The other day I was trying to remember the longest meeting I’ve attended. I came up blank. That tells me two things: that it was long, and that it was memorable.
Meetings come in three flavors, depending on what they’re intended to achieve:
- Share information,
- Make decisions,
- and Generate ideas
You’ve probably seen them, and in each case the meeting may have reached a resolution that would have taken longer in email, comment threads, or other asynchronous channels. There was probably also only one participant speaking at once, with the rest of the audience left to listen actively (good!) or observe passively (less good!) while taking time away from value-generating activities (not good at all!)
Were those meetings worth it?
The remainder of this README is intended to support productive, high-value meetings.
Every meeting has an “owner” with sole responsibility for its content, cost, and outcomes. The interpretation of this role varies from person to person, but in my experience effective conversations tend to start with:
- A clear purpose (“decide between X and Y”, “announce the re-org and address the team’s concerns”)
- An explicit, written agenda with additional context (background reading, previous minutes) shared ahead of time
Two ingredients. That’s it. If that sounds like a lot of prework for the owner, consider the cost of everyone else’s time. Drawing up an agenda and gathering background reading ahead of time gives you or me a chance to consider whether the meeting is really needed—and, if so, to throw up basic guard rails around the conversation.
In open discussion, I tend to spend as much time listening as possible. I will poke at interesting points or push towards decisions if others aren’t, but if I weren’t interested in conversation between the people I called the meeting to hear from there probably wouldn’t be a meeting. Presentations, for instance, may often be better served by an asynchronous channel.
After a meeting wraps up, I like to summarize the discussion, its decisions, and follow-up assignments while they’re still fresh in my mind. These go back to the attendees (and any impacted parties that weren’t in the room), clarifying accountability and providing a basis for me, the meeting owner, to follow up later.
Ask: are there other ways to get the message across? For instance:
- Can the salient points be distilled into a brief email or memo?
- Do decisions really need additional input? Can they be reached or approved asynchronously?
- Can brainstorming happen through an RFC process?
The only thing worse than a meeting is one where key people weren’t invited. I have a strong preference for meetings that are as open as possible, but with optional participants clearly marked as such. “Sit-ins” are welcome (bring your laptop! Work on other things!)
If you’re on the guest list and planning to attend:
- Do come having read the agenda.
- Do review any supporting materials ahead of time. If you’re the only attendee who finished the required reading, you don’t want to wait ten minutes while everyone else gets up to speed.
- Do bring questions that will be valuable to the group and do pre-form your (strong, loosely-held) opinions.
- Do not be shy about calling out (or leaving) a meeting that doesn’t have an agenda. Or one that’s subsequently gone off the rails.
Given the cost of taking a cadre of highly-paid knowledge workers offline, I tend to offer (and hope you’ll give me) blunt feedback when individual meetings didn’t feel worth the time. If you ever leave a meeting with nothing to show for it, call it out. I’ll back you up (or, if I’m responsible, look forward to mending my ways).
Do we need to have an in-person (or RTC) meeting? Maybe. “When in doubt, don’t,” is a good default, but effective meetings can reach decisions faster than sticky, slow asynchronous channels. Getting the most from them is a steady process of practice and assessment.
But if any standing meeting isn’t proving valuable, let’s retire it to the cold, white conference room in the sky.