I’m volunteering to go to the front lines in Todd Wilken’s war against blackberries in meetings. Lifehacker and the NYTimes have taken on similar issues before, and I’m all for it. Here’s why.

Any real meeting, where decisions are being made (e.g. not a status meeting) should require people’s full attention. If people are voluntarily comfortable half reading e-mail and half-listening, it’s an indicator to me that:

  • There are too many people in the room.
  • Few decisions are being made.
  • I’m failing to facilitate the discussion to keep it on target.
  • The information being conveyed is low priority.
  • I’m wasting f2f time with information I could deliver in other ways.

If I allow this to go on, I encourage passive attention in meetings, further allowing stupid people to prattle on about low priority things, which further encourages more people to tune out. As as Steven M. Smith points out, the blackberry use is a symptom of bad meetings, not the cause. The person running the meeting is the place to point the finger (who is responsible for answering the question is this type of meeting right for the agenda we have?).

Instead, I believe in making attendance at meetings binary. Either you are in, or you are out. If the meeting is too boring to keep your attention, then it’s a good sign to both of us that you do not need to be in the room – so get up and leave. Most meetings should be optional anyway: you don’t have to come, but don’t cry if we decide something you wanted to have input on.

Moreso, 95% of the time what people claim to be urgent status is stuff that can wait. Call bullshit on people. Unless they’re heart surgeons, or front line web people, the world can wait 20 or 30 minutes for the meeting to end for them to get to whatever it is. The web will wait. IM will wait. It can all wait for you if you have your shit together. This is doubly true for leads and managers: if they’re managing their teams well, they should have subordinates who can be effective for a few hours without their hands being held. Most managers should be embarrassed, not proud, to be in hyper-crackberry panic mode all the time.

However, if we’re talking status meetings, where 15 or 20 people are all crammed into a room, that’s another story. These are often a waste of time, but if you must have them, the arguments for passive attention have more weight.

I like Todd’s list of recommendations – worth a look.

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8 Responses to “Should you ban blackberries at meetings?”

  1. Sarath |

    Hi Scott,

    I’m not a manager, but I strongly suggests not to use any gadgets in the meetings. Once I went to IEEE talk, a guy who was sitting in front of the row was always doing something with his laptop during the talk and also asked some rubbish doubts presenter. Finally presenter simply asked either concentrate on what you are doing at laptop or to this small talk of mine.

    I had a PM who always comes to office with his Sony Viao even for the small meeting he used to come with that. No use… there’s no rocket engineering to discuss but still he will be doing something in his laptop. As he’s my manager I never could correct him. Anyway company restricted bringing gadgets as part of security policy :)

    As said in your book, the art of project management. “Face time is precious and should be used for things people naturally feel are important and worth their time, whereas email and voice mail are designed to wait”. Meetings should be productive and should avoid the craps. Still I feel comfortable to use book and pencil to note down the important things and later on make as digital content if needed

    Reply
  2. Scott |

    Hi Sarah:

    Now and then when I’m giving a talk, I’ll ask the audience to close their laptops for 10 minutes. If after 10 minutes they think I’m a bozo, or I’m wasting their time, they can do whatever they like – including leaving – with my blessings. But give me a chance first.

    But it’s funny how many people feel laptops and such get in the way, while it’s so commonplace for people to behave that way.

    Notetaking is fine if that’s really what’s going on – I just know in my lifetime of meetings, most of those laptops are not being used to take notes :)

    Reply
  3. Mike |

    The company culture encourages this bad behavior–I’ve been in multiple meetings where the sales reps are allowed to check their blackberries (supposedly, it means that they’re being responsive to the customer), while non-sales employees are not allowed. Unfortunately, the meetings are for the sales reps informational benefit, but they’d rather not be there.

    Reply
  4. Sarath |

    Hi Scott:

    Thanks for the reply. You are always making me amazed. That’s a nice approach to start a meeting. On requesting 10 minutes of their initial time normally users will be more curious (probably wil be having more expectation) on topic.

    I neither worked directly with Big sized company like microsoft nor with Americans but with Japanese for the last one year. They’re using the laptop in their meeting mainly for the following purposes.
    1. Quick update if necessary on any documents.
    2. Answering clarification.
    3. Present if soemthing important (probably a PPT) to the participants of meeting. Meetings rooms (even it is very small to accomodate 4 to 5 prople) are having projectors. They’re using markers write important points on the whiteboard where the same PPT projected. also pencil and paper are the “inevitable gadgets” of all participants.

    Anyway I’m not too experienced person in the area of project management or on analyzing different style of meetings. but just shared what I’ve seen a bit different to my company style.

    Reply
  5. Asian Tv |

    Its not the device, its the rude operators. Sans proof an electronic device is being used for the purpose of the meeting (notes, reference, etc.), I think all devices (including laptops) should be banned from meetings. Or why is the person attending the meeting in the first place? Maybe if people stop coming due to rules like this, those holding boring meetings will get the hint and either spice up their meetings or call them less frequently!

    Reply
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