Haplo Retrospective


Our approach to meetings was simple: we avoided having meetings.

Then, if we really had to, we made sure that it was worth it, and everyone who attended would contribute.

The Haplo rules for scheduled meetings

We never wrote down the rules for how we ran meetings. But if we had, they’d have looked something like this:

This might sound a bit over the top, but with thoughtful and engaged colleagues, it works very well. I was discussing this recently with a colleague, and they said “I never felt like meetings were the wrong thing to do, I just needed to really think about whether they were needed. 99% of the time they weren’t.”

Meetings are not a good use of your time

We were very clear about why we didn’t think meetings were an effective way of working. Firstly, they are expensive, so need to have an excellent return on investment. And secondly, the nature of meetings limits what they can do.

More expensive than you think

Meetings come at a substantial cost. The most obvious is the salaries of everyone attending. In the tech industry, this is substantial. But the biggest costs are less obvious.

For those performing knowledge work, such as developing software, a badly timed meeting can take up much more time than that of the meeting itself. Before the meeting, you don’t want to start a task, knowing you’ll be interrupted soon. And afterwards, you need time to pick up the interrupted task.

And then there’s the opportunity cost. What could have been done with the time if it wasn’t spent in a meeting?

Hard to achieve anything

There’s very few things that can be achieved in a meeting. You can’t do research, gather information, or think deeply, and even if notes are taken, most of what’s said is ephemeral.

Therefore, meetings come at the end of a process, not the beginning.

We believed it was worth the cost of a meeting to:

Alternatives to meetings

There are two alternatives to meetings: don’t have a meeting, and written communication after individual thought.

Don’t have a meeting

Is your meeting really necessary? If you can’t imagine an outcome which would be worth the cost, don’t waste the time on a meeting.

Or could this be bundled into another meeting you’re having anyway, spreading the overheads over more than one item?

Written communication

Our preferred alternative to a meeting was written communication, enabling those involved to think about things carefully and perform the required research. From most to least formal:

All these methods work well for the things that meetings can’t achieve. The necessary research can be done and information gathered. Those involved can think properly about the task at hand, at convenient times without interrupting their work. Colleagues on the periphery can be informed, without having to drag them into a meeting where only a tiny amount is relevant. And it inherently creates a full and accurate record of the proceedings.

Once everyone had a reasonable amount of certainty about the outcomes and next actions, a meeting might be appropriate. But hopefully it wouldn’t.

Behaviours in a meeting

Given that meetings have such a high cost, they need to be as effective as possible. Every participant needs to be able to contribute to the company’s work, and to develop professionally as fast as possible.

Given the different personalities and the hierarchy in a company, there could be a tendency for a few individuals to dominate. To compensate, there needs to be an expectation of behaviours which allow everyone to speak up, and for everyone to be heard.

Create gaps

We would deliberately ask if anyone else had a thought or contribution, and then be comfortable with silence.

The goal was to have higher quality contributions from everyone attending, as quieter colleagues often need a gap before they’ll speak, and everyone needs time to gather their thoughts.

Be aware of loud voices

If a colleague was in danger of talking too much, we’d gently encourage them to finish. Strategies include asking or inviting questions of the speaker, or suggesting it should be a later topic.

As well as solving the immediate problem, this made it clear that we didn’t want anyone dominating the meeting — but doing so in a way that made everyone feel valued.

All interactions are positive

When someone’s contributions to a meeting have a positive outcome, they will contribute more often and more effectively, as well as feeling good about their place in the team. Therefore, it’s critically important that we behave in a way that welcomes every interaction.

All questions must be treated seriously and answered. There is great value in answering the most basic questions. Not everyone is starting from the same point, and they may have made assumptions. This avoids misunderstanding, helps colleagues learn, and reinforcements the fundamentals for everyone.

Comments, observations, and opinions must be listened to and never dismissed. Everything is worth discussing, as opportunities to dive into more detail, or correct inaccurate information.

Have high expectations

We held ourselves to high standards. Everyone was expected to be respectful to each other, listen to everyone, and use inclusive language.

This was a key part of the company’s culture, and meetings were one of the clearest demonstrations of our values to our team.

Regular developer meetings

We had very few regular meetings. The most important was the weekly meeting of all the developers, and it evolved as the company grew.

In the early days of the company, we only had a few colleagues, and they were all very early in their careers. As such, it was mainly about teaching how code was written in a commercial environment, sometimes going as far as mini-lectures to go through some code in detail.

We expected everyone to bring things to the meeting. Not necessarily every week, but regularly. This might be something that went well, a mistake that had been made, or showing a new thing that others could use.

At one meeting, when there were about eight of us in the company, everyone brought a mistake they’d made to the meeting. I remember being so proud of my team. We’d created a workplace where you could stand up in front of your colleagues and talk about something you did wrong, and the reaction was entirely positive with lots of ideas about how to change things to stop that mistake being possible again.

This meeting was also used for sharing company news and strategy. In a company where the majority of the team were developers, it was a good opportunity to get everyone else in for a few minutes before lunch.

A few years later, my colleagues from the early days had a few years experience. The developer meetings changed accordingly, with deeper discussions, and more formal agendas and planning.

Then in the last few years before the acquisition, we split out the non-development items into their own meetings, and I handed over the meetings to my Engineering Manager. She formalised it further, including setting up a system to record meetings, store notes and track follow up items.

Recording notes from the meetings made a big difference, as it records the thinking, enables colleagues to catch up if they missed the meeting, and to be able to review decisions later within our change process. There was a rota for note taking, to share the load, and prevent accidental adoption of stereotypical gender roles.

How this can go wrong

While our reluctance to have meetings worked very well for our work in general, it meant we didn’t manage to set up the regular meetings for individuals. Instead of scheduled “1 to 1s”, I checked in informally. I regret this, as it was far too ad-hoc, relied far too much on picking up issues from other conversations, and my attention was uneven. Despite this, we did OK, but could have been much better.

Colleagues do need to meet, and they shouldn’t be made to feel as if it’s the wrong thing to do. I only dislike scheduled meetings, and we always encouraged ad-hoc meetings (in our sound-proofed meeting room) if discussion in the online chat room wasn’t solving the problem.

There’s a social element to meetings, and there must be times and places to socialise. If you eliminate most meetings, you need to provide this space. We devoted a lot of office space to our lunch table, and had surprisingly social lunches.

We didn’t have any formal rules or guidance on the meetings, because we were consistent from the start. We’d always been sceptical about meetings, and never got into the habit of having lots of them. Looking back now, formal rules feel like they would have been superfluous as it was working for us. But, had we wanted to change our approach in any way, we would absolutely have needed to write the rules down and make sure they were followed.

We should have recorded meeting notes earlier. Informal sharing of knowledge only works when the team is small. Of course, there’s not much point in taking notes if you never use the information.

Sadly, you can’t apply these rules with your customers. You can, however, structure your processes to work towards effective ways of working together, and at the very least, insist on having an agenda.

Remote working changed everything. Our approach to meetings was for face to face meetings, and needed to be adjusted to take into account the difficulties of video conferencing. In particular, you can’t make eye contact on a video call to encourage quiet colleagues to speak, so alternative ways of making space are needed. We’ve tried the tools in the conferencing apps, like “raising a hand”, and being even more deliberate about inviting others to speak. This still needs more work.

Table of contents