Read This If You Hate Meetings

This is the best explanation I have ever read of why I hate meetings so much, and why other people love them. If you are like me, you should save this link and simply forward it to anybody who asks if you’d like to “grab coffee” or “have a quick phone call to pick each other’s brains” or, God forbid, actually go somewhere and sit around a table with a lot of other people and have a proper meeting.

It is written by Paul Graham, and it divides the world into two kinds of people — managers and makers:

One reason programmers dislike meetings so much is that they’re on a different type of schedule from other people. Meetings cost them more.

There are two types of schedule, which I’ll call the manager’s schedule and the maker’s schedule. The manager’s schedule is for bosses. It’s embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one-hour intervals. You can block off several hours for a single task if you need to, but by default you change what you’re doing every hour.

When you use time that way, it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done.

Most powerful people are on the manager’s schedule. It’s the schedule of command. But there’s another way of using time that’s common among people who make things, like programmers and writers. They generally prefer to use time in units of half a day at least. You can’t write or program well in units of an hour. That’s barely enough time to get started.

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

If this is a topic that interests you at all, you should go read the whole thing. It is very well thought-out and very well written.

Perhaps I say this simply because I agree so strongly with what Graham has written. Sometimes I am on a manager’s schedule. But when I am writing a book — not researching it, but writing — I am a maker. I try also to be a functioning husband and father during those periods, and to pay the important bills, but beyond that I eliminate just about everything. This is hard to do, especially if I’ve been on a manager’s schedule in previous months, during which time I interact with a lot of people who, naturally, come to expect future interactions.

But when the time comes to write, I disappear. I reply to as few e-mails as possible, rarely answer the telephone, and try to turn down every invitation that isn’t vital. When I fail to turn something down I inevitably regret it, and I am guessing the people who invited me regret it as well, for I am distracted and cranky. A book is like a child who never naps, never goes to camp, always needs care and feeding, and whose presence gnaws on you if you dare neglect it.

Having read Paul Graham’s wise words — seriously, go read it already — I feel somewhat less guilty about being such a jerk during my “maker” periods. I have developed a too-complex set of responses and coping mechanisms to protect my writing time, but Graham has given me and everyone like me permission to simplify that mess and see the world as it is: people for whom meetings are their work, and people for whom meetings are a disaster.

That said, I do look forward to this current maker’s period being over (soon!) because I really like a lot of the people that I meet with. Just not when I’m busy being a maker.

I am interested in hearing from both makers and managers on this topic.

(Hat tip: Kottke)


Derick

I understand your thinking and I'm sure my father (a software develeoper who hates pointless meetings and the like) would enjoy this, but I think this marginalizes managers too much and makes the "productive hero" image the exclusive property of the direct design position. You know that makers wouldn't be able to succede without a well-managed company to work within, at least typically, or else companies with no managers would form and blow the rest out of the market. Integrating the complexities of the business world also requires extreme productive enthusiasm; they're not all just full of hot air.

Derick

The terms "maker" and "manager" for example seem to imply that managers aren't producing anything. Which is the same premise a physical laborer would make to you that you're not a "maker" you're a "designer" or something.

Chance

Almost everyone hates a poorly run meeting. Unfortunately, most of the ones I attrend are poorly run. First, determine if a meeting is actually necessary. If other methods of communication are adequete (email, phone, web 2.0) use thopse instead. If a meeting is necessary, write up an agenda, alert attendees to it, and then stick to it. Some tangets are okay, depending on the topic, but for the most part don't allow the dialog to get too far off topic. Next, make it as short as possible - it should only be just long enough to get the task completed. Finally, make sure everyone understands the next steps - another meeting, individual tasks, no further action, whatever. There should be no confusion on this.

If more meetings were run like this, fewer people would hate them.

Eric M. Jones

Here's the plan: In the corner of the meeting room is a floor to ceiling glass cylinder a foot in diameter. Inside the cylinder is a gentle fall of $100 bills...gently falling like Autumn leaves. This should remind the managers of the cost of the meeting.

Scott Adams "Dilbert" has already said what has to be said. Somehow the management has become occupied by characters who can't do anything else. And they have good hair. Narcissistic personality disorders fly right to the top. This is typically, but not entirely, an American-British disease.

In World War 2, you could drop a dime to the FBI, tell them you saw the boss speaking German on the phone and see these "managers" frog-marched out as industrial saboteurs. Now these frauds just wreck the companies while getting huge bonuses.

No one travelling on a business trip would be missed if he failed to arrive.
--Thorstein Veblen

Fred

Wow, someone has finally validated what I have believed for many years. As a structural engineer who actually sits down, performs calculations and develops construction drawings, I have found that two well scheduled meetings at say 10 AM and 2 PM meeting can essentially destroy my entire day. My productivity falls to perhaps 50% of what it would be with no meetings.

With cell phones, backberries, etc, things have gotten even worse. I sometime find myself hiding in a small conference room in the office space of a different division of the company, where no one can find me, in order to get things done.

charles

Poor Eric. What a burden to live with. Sure there are those types...as well as others, people worthy of learning from.

A. B.

As a business analyst responsible for eliciting requirements for software products, I definitely agree with this viewpoint, and would only add that some people (like me) represent a third type of people, that aren't neither managers nor "makers", but rather analysts that design processes, systems, etc.

For this third kind, I think that meetings are extremely valuable when they occur for the right reasons (typically make decisions that allow the analyst to move forward with their design work). Analysts typically can get work done in smaller chunks of time so they are not as badly affected by a meeting breaking their day in smaller units of free time as makers are.

Fred

At 1:

You are correct. As an engineer, I have seen plenty of firms poorly run by engineers who do not understand the importance of managing. However, mangers also need to understand managing engineers, and how their actions affect their employees.

