On Better Meetings

Originally posted Jan 15, 2017

As an engineering director, my week is filled with meetings: one-on-ones with my direct reports, skip-level one-on-ones with theirs. Meetings to make decisions, meetings to share information, meetings to teambuild. I have meetings to provide mentorship, or feedback on a presentation, or to get coaching.

I’ve heard folks say that they hate meetings - that they’re a waste of time, that we should have fewer of them, that really, we should use email or Slack instead of meeting. I can imagine that these folks would cringe if they saw my calendar. But frankly, most of the good work that I do, I do in meetings.

The other day, an engineer reached out to me to ask if he could sit in on a meeting that I led; someone had told him I’m good at running meetings, and he wanted to see what that meant. After attending, he told me that, well, it was a fine meeting! But it still wasn’t clear to him what “being good at meetings” looks like. In that moment I realized that most of the work that goes into making a meeting good is totally invisible.

Let’s make it more visible!

Before the meeting

Look a week ahead: Towards the end of a week, I’ll start to take a look at what meetings I have the following week. For any that I’m responsible for, I’ll start pulling together some information for attendees. Sometimes this means updating the calendar invite with an agenda; other times this means starting a Google Doc for what we need to run through during the meeting, and I share it with edit rights for all attendees.

Use meeting goals: If the meeting has a bunch of people in it (like, more than two), especially if those people typically have full schedules, then I’ll write down goals for the meeting. Often, I’ll put those goals in the calendar item, and I’ll mention them at the beginning of the meeting. That means that if we get off-track during our time together, I can hit pause and recenter on the goals, asking folks to continue that other conversation afterward.

Find a plant: Once in awhile, it’s helpful to “seed” the meeting somehow. For example, in one meeting where there’s an “open questions” time and I want people to ask anything, I’ve asked a buddy to think up a super weird one to demonstrate to others that it’s a safe space.

Don’t surprise people in the meeting: Additionally, I do a lot of prep to make sure there’s no surprises in my meetings, at least none coming from me. This usually means that I let a handful of people know about a big announcement ahead of time (or had a tough conversation), usually one-on-one, so they wouldn’t be surprised in front of a lot of other people.

Gain consensus 1:1 beforehand, if possible: My goal with any decision-making meeting is to already have a sense, going in, of what issues people have, what their opinion is, and what they might need to come to agreement. I do as much legwork in advance as possible, so that the whole group is ready to make that decision more quickly in the room.

During the meeting

That engineer said, “I was interested in that meeting in your ‘presence’. It was clear that you were running that meeting. No confusion about next steps or who had which role.” There’s a difference between facilitating a meeting and leading a meeting; either way, it should be clear walking in what everybody’s role is, including mine.

When I’m facilitating, I’ve asked others beforehand to take other roles (note-taking, or presenting information, or something else), so I can focus on making sure that we’re staying on-track and meeting the goals of the meeting. As a facilitator, it’s primarily my job to read signals from folks who are trying to get a word in and can’t, or looking disengaged, or something else. When I’m leading, I’m instead doing things like sharing information, or asking questions - more actively participating in the meat of the meeting.

Set expectations: Few things bog down meetings more than an unclear process, or a lack of clarity about how people in attendance are supposed to participate. By sharing the goals of the meeting and a high-level overview of what we’re going to do there, I hope to make it clear what’s expected of folks in the room.

Help remotes participate: This is especially necessary for meetings with remote participants. All too often folks in the same physical space dominate the conversation, and there’s not a clear process for people on video to chime in. Either I, or someone I ask, will pay attention to remotes’ needs or ability to participate. This could look like:

Name the round robin: During meetings where I’m asking everyone to participate, I will name out loud the order for remotes to speak in - “Allison, then Mike, then Natalya” - so that we can try and reduce confusion and lag in between.

Proactively curb remote-unfriendly behavior: As a meeting facilitator, I also interject as necessary to ask people in the room to move closer to the mic, stop tapping the table or unwrapping food near the mic (as we don’t often realize how much those kinds of sounds are picked up by room microphones), or ask remotes if they could heard what was just said. It’s super awkward to do, because it usually means you’re interrupting someone speaking - but these routine reminders are absolutely necessary, and hopefully over time more people pick up these best-practice habits.

Name a common signal: One last thing on remote participants: it is really handy if you have a commonly-understood signal for “I can’t hear you”, even if it’s cheesy. I’ve started to see a lot of “jazz-hands-near-my-face” motions which are really clear and helpful.

Meeting rules

It’s really important to me that meetings feel like safe spaces to talk. It’s also really hard to measure this while the meeting is happening. The two metrics I try and sense during team-wide meetings: how much laughter there is, and how weird questions get. Obviously these aren’t perfect metrics, but they’re as good as I’ve found so far.

For the two main team-wide meetings I host each week (a Monday sync meeting that’s kind of like a high-level standup, and a Friday demos meeting where everyone can show something), attendance is optional, but encouraged. For these, I institute a no laptops/no phones rule. I want teammates to pay equal attention to each other as they’re sharing their work from the week, especially as it’s harder and harder to build relationships across the organization as it grows. And if they need to do something else other than be in that meeting, no worries - it’s better to not attend it than to be in the room, distracted and attempting to write an email or ship some code.

If it’s a routine meeting, but there are a whole lot of new faces in attendance, I’ll restate the goal of the meeting and any guidelines (like no laptops/phones, or Chatham House Rules, or the Vegas Rule: what happens in this meeting, stays in this meeting).

Meeting hygiene

I hold weekly one-on-ones with my direct reports, for an hour. I bring a list of things I want to chat about; some direct reports keep a shared Google doc with me so we can combine our lists together before we meet.

I schedule skip-level one-on-ones with their reports every eight weeks, for a half-hour. (I currently have about 25 skip-levels.) Because most folks don’t know what we should do with that time, I say in the invite:

Optional, skip-level 1:1! Inspiration for our chat:

  • what can I provide clarity about?
  • any questions can I answer about the overall organization?

I cancel meetings if they’re unwarranted. I check-in every few months to see if a meeting’s goal still makes sense; I ask attendees how they’re feeling about the length of the meeting, how often it happens, and what we do during it. I iterate on meetings to make sure they’re still effective, or even necessary.

Meetings definitely follow Newton’s first law - an object at rest stays at rest, and an object in motion stays in motion. If you aren’t proactive about making your meetings better, they’ll stay mediocre. If you aren’t proactive about canceling or iterating on meetings, they will stay on folks’ calendars for eternity. And if you really want to level up your game, say out loud to the people you work with what you’re doing to improve your meetings, so they might be inspired to do the same for their own.

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