A cure for meetingitis

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Ruben COO

27 Jul 2017  ·  6 min read

Our focus on efficiency in our client processes didn’t save us from slowly getting infected with that paralytic called meeting culture. Here’s how we cured it!

We’ve said it before, but we’ll say it again: at November Five, we strive for efficiency and getting things done. We’re devoting quite some time and resources to process improvements and have created a whole legion of automation monkeys to help us do so!

However, we have to admit things are not always so easy. In fact, we recently had to take a hard look in the mirror and realise we fell into the same trap as so many other companies.

Meeting culture madness

Like many businesses that pride themselves on close collaboration, as we do, we had slipped into a pretty strong ‘meeting culture’. You’re probably familiar with it: people get lived by their agenda’s, hopping from one meeting to the next, without preparation or actually knowing what they’re expected to do in that meeting.

Looking deeper, we identified two main problems. Firstly, we all spend far too much time in large amounts of inefficient meetings. Secondly, those meetings often run late, which causes other meetings to start late, which wastes even more time.

Time for action!

Our time is precious, so we decided to tackle the meetingitis with some simple guidelines and rules.

1. A meeting takes 30 minutes by default. Longer meetings require an agenda to justify the extra time.

A look at our company agendas revealed a lot of meetings of wildly differing lengths. Many were multiples of 1 hour, simply because that’s the default for most calendar applications! In other words, people didn’t generally think of the opportunity cost of a meeting. The key question is: how much time do I actually need with these people to get done what I need to get done?

Under the new guidelines, meeting slots now default to 30 minutes. This encourages being on time and preparing up front, and makes meetings more efficient. Longer meetings are still possible, of course – but then an agenda with time estimates for each point is required, so it’s clear for everyone why they need to clear 2 hours of their time.

2. Respect for coworkers’ time.

Without being overly righteous, we’ve started to frame being late to a meeting as disrespectful towards coworkers – their time is precious, too! We also want to encourage people to wrap up the meeting when everything’s been said. More time for getting work done!

Meetings start and end on time. If the meeting is over early, wrap it up.

3. Every meeting needs a purpose that’s shared up front.

If you don’t know what is expected of you in the meeting, you don’t need to show up.

We saw an overload of “ad hoc” meetings in which people didn’t know what was expected from them, if preparation was needed etc. We’re now pushing everyone to formulate the purpose of each meeting in one sentence. This keeps us from wasting the first 10 minutes of each meeting explaining why everyone is here.

4. Every meeting needs an owner.

The meeting owner is responsible for sharing the purpose and agenda upfront, arranging the follow-up and sending notes.

Now, we (obviously) already had meeting owners for each client meeting. But internally? Not so much. There were meetings floating around where no one actually knew who needed to guide the meeting, steer discussions and follow up.

5. A meeting shouldn’t have more than 8 people in it.

Research shows that for every individual you add to a group beyond seven, decision effectiveness declines by 10%. This is evidently not a good thing. We wanted everyone to consider the opportunity cost of every meeting! For instance, a one-hour meeting with 8 people should have at least the same output as an entire day’s work for a single person.

What we’re evolving towards is getting rid of status meetings and move towards decision-making meetings, where only the people actually involved in the decision-making process are present.

The nitty gritty

Apart from these rules, we also agreed on a few naming conventions. This might seem like nitpicking, but it’s a crucial step towards automation – more on that in a minute – and better reporting. We can now draw graphs detailing the percentage of time people spend in each type of meetings, which ones happen most or not enough, and see how changes to our meeting guidelines affect the meeting behaviour of our people.

For naming, we defined every type of meeting our team members were having: project-related (e.g. demos, standups, sprint kickoffs), HR-related, client meetings, etc. A few examples:

  • ‘1x1 - name1 x name2’ for one-on-ones
  • ‘demo - project-identifier’ for demo’s
  • ‘out - client-name - meeting subject’ for external meetings with clients

Additionally, we restructured our company-wide productivity grid to better handle meetings. Team meetups (one of our knowledge sharing initiatives, where a full team gets dedicated time to learn new stuff and work on improving their workflow) are now limited to Monday and Wednesday afternoons, and client demos to Wednesdays and Fridays, for instance. We’ve looked at all of our recurring meetings, and defined how long they ought to take, and on which days they’d best be scheduled. That might seem a little rigid, but it’s freed up a lot of time for a lot of our people!

Of course, that’s all very nice, but rather pointless if people don’t actually get used to and follow the rules. To make sure they turn into second nature, we used a few sneaky tricks. The time that’s left for a certain meeting (taken from our office’s Google calendar) is now shown on every meeting room’s screen, and snappy versions of the rules are used as meeting room screen savers – to constantly, sort-of-subtly remind everyone about their importance.

As always, we automate!

Now, as you may have gathered from previous blogs, we automate the sh*t out of everything. We have our band of tools named after monkeys, including Pygmy for native continuous integration, and Baboon for workflow management.

So to rid us from meetingitis, the doctor is another monkey: Tamarin!


First and foremost, Tamarin is a very nice monkey. He helps people out by sneaking through their agendas, doing things like:

  • Adding travel time for external meetings (using the Google Distance Matrix API), taking into account expected traffic and the time needed to walk to the parking lot. This ensures that any meetings before and after can start and end on time.
  • Automatically adding holidays and illness to team members’ calendars as soon as they get approval from our talent department, keeping everyone up to date.
  • And adding our office’s address to client meetings, so they immediately know where to be.

But like any monkey doctor, he can sometimes get angry. For instance, he stubbornly kicks out any 1x1 meetings in main meeting rooms, making sure that these locations are freed for demos and client meetings. He also bothers people on Slack when they’re not following the naming conventions properly, or when they’re not supplying their attendees with a purpose and an agenda for an ‘ad hoc’ meeting.

So does it pay off?

Although it’s too early to pull some numbers on the impact of our change, we are already getting a lot of positive feedback from our people. The general consensus is that we all have more available time, a greater feeling of planning consistency, and less time wasted in between meetings or waiting for other meetings to end.

So far, so good!

Of course, we know we’ve got to be watchful – we’ll have to very carefully avoid the pitfall of a relapse into old habits.

But with our monkey closely watching our every meeting move, we’re sure we’ll manage to stay on the right track.