should know their roles before the meeting begins.

[5] Ensure discussion points align to the agenda. If the conversation drifts off topic, recommend taking the discussion to another forum.

[6] End the meeting by having the note taker read back discussion points and the action items. Make sure there is a consensus before the meeting ends.

[7] Send out the meeting minutes within one to two days. Consult your distribution list to ensure all necessary people get a copy.

As a disclaimer, I hate meetings.  Many are unnecessary.  But, when meetings are necessary, get them done as quickly as possible.  Get in, get to the point, get out, get back to work.

Bonus Recommendations:

[1] Start on time. If you don't start on time, you can't finish on time.

[2] Do not schedule your meeting to end at the top or bottom of the hour. I'm a fan of the 22 minute meeting.  Have meetings end a little early.  Some people need to get to other meeting and this will help prevent them from being late.