Quicksand meetings

Managers: Avoid these sinking meetings so your teams don't feel stuck.

Lots of people dislike meetings, with good reason: Meetings interrupt. They take time. They steal focus.†

For managers, though, meetings are a key part of the job. It’s how they brainstorm, balance efforts, build alignment, and broadcast knowledge. It’s how things get done when you’re a manager.

Which makes it especially infuriating when managers schedule meetings that do just the opposite. Meetings that make it harder to get things done. Meetings that bring the work to a painful crawl. Meetings that cause more confusion and angst than they solve. In other words… Quicksand Meetings.

As a manager, you're trying to build momentum, clarity, and team morale. If you’re scheduling these meetings, you aren’t just creating problems for your team, you’re failing at those fundamentals of management, and you’re blunting your own impact and delivery. Become a better manager: schedule better meetings.

Take a look at the meetings you’re scheduling. Are they quicksand meetings? What would the folks attending them say? If you feel like you might have a meeting that matches one of these types, you probably do.

You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can't move... you can't breathe... because you're in over your head. Like quicksand. -- Keanu Reeves
You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can't move... you can't breathe... because you're in over your head. Like quicksand. -- Keanu Reeves

Five types of Quicksand Meetings you don't want to be scheduling

The Eternal Standing Meeting

These are the meetings that turn up on calendars with regularity whether they are needed or not, forever. This isn’t a daily standup, it’s the ordeal created by the manager who says “I want us to get together so we can coordinate our efforts” completely ignoring that the folks on the team are already effectively coordinating efforts on Slack or Jira or any of the many other tools they have at their fingertips to asynchronously coordinate efforts.

And of course The Eternal Standing Meeting is usually scheduled at some terrible time “that was the only time everyone was available” like 7:30 a.m. every day and has no agenda or action items.

So everyone dutifully schleps themselves to the meeting, as requested, and pretends to pay attention while their mind wanders to a more productive use of their time.

At best the Eternal Standing Meeting duplicates coordination and communication that’s already happening. At worst, it’s a purely ego-driven exercise scheduled by managers who feel the need to center everything around themselves. Even if it impacts the work.

Possibly the most egregious example of the Eternal Standing Meeting is the hour-long daily standup. Nothing says “agile” like stretching what’s supposed to be a quick 5-10 minute meeting into a daily slog through minutiae. People only have about eight hours a day to get work done and you want to take 1/8 of that to talk about what’s happened since yesterday? It’s downright disrespectful of your own team.

The Fire Drill

The Fire Drill looks a lot like an emergency meeting, but then you find out that either the emergency isn’t really an emergency at all, it was just normal operations. You can often spot The Fire Drill because there is no context or information about the “emergency” in the meeting invite, only an urgent “we have to talk about this.”

Usually, everyone even remotely involved with the emergency is invited, but because there is no shared plan or context, people tend to wander aimlessly, hoping someone attending knows what's going on.

If you find yourself regularly scheduling Fire Drill meetings, you should first step back and ask why your team has so many fires, and why you don’t have effective fire suppression systems in place? Well run teams rarely have fires. They have plans. They have processes. They have it under control.

In the atypical cases where there truly is a fire, the lack of context fuels the fire. When everything is burning, effective communication is crucial. A contextless meeting isn’t that.

The Big Room

The Big Room meeting happens when a manager invites everyone even tangentially related to a topic and then invites more folks, just in case, whether they have anything to contribute or not.

A core handful of people who are invested in the topic will be at the center of the meeting, while everyone else is checked out, multi-tasking, or occasionally wandering into the conversation with non sequiturs.

In the old office days, everyone huddled into a standing-room-only conference room. In the modern remote era it’s more comfortable, but also much easier for the attendees to surreptitiously check their phone for the duration.

As a manager, it’s easy to think that inviting everyone is a good way to share context and communicate, but that’s wrong. But what you’re really doing is stealing focus and exacerbating Zoom Fatigue.

