Suppressing Meetings: Alan's Antidote to “meetingitis”

Written by Sarah Spitz, on 17 August 2021


"No one comes prepared, it starts late, and the person with the loudest voice won't stop talking. An hour later, your mind is even more confused and you wonder if you have any meds left. But you're used to it, that's why you've put yourself in the corner to answer emails.”
Everyone agrees, and so does Jean-Charles Samuelian-Werve, Alan's co-founding member : Companies suffer from 'Meetingitis', the acute mania for meetings.

Ok then, but  how can we possibly replace meetings without compromising the quality of information and shared decision-making processes?

In 2017, the startup Alan, one of the rising stars of the French insurance world, decided to eliminate meetings. Radically and totally.

The alternative was to switch to writing, which some will somewhat pompously  call "asynchronous exchange" (a corporate newspeak expression that will impress your colleagues). Jean-Charles was inspired by Basecamp's practices, which you can learn more about here (in French), after reading the books of its founder Jason Fried.

They chose to use GitHub - a development platform - and more specifically its “Issues” feature. Instead of opening their Outlook calendar and scheduling a meeting, the person in charge of the subject (the "owner") opens an Issue. It works just like an online chat, in which employees tag (invites) anyone they think is relevant. The owner presents the problem, gives some context, offers a solution, and everyone can participate in the discussion when they have time.

These Issues are open to everyone: key people can be directly invited to the chat, but everyone has access to the conversation and can participate.

How does it work exactly?

There are many different topics: an Issue is open with different objectives : solve a problem, deepen a subject, validate a decision... Which covers almost all the issues in a company!

However, a standard method has been generalized. An Issue framework, always the same, is used. It is composed of :

  • Scope of the issue
  • Context
  • Proposal
  • Specific questions
  • Key people tagged
  • Deadlines

At the end of this process, the owner takes the decision.

How can you stay focused and not be overwhelmed by GitHub requests?

A shared rule of conduct is to ban notifications. This decision is based on a simple principle: few things are really urgent. After all, booking a meeting slot where all participants are available takes time so you can wait until they’ve all finished their current tasks to manage the topic on the platform. Plus, since they are not being interrupted, these tasks take less time.

Without notifications, Issues can be opened to everyone in the company, without spamming people.

Years later... how is it going?

In one year, no less than 900 issues in GitHub have been opened and closed.

Results: beyond the time and cost savings - as Jean-Charles says in the company blog, a one-hour meeting with 7 participants represents a full day of work - the quality of decisions and exchanges has improved.

Writing forces us to put things down and take the time to think - Jean-Charles Samuelian

According to Thomas Rolf, a former Alan employee, this system allows to take a step back from each decision and improves the quality of thinking. It's more inclusive because it's open to everyone, not just the participants in a meeting, and it imposes transparency so that people do not feel left out or that things are being hidden from them. Another advantage, and not the least, is that it makes remote work easier.

On the other hand, the real challenge with this practice is to avoid the multiplication of opinions and side discussions, and to close the issue on time. Moreover, this way of working can be surprising for a new employee and a learning period is necessary to get used to the method

Of course, a lot of meetings are maintained: individual meetings and teambuilding sessions are held regularly to keep track of employees, to maintain a sense of belonging and to have a bit of fun. With this method, employees get together when it makes sense and not by default, because they are used to holding meetings for everything and nothing.

This practice is quite easy to implement: choose a collaborative tool, define your own rules and principles and communicate the deadline! Wouldn't you like to try this vaccine against “meetingitis?