The all-hands meeting: what we have here is a failure to communicate

by Mechaferret on September 28th, 2009

There is the all-hands meeting that is announced with very little notice and no explanation, that is probably occurring either because the company got sold (and everyone is rich) or the company is doing layoffs (and everyone is unemployed), that has everyone whispering and speculating and wondering for the few hours until the meeting itself occurs, a meeting in which everyone definitely wants to know what will be said.

I’m not talking about that kind of meeting.

Nor am I talking about all-hands meetings in which a bunch of people that work at geographically dispersed locations get together to meet in person and get to know each other (aka “culture-building” or “a party”) or the all-hands working group meeting, in which a team gets together offsite to do some focused work (aka “work, but in a more fun location”).

No, I am talking about the every-quarter-or-so, multi-hour to multi-day meeting with a detailed agenda and attendees sitting in chairs desperately trying not to fall asleep, the one where the people “up top” get together with the rank and file to “explain everything that’s going on right now”. The sort of meetings that truly give meetings a bad name and lead to manifestos like this one.

The main problem with these meetings is that they should never be necessary. The large-scale direction and upcoming products that are discussed in these meetings should be common knowledge to the people who work for you, part of their DNA, inhaled along with the air. I ran an organization of over 25 people for 3 years, and I never once held an all-hands meeting, and yet everyone was quite aware of where the company was going, and what the new products were, and which major customers and markets we were currently focusing on. They knew it because every day, in various scrums, I would mention that “this feature is for company X” or “we might be on a tight deadline next month because we need to release for trade show Y”. They knew it because I met with my direct reports once a week and planned out what we were doing, and then they told their reports, and so on. They knew it because any time someone was assigned a task, the explanation for the corporate need for the task would accompany the assignment, unless the person already knew it. It’s not that hard.

If you feel the need to have an all-hands meeting to explain “what’s going on”, you aren’t communicating adequately on a day-to-day basis. Thus your team is most likely confused and/or apathetic, and is definitely not working together with you towards your common goals, because they don’t know what the goals are. It is the absolute antithesis of the recipe for productive, high-performance teams.

The other possible explanation for big-bang all-hands meetings is that the team does know what you’re going to tell them, but you as a manager like to stand up in front of everyone and tell them what’s going on because you get something out of it, because it reinforces the management hierarchy and your position in it, because you feel like it earns you respect. In that case, instead of failure to communicate, what you have is straight-up poor management. Standing in front of a room full of people telling them things they already know, while they look bored and try not to roll their eyes, does nothing but reinforce belief in the Peter Principle.

Either way, when corporate management feels the need for periodic, large-scale all-hands meetings, the first question should be “In what way is company communication or management failing that there seems to be a need to hold this meeting?” One might consider having the team all get together for “work, but in a more fun location” or even “a party” to try to answer that question.

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