When it comes to meetings, we want to:
- have as few meetings as possible while making as much progress as possible.
- have meetings be as short as possible while solving the real problem and moving forward.
- have meetings be as focussed and efficient as possible in order to move quickly and use time effectively.
Meetings are notoriously hard to do well, and are often unfocussed, confusing, and frustrating, with too much overhead and discussion, multiple topics, taking a long time to get started, gain traction, and reach the right conclusion.
Towards a solution
Below are some things that I’ve seen work to make the best use of meeting time:
Start every meeting with a context, a problem, and a clear single goal
The invitation and start of a meeting should make it clear to everyone what the meeting is about, and what we are trying to achieve by having it.
Some examples of clear context, problem, and goal framing are:
“We are building a contracting flow in our platform. We need to decide on the underlying architecture we want to use._ In this meeting, I need feedback on the design proposal that I wrote.”_
“For the EOD/AOD rotation, our current schedule isn’t meeting our needs. We need to find a new approach that solves for X, Y, and Z. I am presenting two possible approaches, and I need your input on which would suit your team best.”
Noticed that I started this document with a similar kind of framing.
A meeting should have one clear outcome
It works best when a meeting has a single, clear, explicit outcome. People need to know what they need to achieve and contribute.
If you have multiple outcomes, you actually have multiple meetings. It’s okay to have a series of short meetings to address different topics, but it is best to frame them as separate topics that open and close.
The worst case is to bring only a problem and not have a clear outcome at all. A problem alone isn’t enough to have a meeting. “We need to make progress on this project” is not a good meeting frame.
Tell people upfront what you need from them
It should be clear to everyone at the very start why they are there and what you need from them. We think that because we know what we want from the meeting, other people do as well. Unless you tell them, they don’t know.
The “ask” in a meeting can usually be expressed as a simple verb phrase. For example:
- “I need you to give me feedback on this proposal.”
- “I need you to approve the design.”
- “I need you to tell me if you have any objections or concerns about…”
Bring a proposal
Meetings should mostly start with a proposal towards a solution. Don’t show up empty-handed with only a problem. That tends to lead to chaos.
Meetings should not be brainstorming sessions where you share a vague problem with a group and then ask them to solve it together. There are some cases where an explicit brainstorming session can be helpful, but there is an art to running that kind of meeting, and they should be explicitly framed as divergent (generating many ideas) meetings and not convergent (finding a single answer) meetings.
Since 99% of meetings are convergent, they should start with a proposal that others can comment on, expand on, approve, or challenge.
For example, instead of planning a meeting to “figure out what we should do about the EOD/AOD rotation”, do some research, write a short proposal, and plan a short meeting with a few key stakeholders to get feedback on how to improve it, or to get a final decision.
If the outcome of the meeting is that your proposal is lacking some key criteria or considerations, then go back, rework, and schedule another short focussed meeting. Don’t try to solve all the problems in real-time in the meeting with the whole group.
Keep it short
Parkinson’s Law implies that a meeting will take up as much time as you give it. It is amazing how much more efficiently you work when you give yourself less time to do so.
Unless you are very certain that a meeting needs to be longer, plan a shorter one, and make sure it is clear and focussed.
Stay on track
Notice when a conversation is no longer serving the purpose of the meeting, and create a culture of simply calling people back into focus.
Come prepared and start on time
A meeting can start on time in a focussed way if the inputs needed for the meeting are prepared upfront.
- Is the meeting room booked?
- Have the proposal documents been shared?
- Have the context, problem, and goal been shared up-front?
- Did the meeting leader join the meeting early in order to share the screen so everyone else can get started when they arrive?
Wrap up the meeting with a short summary and next steps
This ensures that everyone is on the same page about what just happened and what to expect from the outcome of the meeting.
“We’ve decided to take approach A. I will ask Dan to prepare a design proposal and book a meeting in two weeks to review the design with you all.”
A meeting should have clear inputs and outputs
Notice that the above is essentially saying that both the inputs and outputs for a meeting should be clearly defined, so that the meeting can function effectively. Good communication and good software design share very similar principles.
Fix what bugs you
If the structure, format, or content of a meeting isn’t working for you, propose a better alternative. What doesn’t work is either simply suffering in silence, or complaining but not solving the problem. Neither of those lead to improvements.
While framed in the context of meetings, most of these ideas apply to any kind of conversation or digital interaction.
When you walk up a colleague or post on Slack to get help, try saying something like: “I’m working on issue X, I’m running into problem Y, and I need your help to unblock me. I’ve tried doing Z, but it isn’t working. Can you tell me what you think I might be missing?”
Notice the clear ask there.
Let’s have fewer, shorter, but better meetings.