Working Sessions vs Executive Meetings

My time is generally split between two different kinds of meetings. One I love, the other not so much.

Working Sessions

A working session is a group of 2-5 people who are talking about a specific design or problem. They are brainstorming ways to improve it or fix it. In short, it’s a meeting to figure stuff out.

Usually, each person is speaking in roughly equal measures. Each person has a specific role in the process. In other words, they have real skin in the game. They are usually a designer, product manager, or engineer. There are no project managers or extraneous people. No executives for sure. Opinions aren’t held tightly. The exchange of ideas is paramount, each person trying to find the right solution.

I like these meetings because they move the ball forward. After a meeting like this, I can start a design or get closer to the finish line. These sessions fill me with confidence that we can make great products for customers.

Executive Meetings

The second type of meeting usually has alot more people; sometimes dozens. This meeting has a very different flavor. Usually, the speaking is dominated by 2-3 people and the rest of the crowd is just watching and maybe sometimes throwing grenades into the discussion.

Meeting Grenade: A grenade is a point of view that shuts down the conversation. Example: “I don’t think the CEO will like this.”

These meetings are all about emotions, communication, and FUD.

FUD stands for Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt. These are the three horseman of the product apocalypse. They have ruined more companies than any other factors.

Often these meetings are accompanied by very long documents. A friend once called them “Walls of Text” and said that their purpose is to shut people up.

A document that is supposed to “explain everything” is often counterproductive. People reading someone’s writing doesn’t equal alignment. Usually documents are filled with curse of knowledge traits.

The very worst kind of executive session is 20 people listening to one person read a document or slideshow for an hour. In these meetings, I feel my life force ebbing away with every minute.

I know Project Managers have an important role to play, but often meetings called by the project manager are brutal micro-management of every task status and the only beneficiary is the project manager themselves.

These meetings are expensive. They include many people who are half-paying attention. This means they are not working on real deliverables. They also don’t make the product get built any faster. Yet, these meetings make a big portion of my calendar.

Thoughts

What would happen if we just didn’t have the executive sessions? The bad outcome might be overlap of work or factionalism where each department went off in different directions. This isn’t absolutely going to happen, but it could.

The role of the product manager should be to facilitate the working sessions and minimize the executive sessions. If you find yourself on the wrong end of these kinds of meetings, I think the first place to look is the executive leadership. When they aren’t aligned, you end up with too many dysfunctional alignment sessions.

Although it’s easy to say “get rid of them” I think there are psychological and organizational reasons they exist. Clearly something to think about more.

Whatya think?