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improve-boring-meetings
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On LinkedIn, Jeff Denneen had a post wherein he opined that we should Kill the Weekly Meeting.  In it he talks about the time wasted in pre-scheduled, regular weekly meetings, has a couple of suggestions for making meetings less painful in general, and at the end asks, “Do you have other techniques for making meetings more effective?”

Oh hellz yes; I have a list.

I have long wondered about high tech’s love of regular meetings.  It’s something I noticed almost from the beginning of my career, and a part of the industry that I came quickly to genuinely hate.  But as a modern, 21st Century guy who’s spent plenty of time with various therapists, rather than sit back and seethe and simmer in my meeting rage, when I had the opportunity to run my own meetings—either through being a project lead, a manager, or just because no one else in the room wanted to take charge—I came over time to learn some tactics and techniques to make things better.  At least, I think they do.

In huge, cross-team projects involving dozens or even hundreds of people, all working toward a specific goal of releasing on a given date, you do have to have some regular meetings just so everyone is on target.  Really, you can’t avoid it; you can’t do everything by email or IM.  But when you are forced to have those suckers, make them as painless as possible.  Here’s some ideas to chew over, play-tested out in the real high tech business world:

  • Have an agenda, or at least a list of topics that you need to cover in the meeting, even if it’s only scribbled on a piece of scratch paper.
  • Avoid the “round-table status review”. I’ve been in high tech for 27 years and, while I have on occasion needed to know what my coworkers were doing, I never needed to know what they were doing on a low project level. Round-table status is too often used for people to simply puff up their own importance, and tends to waste time.
  • Start your meetings on time. This should be obvious, but alas it is not. (Don’t be a jerk about it like George W. Bush was, though, who apparently locked the door at the appointed time. That’s childish.)
  • Keep track of the time, and help folks be aware of it at need. “We need to pick up the pace in order to finish.”
  • Avoid going down conversational rabbit-holes, finger-pointing, and arguments. If there are disagreements that can’t be resolved in a reasonable (few minutes) amount of time, table the discussion and figure out another way to resolve them.  “Let’s take this off-line” is the common phrase in high tech.
  • Make sure to recognize and draw out opinions from the shyer folks in the room. This is a learned skill, but you have to watch for subtle clues that someone wants to talk, but is too shy or reluctant to “interrupt”. But they’re in the meeting; if their opinion wasn’t wanted, they shouldn’t have been invited. So be sure to try to spot them and give them the space to talk.
  • Deliberately make extra effort to pull the women in the room into the discussion, and protect their speaking time from over-bearing, interrupting, ‘mansplainin’ men.  Our business culture is flamingly sexist, and women are often ignored, interrupted, dismissed, and otherwise relegated to “outsider” status. Don’t let it happen; plenty of times, they’re the smartest ones in the room.  They usually haven’t had a choice; like minorities, they’ve had to be better than most just to get a place at the table.  Get their opinions!  (For more on my take about sexism in high tech, feel free to read High Tech Sexism.)
  • Related to the three previous items: Don’t be afraid to be a bit tyrannical in running your meetings. Don’t let people ramble on to no purpose–cut them off. Don’t let folks be rude or obnoxious to other folks in the room–cut them off, too, with a warning that that kind of thing isn’t productive. Shut people up when they interrupt a speaker who hasn’t finished making her point.  Keep people focused, on task, and ready to listen.  You don’t have to be a douche about it, but be firm.  Very firm.  Exceedingly firm.
  • Let meetings end early. In fact, make it a personal goal to end meetings early. There are few things in business that make people happier than ending a meeting early.
  • Before ending the meeting, go over the action items that came up during the meeting. Make sure people assigned to action items are aware of them. All action items should have a priority associated with them, and a time-frame for completion.

And on a personal note:  Learn how to take notes.  Everyone finds a different note-taking style that works best for them, so find yours.  Mine is based on my observation that for me, meetings have three things I need to keep track of (four if it’s a “bad” meeting):  General notes, questions I want to ask but don’t want to interrupt, and action items I’m given.  I usually start out each meeting by creating three sections in my notes file (I use Evernote) for these three areas.  (The fourth area is “Comments”, i.e. snarky comments to myself that come to mind while being stuck in a terrible, boring, endless meeting from which there is no easy escape.  This section keeps me sane in those situations, especially those where you can’t, for example, play Infinity Blade III or check your Twitter feed or whatever.  You know what kind of meetings I’m talking about.)

Like everything else, running a meeting is a skill. Some people have a natural flair for it, and others struggle with it. But as far as I can tell, everyone needs more practice. Think about some of the above points the next time you call a meeting. Believe me: You end a meeting early with clear action items, people will love you.

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