6 min read

How not to meet

How not to meet
Photo by Campaign Creators / Unsplash

I am often one of the biggest critics of the meetings. My previous team even commemorated that belief with my birthday gift in form of a t-shirt: I survived another meeting that could have been an email. The amount of time and money "wasted" on them could have been easily translated into bonuses or actual features. I even implemented solutions that were discussed during the same meetings. Oh, he is so rebellious. I know. point was to illustrate the broken meeting culture within many companies. And that is, in my experience and opinion, getting worse.

Here, I wish to document some of the ways I see that meetings don't need to be waste of time. That they have their purpose in the business lifecycle of your company. These are learnings and experiences I saw work well and get the most out of the people and time invested. So let us start with some structure. To have an effective meeting, I believe the following topics are the ones with the most impact: Define clearly what is the meeting about, who needs to be there, time invested, plan and program, moderation, and follow up.

Ok, so now that we have a structure for this post in mind, let us start with the first one. What is this meeting about and why do I need to interrupt someone else to make a decision? In a time of agile and any other misguided ways to improve your productivity, we're introduced to so many generic meetings that go in the opposite direction of the problem they're trying to solve. Anyhow, going to leave the ranting about this for something in the future. The topic at the hand is how to define a clear topic and what is the meeting about. I believe that if you can't define a clear topic for the meeting, then you maybe shouldn't schedule one. As you're not clear even what you wish to get out of it. On the other hand, a clear topic for the meeting will help you with the rest of the topics we're going to touch on here. Who needs to be there, how much time you need, agenda, etc. I am a strong believer that a topic should have a single "thing" to be discussed during it. For the misguided agile meetings, I usually propose a hack that gets accepted fast in most companies I worked at. But something for the future. Simply put, easier to manage and there is not that much of a cognitive load on attendees. Single topic, with clear agenda behind it. No need to focus shift around and bounce back and forth between the points. Recommendation, if your title of the meeting invite is starting to list items: Split it into multiple, smaller meetings. Give people time to digest and process information. Especially if there is some dependency between the topics.

Ok, so now that the introduction is done, let me tackle the meeting "size". Or who should you invite? It is, in my experience, to remember how many people decline the meeting. Even if invited by accident. Not even joking. I often hear: We need at least our team. Why? What is the point of it, even if the team is 5 people? Except in the case of FOMO, in most cases, the more people in the meeting the bigger the waste. The number of people that would benefit from it is probably much lower. Talking from experience, where I would need to sometimes chew out the topics over and over and over and... You get the point. Don't think too hard about it. Just based on the topic (defined just above) you will know who should be there and who will provide the value. For a knowledge-sharing session, if needed, there are other ways to solve this. The meeting is, in my opinion, the last option on that list. People that need to be there are decided on the following: I need input from that person, or I need someone to balance my proposal in a constructive and argumentative way, I need a decision made if I am not high enough in the food chain. As an example. Also, ask if someone has something to add from the team on the topic being discussed. But if the answer is: I wanna listen in, he is out. As said, there is a better way to do a knowledge-sharing session after the meeting than just slacking around. For me, this is just time wasted, as usual, I know it will be needed to be repeated, then just say that summary will follow about decisions and actions. A focused group in the meeting can deliver actions fast and be on the same page. So don't expand the session more than you need. There are numbers thrown around, more than X number of people. I haven't found a magic number, it is a trial and error. Or experience, when you know something more about the topic. OK, now let us talk about the meeting length.

Shorter is better. Wait, what? Limit the amount of time for the meeting as much as possible, yes. There is a famous law and research around it, Parkinson's law. Simply put, the length of the meeting and decisions made in it, has nothing to do with the length of the meeting itself. Which is, for some unknown reason, always an hour. So shorten the time spent (or better wasted) in them. Naturally, some meetings do require lengthier sessions, tho I would look to maybe splitting even those up. Meeting exhaustion is a thing, at least for me. I love the meetings that are 30-40 minutes long. I add 5 minutes to that number, for people being a bit late and general introductions. If the meeting is taking way too long, even if I am the person that needs something out of it, I am starting to shut down. If, by any chance this is necessary, introduce timely breaks, but in a logical manner. What in the hell do you mean?? When you discussed a topic and are sure you're "done" with it and ready to move to the next one, it is a good time for a break. Notes are taken, and the "sub-meeting" is complete. Time to reset and let people gather their thoughts and replenish strength. A good rule of thumb, depending on the length of it: 10-minute break for every 45 minutes of the meeting.

OK, onto the agenda, moderation, and follow-up. What the?? They're closely related, so can't make much sense to split them up. The first one is the agenda. Or plan and program, how I originally introduced it. This is where you should summarize the expectations and how the meeting should develop. Schedule if you will, of sorts. This is a simple topic, so there is not much to waste on it. An example of this:

  1. Introductions (5 minutes)
  2. Meeting topic introduction (5 minutes)
  3. Discussion (20 minutes)
  4. Summary and action points (5-10 minutes)

This is an example of a "shorter" meeting and its agenda, which is a good template for any. As pointed out in the previous section, if the meeting is long, every 45 minutes, I would also add a point for a 10-minute break. But there is another, hidden point. For meeting organizer or the moderator/typist. After the meeting is done, with notes taken during it, there is a 10-15-minute summary-making session to be emailed to all attendees. And others may be interested parties. Here you will summarize the action points, with people that will need to pick them up. And any other subjects (like open questions for example). What is important with the agenda, otherwise it is useless, is to keep it on track and identify when it is off-track. Here you can have a moderator (usually the person organizing it), which should cut short any deviation. No matter who is it. Ask them nicely to note the "other concerns" and share them, when you share your follow-up later on. These may be valid concerns that shouldn't be forgotten, but if they have nothing to with the topic at the hand, "park it". One problem at a time, instead of solving everything. The moderator should feel safe interrupting even his boss. Otherwise, as said, the meeting agenda will be in 5 minutes thing of past and you will be none the wiser. So agree with people, if the moderator raises his concern about deviation, accept it and move on.

Another responsibility of the moderator is good note-taking during the discussion. If this can't be the organizer of the meeting, due to involvement in the same discussion, appoint someone. Here you can invite someone that you think would benefit from knowledge sharing while being an active participant in the meeting. They will be taking notes and asking questions, not just a passive "listener". The meeting notes should be used as a baseline and a transcript of the meeting in the follow-up. Don't allow yourself to be back in the same place after 3-4 weeks, because we forgot what was discussed. Been there, done that. But we discussed this? No, I have no active memory of it. And we're back at the beginning.

To finish up. Meetings are not useless, they have their purpose in today's corporate world. They can be made useless. But as I tried in this blog, there is a solution for that and the ones I expressed here are the ones I believe worked for me in past. Otherwise, like the author, just decline the meeting if you don't see what would be your contribution in the same. Or ask the organizer. I don't feel obligated to waste my time just for sake of it, especially how limited time is with everything that needed to be often done yesterday.

Until next time, this is the meeting follow-up.