Unsuck Your Meeting

6 minute read

Yeah, that’s right: your meetings suck. Don’t deny it. No, don’t you dare even try to deny it. Can you seriously look me in the eye and tell me that you enjoy going to meetings? That you aren’t sitting there with a glazed look in your eyes as you mull your lunch options or that optimization that was interrupted for this Momentous Event or whether you remembered to set a new season pass on your TiVo or, really, anything aside from the purported meeting topic? Can you? No, I didn’t think so.

In truth I don’t buy into the whole meetings are toxic thing. That’s rather a generalization, wouldn’t you say? Meetings in general aren’t toxic. SHIT1 meetings are.

  • Selfish.
    “Well, I’ve kinda been sitting on this project and I’m not ready to move forward on it but people are starting to talk so if I bring everyone together for a meeting then it’ll look like I’m making progress. Brilliant!” The best part is that a selfish CYA meeting begets yet more selfish CYA meetings as everyone’s schedule is pushed back in order to attend them. Genius!
  • Haphazard.
    Everyone knows that a free range meeting is the most responsible choice, right? A meeting that’s allowed to live out its natural life scratching at and chasing after random topics rather than being cooped up in a specific agenda is the best sort of meeting, isn’t it?
  • Informational.
    Ooh, here’s an idea! Let’s get everyone into a room for sixty or even ninety minutes every week just so they can feel uncomfortable trying to verbalize nebulous but considerable progress in front of their peers for two minutes and then zone out for the remainder of the time! Or, even better, collect the team so you can give a dramatic reading of the text you really should have posted to the wiki! Man, everyone’s gonna love that. And what a great use of time!
  • Tardy.
    My personal favorite use of company time: calling a meeting for, say, 10am then not starting it until 10:15. Similarly: calling a meeting for 10am and then not notifying the attendees until 10:15 that the meeting needs to be rescheduled.

It’s easy to see why your meetings suck when so many of them share these characteristics. It boggles the mind why businesses allow this sort of shoddy practice to continue, especially considering the expense that these meetings reflect both in lost productivity and in basic employee compensation simply for the time to attend them.

The sad fact is that it is so very easy to avoid SHIT meetings yet disturbingly few people make an effort to do so. Here are some of the criteria I use to make sure my meetings don’t go to SHIT:

Don’t have a meeting at all.

Do I need to communicate some information? Rather than interrupting everyone’s workflow by collecting them into a room I’d prefer to send the information via email. Or, better yet, write up the information in the $project_tracker since five’ll get you ten it belongs there anyway. May as well get it into the tracker immediately so there are no excuses later when the information goes AWOL. You can then easily email a link to the information in order to call attention to it to the team.

For this approach to work you need to foster a culture which does not abuse email2. Once you’ve reduced the inbox noise and drek everyone needs to understand that (s)he is responsible for the information sent via that channel.

Have an agenda and stick to it, dammit.

Each meeting ought to have a purpose, a goal, a question which needs answering. If you’re thinking of scheduling a meeting and you can’t express the goal of the meeting in fifty words or less then perhaps you’re not really ready to have a meeting yet.

An unfocused meeting is an inefficient meeting. Ideally you would send a brief agenda along with the meeting invitation so everyone knows what they’re getting into. This allows people to prepare (if necessary) so the question can be answered and the meeting completed as quickly as possible. Which leads me to the next point…

Start on time, end early.

If you’re running the meeting, get there early to be sure everything is set up. If you’re attending it, arrive on time. Regardless, everyone is expected to come prepared and the meeting always starts exactly on time. Failure to do so is disrespecting the valuable time of every person in the room3.

Because you have an agenda you know exactly what the meeting is meant to accomplish. If that goal is met then do not sit around simply because you have the room booked for an entire hour. Recap the meeting so everyone understands what was decided and then let ‘em get the heck out of there. Everyone will be happy: the attendees will think you’re super swell for ending the meeting early and you’ll have what you need.

Recap Recap Recap.

This was briefly mentioned in the prior point but is important enough to call out on its own. At the end of the meeting it is paramount that someone (ideally the person who called the meeting) recap the decisions and action items which were generated. You’d be surprised how often you do this and have someone in the room be startled out of their daydream to say, “Wait…what? That’s not what we decided…”

Everyone must end the meeting on the same page. They don’t need to agree with what’s written on that page, they just need to be on it and know that they’re on it. In addition, anyone in the room who has action items as a result of the meeting needs to confirm that they’re aware of this fact and are ready, willing and able to undertake the assigned tasks.

While there are many other methods and details which could be applied for unsucking your meeting these are the ones which will get you the most bang for your buck and which apply to most every meeting. Applying them to your team’s meetings will improve productivity and, most importantly, make you all much happier people.

[1] Contrived and excessively vulgar acronym? Guilty as charged. Still, a spade is a spade and meetings like this truly are shit. [back to reading!]
[2] Proper care and feeding of a healthy email inbox is an entire post in itself, but suffice it to say that the signal to noise ratio in the average email inbox could bear more than a little improvement. [back to reading!]
[3] Unsatisfactory excuses for arriving to a meeting late: another meeting ran late (stand up, politely excuse yourself and leave), on the phone (send to VM or set call duration expectations at the start), just slipped your mind (really? your time management skills and tools are that bad?). OK excuses: system/service crisis (all hands on deck; screw meetings), family emergency (always more important), zombie attack (Re: Your Brains). Regardless of the reason, you must find a way to notify at least one other attendee that you are going to be late. Email, IM, IRC, SMS, phone call, send a message via the office dog. It doesn't matter how you do it just do it. Don't be so arrogant as to expect everyone to seek you out retrieve you for the meeting. From housekeeper on up to CEO, the time of the other meeting attendees is as important as yours else the company wouldn't be paying them to be there in the first place. Do not disrespect them by thinking otherwise. [back to reading!]

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