The truth about weekly meetings

In my recent post about meetings in France I promised I’d write a separate post on regular meetings, so here it is. I will say up front that what I’m about to describe is by no means unique to France, and is common to all large companies.

One of the most baffling things I have seen in my career is managers presiding over small teams of less than ten people sitting in the same office needing both a weekly meeting and a weekly report to know what their staff are doing. When I ran a team I knew what they were doing because I wandered around the office talking to them individually; the meetings were purely to discuss common issues or interfaces between two or more people. I would have considered it a failure on my part if I only find out what someone on my team is doing in the weekly meeting. When I inherited a team back in Nigeria the first thing I did was cancel the daily meeting. I was quickly instructed by my line manager to restart them, as they were compulsory.

What I’ve seen from several managers is a regular meeting whereby he or she will sit the entire team around a table and ask each individual, one by one, what they are doing. If the employee is smart he’ll respond with a couple of quick sentences to the effect that everything’s under control, but in France in particular it’s important to show your line manager you’re busier than a barmaid when the USS Nimitz is anchored in the harbour. Therefore, it’s important to list every single activity you have done, or are about to do, up to and including brief phone calls with colleagues. Everything that’s said is diligently typed into a spreadsheet by the manager, often with one finger and excruciatingly slowly. Most of the time the manager has no idea what the subordinate is talking about, so starts to ask questions. This results in the subordinate having to explain the entire history of the project to date, just so his manager can understand. Everyone else has to sit through this in silence. It wouldn’t be so bad if the manager didn’t need half the stuff he was told last week repeated; this is why they are scheduled to last an hour and end up taking two. I once worked out these meetings cost the company around $5k in employee time at prevailing internal charge rates, and decided one day I’d point that out. My manager didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. I can only assume he thought having a bunch of middle-aged senior engineers sat around a table playing with their phones while he had lengthy conversations with one individual on a specific topic cost nothing.

There’s a reason for these meetings. A lot of modern managers see their departments as nothing more than a step on the career ladder, a status marker from which they can launch their next move upwards. They have very little interest in the actual running of the department, and many make it plainly obvious they see their team as an inconvenience. This is why they need information repeated to them so often: they have no real interest when you tell them the first time. When I was a manager I reckoned about 70-80% of my time was spent looking downwards, i.e. managing the people below me, and the remainder looking upwards, i.e. dealing with the organisation above me. But a lot of modern corporate managers spend around 95% of their time looking upwards, arselicking their way to the next promotion in pointless meetings, and spend almost no time getting to know their subordinates and managing them effectively. There’s a strong parallel here with how career politicians view their brief, and even the general population: the best way to describe Theresa May’s relationship with the British people is she finds them an inconvenience.

If you don’t interact with your team, and generally hide in your office avoiding them, you have to do something to demonstrate you’re still a manager. This explains their behaviour in meetings which I described in my previous post. But it also means you have no idea what’s going on, and if someone higher up the chain asks and you can’t answer you’re in trouble. Therefore, you need to hold your nose, meet with your team occasionally, and ask each one to explain what they’re doing so you’re prepared for any awkward questions on high. Astonishingly, this is actually considered management in some organisations.

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9 thoughts on “The truth about weekly meetings

  1. Instead of HR, why don’t you just get yourself a job managing some engineers? Sounds like you already know the relevant onions

  2. Matthew,

    In big companies engineering managers – like all managers in big companies – need to be 100% on-message, and kowtow to the hierarchy. Also, it’s a fairly prestigious position and hence there’s lots of competition, requiring whoever holds the post to outflank the suckups and backstabbers.

    In small companies they insist the engineering manager can do the technical work of the engineers, which I can’t.

  3. I agree, management by waling about is the only way to keep on top of stuff. Rolling out a large mobile network has lots of moving parts with things going wrong that might mean new plans being developed hourly and changing timescales need to communicated to other departments. (A classic is getting a planning permission rejected when there’s been no objections). Despite that, I used to like a weekly report from each of my managers based on Softtq* just to make them sit down and think occasionally**. It also helped me when I had to go in to meetings, managing upwards and keeping senior managers off your team’s back being a key role and skill.

