Oh meetings, how we love hating you.
Well, the fact is it always seems like meetings shouldn’t be that bad, and besides, we live in a world with so many different options for how we should have meetings. Maybe if we just tweak the meeting format then they won’t be so bad.
I mean, this is the future right? We can video call each other from around the world or across the room. We can skip meetings altogether by putting everything on a wiki. We can communicate only via email to make sure people have time to think about their responses.
So with all those tools, why are we still in meetings that suck? How do we build consensus and cohesion while still avoiding the time-suck of pointless meetings?
The big problem is really pretty simple: “meeting” is too big a word
Let’s see what happens if we ban the word “meeting” and instead look at what we’re actually trying to achieve.
Here are the big four reasons why you might feel the need to call a “That Which Must Not Be Named”
- Group Coordination
- Idea Generation
- Decision Making Session
- Information Dissemination
To address these 4 big reasons for meetings, I’m proposing 4 new styles of “meeting replacements” that will be a better use of everyone’s time and energy. Let’s look at strategies for each of these “meeting replacements”.
Solution 1. Group Coordination
This is probably the biggy. You’ve got five, ten, maybe even twenty people working together on something. It seems like everybody ought talk to each other, right?
The essential problem here is that some people need to coordinate on nitty gritty details and some only need broad strokes. It’s way too easy to slip into either simplistic “status reports” that don’t tell people what they need, or exhaustive laundry lists of tasks and issues that will have half the room falling asleep.
Moreover, there’s a subtle but critical difference between coordination and information dissemination (meeting replacement number #4). Coordination is like a restaurant’s kitchen. “Have you started cooking that?” “We’re almost out of sauce.” “There’s a backup in the dish room.” Coordination is information-sharing with the goal of changing what someone else is doing.
Strategies for group coordination:
Stand-up comes from the agile software movement. It typically means everybody stands in a room and quickly goes around in a circle discussing “What happened yesterday” “What I’m trying to accomplish today” & “Where I need help”. Deeper discussion and problem-solving should be pushed to ad-hoc meetings between the interested parties only. Standing theoretically helps everyone remember to keep it brief.
Should be “quick”.
Can easily descend into laundry lists of tasks.
Finding the line between “useful discussion” and things that only a subset of the group needs to talk about is hard.
Change the “Yesterday/Today/Where do you need help format” to “My goal for the week / I am N% likely to complete my goal”. Nobody cares “what you did”, they want to know “is your piece going to be finished in time for mine.”
B. Coordinated One-One
Instead of having an actual meeting with all parties, have the project manager simply walk around and talk to each individual on the team.
Doesn’t waste anyone one individual contributor’s time.
The project manager has a very good overview of how the project is going big picture.
Encourages a focus on whether contributors are blocked on their tasks.
Individual contributors rely solely on the project manager to get an impression of where the project is.
Relies heavily on the PM to recognize all conflicts. May miss things.
C. Ad-Hoc One-On-One
This is aggressive, but if you have a really highly functioning team simply saying “coordinate among yourselves” is a viable option. This means using HipChat, or other messaging tools, or even just walking over to someone else’s desk to quickly get the information you need, as you need it.
Forces each team member to think about the project’s success rather than just their piece of the pie.
No single Directly Responsible Individual.
Possible “Big Miscommunications” if individual contributors don’t talk to who they need to.
Requires a level of trust that’s not always present.
Solution 2. Idea Generation
Group idea generation should be the best part of our day, but… far too often it ends in epic, unfruitful, and frustrating meetings. There are a couple reasons for this.
The big one is that we often merge Idea Generation and Decision Making into the same meeting. The classic example is the “oh crap” meeting. Something changes; maybe a client is asking for a major change to your product or else they’ll cancel. So you call account management, sales, marketing, engineering, product into a room under the banner of “Figure out what to do about Foo Corp’s problem.”
What’s the problem with this? Well, quite frankly, we’ve got too many people here.
We invited everyone, because the possible solutions to our problem may affect a wide swath of our organization, but we don’t actually have a solution to consider yet!
Instead we’re likely to hear the account manager explain the problem to product. They’ll think of some solutions, but engineering will go back and forth with them about whether or not that will work. All the while, other teams will start jumping in and asking the engineers why they can’t just “do feature x”. Then, maybe the engineer will get defensive and try to patiently (or not so patiently) explain the intricacies of the FooGenerator code.
