Make meetings suck less

Make meetings suck lessWho loves meetings around here?

Come on, there has to be somebody out there who loves meetings. Otherwise how come there are so many meetings?

Well… if you are a techie, you are probably with the inimitable Jason Fried, who universally panned “M&M’s” (meetings and managers) in this Inc. article.

The reality is that 99% of meetings suck.  Meetings can take on a life of their own.  Unnecessary meetings get spawned and become recurring beasts.  People who call meetings are not clear on what they are trying to achieve.  They don’t make any effort to guide and facilitate the conversation.  People attending meetings don’t prepare ahead of time. They arrive under-informed and poorly equipped to participate and contribute to the conversation.  Half-hour meetings become multi-hour marathons. Without active effort, meetings destroy productivity, with very little to show for the lost time.

Meetings are a distraction for most people.  Yet for highly coordinated, cross functional endeavors, they are very necessary to make sure people are coordinated, informed and aligned. Run properly and sparingly, the right meetings can save time for everybody, and create a better end result for whatever objectives the meetings are meant to support.

Two things can help make meetings suck less: good meeting hygiene, and thoughtful cadences for different types of meetings.

Meeting hygiene

If you are the meeting organizer:

  • Prepare well for the meeting.
    • Be very clear on the purpose of the meeting. Is it a speech? A meeting to inform? A meeting to decide? A brainstorming session? A working session? Your preparation tasks will differ depending on what kind of meeting you are calling.
    • Develop and send out an agenda well ahead of time, and resend it a day before the meeting. For recurring meetings, create and stick to a recurring format.
    • Distribute any pre-read materials at least 3 days in advance.
    • If the agenda is controversial, organize 1×1 pre-meetings with key stakeholders to talk through the pre-read materials, and make sure any strong feelings are drawn out ahead of time.
  • Run your meeting.
    • State the goals and success criteria for the meeting at the beginning of the meeting, and check against these criteria at the end of the meeting.
    • Take control of the meeting. Drive the conversation through the agenda. Keep time. If people are starting to monopolize the conversation, or are derailing it into a tangent, gently nudge them back to the topic at hand.  Note issues that require further discussion and organize follow up sessions with the right subset of people for a deep dive.
    • For interactive discussions: use the whiteboard. Seeing things written down helps people stay focused.
    • Moderate and facilitate the discussion, enforce turn-taking, and make sure each participant has an opportunity to contribute (especially the quiet ones).
    • At the end of the meeting, summarize what you discussed for the attendees, and enumerate clear next steps.
  • Follow up.
    • Circulate meeting notes, including your own key takeaways.
    • You don’t have to have penned it all – a meeting attendee can volunteer for taking detailed notes (although the key takeaways should be yours, not theirs).

If you are a meeting attendee:

  • Respect the meeting organizer and the agenda.
    • Please don’t hijack the meeting. It’s not your meeting.
  • Respect your fellow attendees.
    • Please arrive on time – other people’s time is as valuable as your own.
    • Take turns – don’t monopolize the conversation or take it down a rabbit hole.
  • Be prepared.
    • Read any pre-read materials ahead of time, or your lack of preparation will make you the bad guy who causes the meeting to get stuck as everybody waits for you to be brought up to speed.
  • Be clear on expectations.
    • Where are you on the RACI framework for this meeting? (responsible | accountable | consulted | informed)
    • For instance, if you were invited so you can be informed, please do not try to change the fundamental premise of the topic at hand – someone else is responsible and accountable.
    • You can always reach out to them privately before or after the meeting to share your views.
  • Keep it professional.
    • Diversity of viewpoints are wonderful, but do take care to express your views constructively and respectfully so it helps forward the conversation.

Meeting cadences for a small engineering organization (up to 50 engineers)

Meeting cadences are highly specific to the type of business, projects under way and the nature of the team and the kind of work they are doing at the moment.

Here are some typical meetings for a small engineering team in a startup setting with 10 – 50 engineers.  It assumes that the startup has grown enough to have a VP Engineering on staff.  Your mileage may vary, especially if your team is in a different stage or does substantially different work.  For instance, this will not work at all for a field sales organization – but the same types of conversations will probably make sense at a different frequency.

  • Daily team scrums: Individual teams (e.g. mechanical, electrical, controls, software) do a stand-up meeting for 15 minutes each day using the traditional Agile-style scrum format, to update each other on the current status. Each scrum team should not exceed 5-7 people.  If the team is much bigger than that, it probably needs to be broken up into two scrum teams.  In this meeting, each engineer provides an update by answering three questions: “What did I do yesterday? What will I do today? What is holding me up?”
  • Tiger teams: Sometimes, cross functional tiger teams are created to deal with specific issues or projects.  These teams will get together at their own cadence to deal with specific issues (sometimes weekly, sometimes multiple times a day – it depends). Tiger teams are often dissolved when the issues are resolved, and the associated meetings will be retired as well.
  • Weekly 1×1’s between managers and direct reports: This is an opportunity for team leads and managers to have quality face time with individual contributors and understand how they are doing, capture issues and concerns, and get any obstacles out of the way so the contributors can perform at their maximum potential. The 1×1 format is ideal for sharing sensitive issues that may be difficult to discuss in a group setting.  It is one of the most effective tools of the trade for every personnel manager at every level in the organization (including the CEO).
  • Weekly VP Engineering Staff meetings: The VP Engineering and all of his direct reports meet as a group once a week. The VP Engineering shares company context with leads who actively push this information through the organization. This group of engineering leaders will also discuss issues of the week, and spin off activities to address open issues.
  • Engineering all-hands meeting: The entire engineering team should get together once a month, or once every two months, to share the overall picture of where things are holistically, and where the team, technology and product development efforts are going. This helps build cohesiveness in a larger team that usually works in smaller groups.  Note that this is in addition to any company-wide all hands meetings, which tend to occur at a lesser cadence than functional all-hands meetings when the company headcount gets to about 100 or so.
  • Consider creating a “lunch and learn series” and assign somebody to be “content czar” to solicit speakers and organize the schedule.  This is an optional social gathering, in which people take turns to share something new once every few weeks over a brown bag lunch.  The topic can be related to their work, or it can be related to completely random topics (e.g. I learned all about the MIT Blackjack Team in one such talk).  This is a great way to get people from different teams to show what they know and love.  It also helps people develop relationships,  and learn about something interesting from a coworker they do not usually work with
  • Consider small-group lunches with the engineering leaders or with other members of senior staff, where individual contributors get quality time with the leadership.
  • If team leads need help building relationships and/or collaboration norms, consider inventing a daily “scrum of scrums” for a few weeks to help them get comfortable working together, and disband this when they are working fluidly together.



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