    The worst managers I came across were in management consultancies. They’d usually insist on a meeting at the end of the day, usually around 8pm or later, and then another at 9am. Unless it was a project that spread across time zones and stuff could have changed overnight I would refuse to attend the morning ones, mostly because I’m a morning person and would have been at work a couple of hours and t would break my chain of thought.

    * Successes, opportunities, failures, targets, threats, quality

    ** Emails and mobile phones make it too easy for people to get distracted and one of the biggest failings I used to see was people not sitting down in a quiet area and thinking. I’ve been there and leaned that lesson and on some project I used to go for a run at lunchtime just to get a break and clear my head.

  4. It’s necessary in my company because of the bizarre policy that yout team isn’t really your team. Who does what, and with whom, is decided by someone with a spreadsheet, no operational understanding of what we do, and the belief that projects are best assigned to as few as people as possible*, rather than across a wider group so that when the shit hits the fan everyone has sufficient familiarity to muck in, rather than sitting about with nothing to do while someone else is killing themselves with overwork.

    A further side-effect is that invididual workers are responsible to as many project leads as possible simultaneously, baking-in conflict when things get tight, or just when one project shifts from one week to the next. So the inevitable demand conflicts that could be solved easily with a small team and occasional outside help from other teams become much harder to solve.

    The fact that I don’t know what my charges are doing is the least of my problems. I stay because everything else is amazing, and it’s occasionally possible to undermine the system to get projects allocated sensibly.

    *: This, presumably, because it requires the least entries in the spreadsheet.

  5. I wish I had more time today, as I have some counter arguments. Clearly, the examples you’ve given in the last few posts are wholly dysfunctional. I can’t imagine meetings like that. However, your role as a manager changes over time. You are a contributor to the company and must therefore scale that contribution. If you stay in the trenches with your direct team too much, then you become part of an army of managers who contribute a finite amount. You need to manage down for a while until you can build an autonomous team. Then you manage up to create new opportunities. You should have been hired to create new, not just manage existing. As a result, a weekly meeting with your autonomous team can be useful for passdowns, decisions, and group problem solving.
    Secondly. I have a frustration about people who “don’t like meetings.” Fine, if you don’t, then you need to actually talk to other people to get things done so that I don’t have to check on you. Here’s an example:

    Me: How’s that project going?
    Emp: I need something from so-and-so and I haven’t heard back from him.
    Me: Well, can you walk down the hallway 30 feet and talk to him?
    Emp: Oh yeah. Okay.

    Running a project without direct reports is another matter, as suggested by another. You can turn your back for 2 minutes from a resource and find out later that they’ve been reassigned on the fly by somebody else for some temporary clusterfuck. That’s why I’ve used 15 minute daily stand ups to track this type of work. All I can do is figure out what can actually be done today before I lose a week from surprises.

  6. Managers hold meetings to justify their existence. Same with timesheets dress codes, telling staff off for minor infractions.

    You get a team led by someone who is also part of the team, a player/manager, they don’t hold meetings. Or any other bullshit. If I’m not doing planning, reporting progress and sorting things out, I’m writing code. I’m helping with delivery. Because all that other stuff takes less than 2 days a week if you’ve got things organised.

    And no other management works. Look at the really competitive industries like sports, restaurants, entrepreneurial dotcoms. The leaders are all alumni of the activity. No football team is managed by a non-footballer. Every chef can cook. Then you meet someone who is a software manager who has no idea about software. Probably with a degree or an MBA. They’re a total waste of space. All they can do is the bureaucratic crap.

  7. As a result, a weekly meeting with your autonomous team can be useful for passdowns, decisions, and group problem solving.

    Don’t get me wrong, regular meetings are essential for any team for discussing collective issues, passing down information, all the things you mention, and for building team dynamics. My objection is not to weekly meetings, but to how they are often carried out in practice.

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