The most productive meetings have fewer than eight people (really) and you can communicate the results of the meeting to the larger group more effectively after the meeting, when you’ve had time to hone the communication.

The Chain Meeting

The Chain meeting is when you schedule an endless series of meetings that just circle back around to the same predictable places. There’s no decision-making, no consensus, just going ‘round and ‘round, ‘round and ‘round. If you find yourself scheduling your third meeting on a given topic and there’s been no real movement since the first meeting, you may be scheduling a Chain Meeting.

The good news is you can break the chain, starting now. Define the actions to be taken and a timeline for them. Know who the Directly Responsible Individual is for each item. Move things forward, not in circles.

The Marathon Meeting

The marathon should never happen, but it does, usually at the worst possible time: when the team is already behind and stressed. That’s when someone will have the bright idea to schedule 20 hours of calls straight through two days “so we can all go over all the requirements together.”

Of course it doesn’t work and people check out. That’s not how people’s brains work, it’s not how agile works, and it’s not how remote teams work. But people still try it.

If you find yourself even considering a Marathon Meeting, ask yourself this: How has it come to this? How has the work and the communication about the work broken down so completely that the only apparent solution is to stuff everyone in a room until they give up and cry “uncle”?

And then consider the cost of the Marathon, with all those highly paid people, not doing their regular jobs.

If neither of those things give you pause, you may not actually be a manager.

Five steps to avoid Quicksand Meetings:

All of these Quicksand Meetings share a few common traits: A lack of input, a lack of output, and a lack of ownership among the participants.

Does this meeting have a clear and actionable agenda? Has everyone seen it, along with any supporting materials they need to digest before the meeting? Give everyone a chance to do their homework and develop informed opinions before the meeting instead of shooting from the hip. You can still give a Bezos-style moment of silence at the start of the meeting to review the materials, but at least give folks a chance to get up to speed before the meeting. Before we leave the meeting, what actions are we taking on those agenda items? What are our next steps? Who’s doing it, and when? You should know. If you can’t name the action items and a person handling each of them, that’s a problem. You’re not done yet. Am I inviting the right people? And the right number of people? Curate your guest list like it’s a wedding dinner and each guest costs you 100 bucks a plate. Find the people who want to contribute and are prepared to do so. Leave everyone else alone. They’ll be glad you did, because they have other things to do. Communicate the outcome of the meeting. Do this for the benefit of those who weren’t in the meeting, but also to reinforce the understanding of the folks who were in the meeting. You may feel like you don’t have enough time. You do. Especially if it helps you avoid another meeting on the topic. Track your meeting load. Do it for yourself. Do it for your team. On a personal level this is built into Google Calendar. At the team level, you may want to consider something like Clockwise to track your teams’ bandwidth, and think about what a healthy bandwidth number really looks like, both for delivery, and for a healthy team.

As managers, we sometimes hear “the meeting is the work” but that’s not quite right. Meetings are in the middle of the work. To make them useful, you as a manager have to put in the work to prepare for them (and to prepare others for them) and then you have to follow up on both the actions and communications afterwards. That’s the work.

Good meetings are a quick and effective way for a group to collectively get from Point A to Point B. To do so, you should go in with a clear and shared understanding of Point A. During the meeting, you should identify Point B, what it will take to get there, and who is doing each of those things.

That seems like a lot for my little meeting

Does every meeting need all of that structure? No. For some meetings, particularly 1:1s or team-building/conversational type meetings, that much structure can get in the way or even be counterproductive. Maybe you need a partial agenda. Maybe you don’t need an agenda at all. Feel it out, and see what the other folks in the meeting think.

But if you find yourself invited to a Getting Things Done meeting, be sure things are getting done.

Time is the one resource that does not and cannot scale. Don’t waste it.

Hat tips

”There is no shortage of think-pieces about bad meetings”, he says, as he adds another to the pile.