The Invisible Cost of Status Meetings

Mar 27, 2024
Edmundo Ortega
Flight controllers in the 1960s at NASA's Mission Control Center in Houston

Status meetings have become so ingrained in the culture of software engineering that we rarely consider their opportunity cost. These repetitive, low-nutrition meetings are a colossal time suck, but they seem to be the only way managers can stay in the loop. As leaders, how can solve this problem so that we can spend more time on the strategic value we are expected to deliver?

Status meetings are great.

At their best, they give the team some time to spend together to discuss, deliberate, and even socialize a bit. A little face time as a group can be a good thing, especially in the distributed, post-pandemic world. 

They also let managers keep their finger on the pulse. Many managers that I’ve talked to like to do the thing where they assemble the team, pepper them with questions, and even drop a little knowledge. For many managers in fact, status meetings are the only way you can stay informed and close to the ground on immediate issues facing the team. 

But status meetings kinda suck, too.

You know that feeling you have when you look at your calendar and think, when am I supposed to get all my work done??? When you get moved up from IC developer to manager your meeting load gets moved up too. Typical engineering managers spend almost half of their work-week in meetings, up from about 25% for individual contributors. And the stats for focus time are reversed. When you become a manager, your focus time is cut in half to about 10 hours per week.   

Group status meetings and one-on-ones, not to mention the meetings where you report up, start to eat away at your valuable time. It’s like you got a promotion and a salary bump just so you could become significantly less productive. You have less time to express your value. That’s frustrating. 

Maybe you’ve figured status meetings out. Maybe they’re the most productive part of your day. If so, please tell us your secret! But for most teams, status meetings are wasteful because they’re low in nutritional density. They eat up lot of time without delivering a lot of value to most of the people who are there.

So why do we do them?

The ironic root of the problem is that status meetings are mostly there for the benefit of the manager. To keep them in the loop. So they can feel informed. And so they can report up in their status meeting to their boss, who in turn must report to their boss, and so on. Eventually it reaches a CTO who gets a report that is essentially a reverse waterfall version of a game of telephone. 

These meeting were supposed to be about identifying problems and being aligned. I’ll admit, there’s usually a little bit of that. But mostly they are unfocused ramblings driving by complicated interpersonal dynamics: 

  • Loud voices that don’t mind taking up the space, end up taking up all the space. 
  • The HiPPo (highest-paid person in the room) effect takes place, where people feel afraid to challenge their boss.  
  • Little to no structure to support productive discussion
  • Time-bound and thus structured for repetition

So status meetings are failing at their purpose. Why? First because the manager is finding out about important issues too late to preemptively act. And second, because the manager is only informed about what his or her team decides to tell them. You don’t know what you don’t know. And then you go and make decisions based on incomplete information. 

Adding nutritional value

Fixing this problem is conceptually easy and practically, well, difficult if not impossible. But let’s just do a thought experiment…

Imagine this… If status meetings are a waste of time because they are all about informing the manager about what everyone already knows, then what would happen if the manager came to the meeting already informed?

Then, the manager could add a ton of value by bringing their expertise (the reason they got promoted) to bear on the issues proactively rather than being on their back foot reacting to what they’re hearing. The manager could drive the meeting and include the team in solutioning rather than reporting. The nutritional density of the meeting goes up.

Instead of asking, “what happened?”, the manager could already know what happened and instead could ask, “what don’t I know about?” In this scenario, we could fulfill the promise of the status meeting, keeping the team aligned and making informed decisions with transparency.

Not only does the density go up, the meeting can be shorter. The discussion points are clear, the relevant stakeholders are known, assignments and decisions can be made quickly, and unknowns can be surfaced before they become gotchas.

Okay, but what about reality?

I think our thought experiment highlights the problem. It’s about under-informed managers demanding the team’s time to keep them informed, so that they can do their more strategic job. Without the status meeting the manager would have their head stuck inside Jira, Github, Calendars, Slack, et. al., just trying to keep up.

If the dream of an informed manager sounds amazing to you, then you should check out VZBL. Our vision is to give the entire team complete visibility of what’s happening, in real time, so they can ALWAYS be informed, aligned, and productive.