Tips for better meetings in 2018

Blah blaah blah blah blaaah blahblah.

Twelve hours. On a Wednesday this November, I spent twelve hours sitting in a marathon of useless meetings. Don’t get me wrong — meetings are often critical to decision making and getting things done. However, at the end of the this Wednesday, I had no new action items, had not done any “actual” work, had not gained any more clarity on the discussed features. Why was I even there in the first place?

People are always complaining about meetings because, well, the vast majority of them suck. Here are some tips for better meetings, so you can help ensure that both you and your attendees get the most out of time spent in a conference room.

Have an agenda and an objective

Why do you need this meeting? Do you need consensus on a design? Do you want to review the latest metrics? Do you need Mark to stop cooking fish in the coffee pot?

Create an agenda before the meeting with your objective, and the list of items you need to discuss before you can reach that objective. Send it out to the attendees before the meeting once you have it written out.

For example, let’s say you are a UI Designer and want to meet with the engineering team to see if they can implement a new layout. A sample agenda might be:

Objective: Get engineering commitment for new card layout
Review: CxD design
Review: Engineering effort for new card layout
Requested Action Item: Engineering support for CxD design in March

Short and sweet.

After you’ve drafted your agenda do a few checks:

  • Is this a meeting of consensus, or are there clear decision makers? State this upfront in the meeting.
  • Is the agenda overpacked? If you can’t explain the objective in one sentence, it probably is. If you have over five discussion points on the agenda, it probably is. If you have a list of items to get to “if you have time”, omit them from this meeting.

Is the meeting really necessary?

Meetings take a lot of work. Employees need to commute, the host needs to set up a teleconference, engineers have things to build. Before you send out your agenda, make sure your meeting is actually necessary.

Have a meeting if:

  • There is a clear objective.
  • Decisions need to be made, and general action items need to be split out.
  • Attempts at communication with others have failed.

Don’t have a meeting if:

  • You are trying to find things to fill an agenda. Why have the meeting if there’s nothing to talk about?
  • There is no decision to be made.
  • The stakeholders and decision-makers cannot attend.
  • A better medium might be possible. For example, in the case of Mark cooking fish in the office, just go talk to Mark. For reviewing metrics, see if you can just send out a nice email instead. This saves everyone’s time.

Have the right people there

The best meetings are small meetings. At Google, we tried to keep meetings under ten people (open brainstorming sessions excluded). I tend to aim for under eight. Any more people and you might as well have a conference. Someone should attend a meeting if they are one of the following:

  • A decision maker. If you meeting is not a meeting of consensus, the decision makers should be present. That might be you.
  • Someone who might get an action item. There are few things less productive than giving someone an action item but not letting that person know about it. Don’t have a meeting about Mark’s fish without Mark.
  • Stakeholder. If you’re meeting about software architecture, make sure you invite the architect. If you’re meeting about design, make sure you invite a designer.

When you’ve come up with your invitees list, go through once more and make sure everyone should have a role. Also, make sure your list doesn’t just include people who agree with you. Otherwise, you’ve just created a small echo chamber.

Set a timer

Start on time and end on time, even if the decision makers aren’t present. Again, it takes a lot of effort to make a meeting, to try to honor the schedules of those already in the room. Hopefully, your team culture will change to one that is punctual.

When I worked on Android, I got to visit the HTC offices often. The meeting organizer on the team I visited would set an analog alarm clock at the beginning of the meeting for 45 minutes. As soon as the alarm clock rang, everyone stood up and left. This technique works well because it keeps people on-task during the meeting and is a clear sign of respect to those who have given up their time to attend.

Lastly, keep meeting as short as possible (within reason). Generally, you can keep the focus of attendees up to forty-five minutes. Ironically, most meetings are around 1.3 hours.

Let people speak

During the meeting, make sure that those who have something to say can say it. Some of the best ideas come from the most quiet people in the room — do your best to give attendees ownership of the conversation happening around them.

Be weary of showboaters. They tend to speak loudly, sit in the front, and dominate the conversation with their own opinions. They tend to have the backing from management to do this, also. This pulls attention away from your objective (unless your objective is showboating) and discourages others from speaking up. If someone gets cut off, explicitly give that person the stage:

“What were you saying, Jessica? You got cut off.”

If there is a dispute over something objective, try to solve it with data (if possible). At Google, if an intern goes against a VP but has supporting data, the intern wins. Seniority is not data. Opinions are not data.

End with a summary and action items

When ending your meeting, sum everything up so everyone is on the same page. Note of the objective has been accomplished and list out the action items:

Action Item: Mark and Julia will implement the layout during the March sprint.
Action Item: CXD to host layout specs on the server.
Action Item: Jessica to report schedule to Program Management.

Meetings don’t have to suck. A well organized meeting can be super effective and deeply efficient. If you try any of the tips above, create and stick to a clear agenda. Good luck! | @chunggukpanda

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