Running an effective meeting
Making good use of everyone else time
One of my colleagues said something incredibly insightful the other day. Something I fully intend to steal and shamelessly reuse:
Routine meetings decay in quality — Lukas Wilhelm
As I’ve gone through my career, I have been part of … many thousands of meetings. Planning meetings, retro meetings, project meetings, 1:1s, and reviews are an invariable necessity of working with our peers.
However, not all meetings are created equal. Some of the meetings I’ve been in have been nothing but a monument to whoever organized it, without a clear purpose or buy-in from other attendees and certainly no clear value delivered at the end of it. Others have unlocked weeks worth of work in 30 minutes.
That begs the question: How do we conduct an effective meeting? How do we best use people’s limited time and attention to drive a positive organizational outcome?
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The utility of a meeting
If you want to find out the utility of a meeting, you can do so quickly: Ask yourself what you changed due to being in that meeting. Did you adjust your own deliverables? The deliverables of someone else? Did that meeting save time?
As a corollary, if you regularly join a series of meetings and do not adjust your actions, stop joining. You can have that conversation via email, or better yet — not at all.
Unless it’s a coffee, there’s always time for coffee.
The tool for the job
Many different kinds of meetings happen throughout an organization’s lifecycle. For example:
Accountability Meetings. These are usually called “status meetings” or “project check-ins”, but are primarily designed to inform stakeholders about the state of a given project. Invariably, they’re also an opportunity for stakeholders to set expectations regarding where the project should be. This means people tend to work pretty hard just before whenever these meetings are scheduled.
Decision Meetings. These are meetings where an organisational tradeoff needs to be made (usually by a senior leader), who gathers a set of stakeholders together to query and then makes that decision.
Kickoff Meetings. These are where there’s a new project, process, team or other change that needs to be managed, and we need to build urgency and a shared understanding of the new expected normal.
Planning Meetings. These are routine meetings that review some work artifacts (e.g., tickets, operational data, performance data) and adjust how to work over the next period.
Retrospectives. These are meetings designed to collaboratively review a team's performance, a project, or whatever and figure out how to evolve the approach going forward.
1:1s. These meetings are designed for context exchange, to check in on how a colleague feels and their morale, and to help shape their specific contributions to a given team.
Coffee / Beer. These meetings are deliberately unstructured and unrecorded, and their topics can range wildly. However, they are often where colleagues determine how to deliver the value of their work, rather than how to complete their assignments.
Presentations. These meetings are mechanisms where a colleague will share their experience.
These meetings are all beneficial. There’s a second class of meetings which I’ll briefly mention, which in my experience are less useful.
Brainstorming. Shared brainstorming is a suitable mechanism for achieving consensus but a bad mechanism for delivering quality insight. Instead, what tends to happen is the group shifts into groupthink as quickly as possible, and what comes out is the mean and not the valuable insight.
Lecture. A meeting doesn’t tend to start out as a lecture. Still, it can shift into one as a participant dominates the conversation to fill the space until no argument is possible, rather than communicating to be listened to.
Each of these meetings has a unique culture and set of expectations. The first step to maximizing the value of a given meeting is to understand what kind of meeting you’re in and to ensure that other participants joining the meeting have the same shared understanding.
The minimum requirements
Some things are familiar to most meetings — things you can do almost no matter the occasion. These include:
Within a meeting, some people should have particular responsibilities within the meeting itself. These include:
Organizer. The person who writes and circulates an agenda, ahead of time.
Chair. The person directing the meeting, and who is responsible for ensuring that the agenda is followed, we do not drift too far from the topic, specific individuals cannot monopolize time, and others cannot remain entirely reticent.
Scribe. The person who will note down the actions we need to take as a result of this meeting. This allows us to hold each other accountable in the next meeting, and ensure this meeting actually has value.
A single person generally cannot do all of these roles — they spend the time in the meeting switching between them, and one role (e.g. scribe) can come at the cost of another (e.g. chair).
The most crucial step in a successful meeting is preparing the meeting ahead of time.
To deliver a meeting, there needs to be:
A clear vision. Some reason that it’s worth gathering all of the people together to address a given problem — a common purpose we’re all working toward.
A direction. A path that we take toward our vision, through a set of (pre-made) strategic choices.
Deliverables. Things that specific people need to do by a specific time and are accountable to a specific leader.
Help. A place that people can go when they invariably get lost or drift out of alignment with the group.
A meeting — indeed, any organizational direction setting — without these tends to last only a limited period of time, or descend quickly into in-fighting with people motivated to solve their problems and not the problem of the group.
This is most easily done by preparing it as part of an Agenda document that’s prepared early and sent around ahead of time. If it can’t be sent around in time, schedule a 10-minute block at the start of the meeting for all stakeholders to read it.
My preferred Agenda template looks like
A goal describing the purpose of the meeting (or series of meetings)
A section for each meeting, titled with the day / time the meeting happened.
Attendees, so we know who joined this instance of the meeting
Assignments, so we know who’s doing what. In this case, I’m usually both organizing and chairing the meeting so this is not assigned.
Sections. Each section describes what should exist as a “pre-read”, and a section that allows us to add new information as it develops in the meeting.
Action Items. Specific items for specific people.
Include the right stakeholders
When setting up a meeting it is important to be clear as to who is a requirement for that meeting to be a success, and who is optional. As a rule, I target the lowest level decision maker that can confidently address the problem that I have in scope, and I ask them what support capabilities they need within the meeting. I’ll then add both them, and whatever I need.
Equally critical but less pleasant is who to avoid when scheduling a meeting. There are stakeholders that, while they might have the best of intentions, either do not have the experience in the topic, are ill-informed about the requirements or otherwise detail the conversion.
There’s a last class of people who will in future be part of these meetings. They’re generally on stretch assignments or are being coached to take over. I add them, but inform them ahead of time that the majority of their discussion should be outside this meeting with their “meeting sponsor”.
Earlier, we talked about the utility of a meeting is the amount of change it drives through an organization. In my experience, this change doesn’t happen unless there's a point in time at which the people responsible for it are held accountable — often in another meeting.
Given this, at the end of this meeting once responsibilities are assigned, schedule the next meeting and set the clear expectation that we need to adjust by this point in time.
So far, I’ve not seen an organization that isn’t at least mostly driven through a series of check-in, kickoff or accountability meetings through all layers of management — at least, not a successful one. However, there’s a massive range between meetings that are truly useful and those that … well, in which our colleagues are secretly in chat laughing about something entirely off-topic.
Hopefully, this post has provided you with at least some value in thinking about how to drive these meetings more confidently and certainly more effectively.
Post Script. I wanted to write a bit more here, but ran out of time today. I might try and extend this in future — I’ll just update the post in-place.
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