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Hate those endless meetings? Try standing up

Sarah Gardner Feb 20, 2012

Sarah Gardner: For those of you with President’s Day off today, congratulations. For those of you who got stuck at the office, though, we hope you haven’t been trapped in yet…another…meeting. Y’know what I’m talkin’ about: The agenda’s a mile long, one of your colleagues starts talking and barely comes up for air. And oh goody, here comes another PowerPoint presentation. Halfway through you’re daydreaming about Hawaiian beaches and mai tais, right?

Mike Cohn is a project management consultant based in Colorado. He’s seen this kind of “meeting misery” before, and has a few remedies. Mike, thanks for being with us.

Mike Cohn: Thank you, Sarah.

Gardner: You’ve consulted with quite a few companies over the years in various industries, and part of what you recommend are standing-only meetings — no chairs, no conference table. What does that look like?

Cohn: Well it looks like what you’d expect: It’s a bunch of people normally standing in a hallway or a little alcove in an office, just doing a brief stand-up meeting.

Gardner: What’s the point of that? Why are you recommending that?

Cohn: We stand up to keep us on focus, no sitting down. When we sit down, we start stalling.

Gardner: You can’t check your emails under the table on your smartphone; you can’t doze off, right?

Cohn: Definitely no email-checking. If we see anybody looking at their iPhone or something, we discourage that. The point is to come together very focused, just a short period, and let people get right back to work. No delays.

Gardner: Now, even in a standing meeting, though, you still may have this problem of one or two people who like to talk too much. You know, they go into too much detail, they wander off into personal stories. What do you do about that?

Cohn: What I do is I encourage teams to come up with their own rules, whatever they want to do to help people realize they’re going off-topic. Some teams, of course, are quite comfortable with that and they’ll just point it out to each other. Other teams need little rituals or games to help point out that somebody’s going a little too deep.

Gardner: A ritual? Like what?

Cohn: Well one of the teams — I work with a number of teams that have done this, in fact — they’ll do something like hold up a, it always seems to be a rubber rat, to indicate we’re going down a rathole. They’ll have a rubber rat or two around where they’re meeting, somebody will pick up a rat to indicate to their coworker they’re going too deep. Why you’re able to hold up a rat at your coworker rather than just confront them verbally, but shy people might be more comfortable holding up the rat.

Gardner: Now I’ve also heard that there are companies that, you know, they fine people who are late to meetings, they give some sort of punishment like doing push-ups. Have you ever seen that?

Cohn: Oh absolutely, that’s a real common thing. A lot of teams will have something like you show up late, you bring sweets to the meeting for the next day. After a while, they find themselves all gaining too much weight and they’ll switch to things like the push-ups.

Gardner: Mike, I have to ask you one last thing about stand-up meetings. I can’t let it go, I have to ask you this question though, and it pertains to this: How tall are you?

Cohn: I am six-foot-tall.

Gardner: See. OK, I’m 5’3″. So for all those short people out there, it seems like it’s a bit of a disadvantage for the short people standing with the tall. When you sit at a conference table, it’s sort of a great equalizer in terms of authority.

Cohn: I had not thought about that. That could be. I’m thinking about the people that I’ve worked with that have originated and sort of pushed this approach, and most of them have not been excessively tall. But no, I haven’t really noticed that it’d be part of a power struggle.

Gardner: OK, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Mike, thanks for talking to us.

Cohn: Thank you, Sarah.

Gardner: Mike Cohn, he’s the founder of Mountain Goat Software.

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