Two hours later and all the parties leave, frustrated again by a waste of their time.
3 steps to better idea generation sessions:
1. Have a Quick Problem-Definition Meeting
Just 10 minutes, each affected stakeholder can explain their issue.
2. Split Into One Or More Solution-Proposal Teams
Gets the great team-brainstorming.
Multiple teams encourage thinking outside the box.
Each team puts together a brief position paper for use in a Decision Making Session.
3. Schedule a Decision-Making Session
Don’t mix idea generation and decision making. When you’re finished, call it a wrap and explicitly proceed to meeting-type #3. But don’t just schedule a meeting! Read section 3 and figure out the format of your decision session. You might be able to save everyone a calendar invite.
3) Decision-Making Session
Decision-making sounds like something we’re always doing, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say that only about 5% of our meetings are really “decision-making meetings”. Usually what we’re doing is collaborating, or doing idea generation, or disseminating info, or just generally mixing all of these things together in a “meeting”.
In fact, making decisions really isn’t all that hard, as long as everyone’s done their homework and comes prepared to do that work when they meet with the group.
There are two kinds of decisions that need to get made: big ones and small ones. Here’s how to handle each one in a more efficient way.
Small Decision: Law Of Two Feet
For every decision that needs to be made, ask yourself: Is this a big decision?
And the honest answer to that question in most situations? It probably isn’t a big decision.
The best way to make small decisions is to simply walk over to someone’s desk. Possibly grab one other person and just hammer it out live. After that, all that’s left is to disseminate the results of your decision. Sure, you won’t have had an hour long consensus-building session, but for small decisions it’s imperative that we trust our colleagues to do their job.
Big Decision: Position Paper, Study Hall, Decision
The critically important thing about big decision-making is to make sure everyone has thought through the issue before you begin discussing it.
For medium-sized decisions, a pre-read with a small piece of homework or a polling solution like SurveyMonkey or ForceRank will ensure that people have meaningfully considered the options and tradeoffs before they get to the meeting.
For the larger decisions, something like Amazon’s “Study Hall Meeting” is a fabulous solution. Let’s face it, sending out a “pre-read” for a meeting rarely means everyone (or even anyone) will have read it. Everyone is busy and the meeting IS the time to talk/think about this issue. So let’s first set aside time to ensure that everyone is actively engaged in the problem before we even speak a word.
4) Information Dissemination
This is easily the most “boring” type of meeting and the reason why is pretty clear. It’s because the need for any kind of information is asymmetrically distributed.
What do I mean by that? Well, anytime you disseminate information to the rest of the organization, you’re talking to a group of people that either “already know what you’re telling them” or “have very little idea and frankly don’t care too much”.
Telling everyone about the technical decisions for the new email system? Most everyone will either “care deeply” or “be mildly interested”. Details of the new marketing initiative? Same thing.
The problem here is that disseminating information via a meeting always means we can’t help targeting the “average” co-worker. We give a moderately detailed description of the project, in an attempt to reach as many people as possible. This does nothing for the the people that “care deeply” and is overkill for the “mildly interested”. And unfortunately, unlike podcasts, we can’t speed up your presentation to 2x or 3x speed.
Small Group Information Dissemination: Group Messaging Tools (Like HipChat).
Opt-in only, so only people in the relevant group will read the message
It’s asynchronous, and can be read at other people’s leisure.
Doesn’t fill up people’s inboxes.
Large Group Information Dissemination: A Wiki.
Let’s people “opt-in” to learning about the issue.
Allows everyone to read and/or skim at their own pace.
Can descend into conversations / arguments on the wiki. Be vigilant in ending long conversations and getting affected parties to talk in person.
The call to action!
So, how do you put this into action? Well, here’s the simplest & easiest thing you can possibly do. Every time you go to put a meeting on the schedule this week, first ask yourself which type of meeting it is and just add that to the title of the invite. “Project Epsilon: Idea Generation” or “Project Epsilon Group Coordination”.
Even if you do nothing else I’ve recommended here, this will help your meetings (coordinations/sessions/disseminations) be more focussed and successful.
Jeff Dwyer is working on a little thing called http://forcerank.it because he thinks life is too short for bad meetings. He also lives in Boston and works at HubSpot as a Tech Lead.