Kristen

As a research scientist, I really identify with this! During periods of bench work and writing, I'm in maker mode, but the whole process requires collaboration which necessitates a switch to manager mode. One problem that arises is fragmented time; short periods of 5-30 minutes when I'm switching between one mode and the other, and for all intents and purposes, completely ineffective. I'm still trying to solve this problem.

dreamking

Throwing around such a broad term as 'maker' grates my ears and reeks of self-serving narcissism. Why not just call all the people who potentially waste your time, and by implication disrespect your value, Muggles?

Honest laborers and physical craftsmen would not so easily agree to call writers (English-language or C++) 'makers'.

I think everyone is better off not playing EST-inspired definition games. I say this despite being in total agreement that people engaged in design, architecture or writing work often work better in looser-defined blocks of time. I strongly disagree the text you're directing people to is a good description of this very obvious fact.

Howard Tayler

I believe the book Peopleware addressed this exact concern thirty years ago. It amazes me that in spite of the increasing prevalence of "makers" in the same office building as "managers" we haven't internalized this principle.

I used to work as a manager at Novell. These days I work as a cartoonist for me. The scheduling needs between the two could not be more different, and yes, they're exactly as Paul Graham (and DeMarco and Lister before him) described.

Mike

@Derick - I don't think Graham is implying anything bad about Managers in this (He's one himself, but hes also a Maker). Managers are needed to organize and run things, just as much as the Makers are needed to make things. This article is just a good explanation of how the two working styles don't agree very well. As a programmer myself, I try my best to only allow meetings on one day a week, I know that day is going to be shot, but I do need to sync up with management (and other programmers), so it's a necessary evil. Just last week, I had a day with only 2 1/2 hour meetings, but they were split up so that one was in the middle of the morning and the other was in the middle of the afternoon. I tried, but got nothing productive done that day. It's just the nature of the beast. But I can also see why the 1-hour chunk meetings that managers work in works well for their style of work (for one, it's just a more social work where as programming is more solitary)

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sue

totally nails it - writing from a copywriter's point of view - sometimes you need an entire afternoon to get into a creative writing "groove" - a meeting breaks it up - or you've gotten into the groove and have to stop for a meeting.

Richard Hendricks

Kristen,
We used to have that problem at my old company. What we did to try and solve it was to agree to only have meetings during part of the day. It was decided that meetings could only be held in the afternoon. This way work could be done in the morning when we were fresh, and before meetings had an opportunity to demotivate anyone.

Mike

BTW - I have a meeting scheduled in one hour. But I'm reading the Freakonomics blog rather than working because I know I can't get anything done in that hour.

Jim

Meetings are usually a waste of time, especially if the subjects to be discussed are off-tracked! Usually, people (truthful people)abhor going to meetings. Some people are not even involved in some discussions! Meetings are usually a façade, not involving the true feeling of the person speaking them! Usually the company line on subjects that company policy. Managers usually call meetings because they want to be "coddled." The most important way to communicate, that is receive information and give information is an informal talk to the individual or individuals, it is definitely more useful and truthful.

DaveyNC

The author, Mr. Graham, is in the IT field it sounds like and so he is almost certainly familiar with David Allen's "Getting Things Done" book and the concept of "Mind like water." If not, he should check it out. I highly recommend it, as well, particularly for someone who is project-oriented.

Link here: http://www.davidco.com/

And here: http://www.davidco.com/video/index.php

Mark Shocklee

After reading this article and the comments, I feel like the person in the middle of an argument between the angel and devil sitting on my shoulders.
My angel is encouraging me to say that the article made an unfortunate choice of words. Instead of 'maker', it should have been pointed out that programmers, analysts, engineers, and writers spend most of their time doing tasks that require a startup and tear-down period. Managers have the same experience when they write reports or work on presentations. Conversely, tasks that have discrete duration, such as dealing with user accounts, scheduling reports, and changing system parameters are similar to the type of tasks that make up a majority of the managers schedule.
My devil is encouraging me to ask the managers exactly what they ask me for all the time - what is the ROI on your tasks? How exactly do the tasks that you perform contribute to shareholder value? And you cannot use intangibles to justify the task - I want real dollar values.

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Gary

I've been both a Maker and a Manager. I agree that a manager has to set aside time when it's not disruptive to the maker to attend manager meetings. Part of the communication gap between the two schedules is due, in part, to the fact that the manager has little added value in a makers meeting, so they don't attend, but a maker can add value to both types of meetings. But the maker may not appreciate that because it's possibly loosely related or unrelated to their maker activity.

Also, there are two types of behavior in business (and in life)- scheduled activities and event driven activities. The manager has to deal with both types of activities. The maker is focused soley on a makers scheduled activity and unscheduled events are viewed as disruptive to productivity.

We an all experience both acitivities in every day life. If I plan and execute a job, like painting the house, it requires planning, preparation, setup, execution, teardown, cleanup, and storage. If I get interrupted at any point in the process, it can be devastating to my productivity for that day. In this case the manager is my wife. If she's faced with an event activity like the dog is sprayed by a skunk- she wants action immmediately. My maker's schedule is viewed as a lower priority, regardless of how it impacts my progress.

If all activities could be planned and executed to a schedule we wouldn't need managers. Unfortunately, business is not all knowing when schedules are made, so as new information and events occur, the manager has to steer a new course and make adjustments in the work to be sucesssful with the objective. Makers don't see in the same way.

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Stephen

A simple solution for a maker - block the middle of your day with 2 3-hour blocks of "meetings". Leave time in the morning and evening (and, if necessary, around lunch) for managers to schedule meetings with you. Thus, you meet while still getting the longer blocks of time when you are not able to mult-process.

By the way, I agree that maker/manager is perjorative. How about one-track-minds and thought-leaders?