Good Meetings Are Designed Not Born
This article was first published in my newsletter, Herding Lions
There’s something deeply human about wanting to excel at the work we find ourselves doing. When we aspire to be effective at our jobs, how we describe and understand the key concepts in our work matters a lot. Last week I talked about having a better model for productivity — measuring productivity at the team rather than the individual level can cause significant change in what we choose to work on and the environment we create for our teammates. This week I want to consider the beliefs we have around meetings. Do you believe that bad meetings are just an inevitable cost of the working world that we all must endure? Or can we work to create better meetings?
I didn’t think very much about meetings early in my career; I just showed up where I was told, when I was told. Sometimes meetings were interesting, sometimes I just sat and waited for them to be over. For the especially long and irrelevant meetings, I learned that people didn’t object to me “taking notes” on my laptop, and I soon learned how to tune out without anyone caring.
As I moved into the startup world and began to care more about my work though, I started to get into more meetings that were genuinely interesting to me, and bad meetings started to bother me more. When I began learning about management and taking more leadership, I read more about the theory behind meetings and started paying closer attention to what worked and didn’t in meetings. What I learned is that good meetings are designed, not born. It’s possible to have meetings that are good experiences for everyone involved, but it takes intentionality.
There are 4 levers I use when designing a meeting: choosing the audience, crafting the agenda, picking the right cadence, and shifting aspects async.
Audience - Meetings without key decision makers or subject matter experts often end without conclusions, and decisions can get overturned quickly afterwards. On the flip side, while it may feel kind to invite anyone interested to a meeting, a meeting with too many people can become chaotic, waste people’s time, or stifle contribution if some people aren’t comfortable being open and honest in front of the full group for reasons of timidity, confidentiality, or simply unfamiliarity with the participants.
Agenda- Coming into a meeting with a clear agenda doesn’t always lead to a great experience, but without one it’s pretty much impossible to guarantee a well run meeting. A thoughtful agenda sets a direction for a meeting, makes goals clear and helps people prepare. Written agendas are great, but a simple verbal “the goal for this meeting is” at the beginning of a less formal meeting can go a long way. It’s never too late to reset everybody towards a plan.
Cadence - Should a meeting occur daily? Weekly? Monthly? On an as needed / ad hoc basis? This decision has a big impact on a meetings tone and impact. Set this too regularly and you’ll find you’re wasting people’s time and losing engagement. Too spread apart and you might not really be accomplishing your goals.
Async - We’ve all been in a classic “could have been an email” meeting. But even for meetings that clearly do merit time together, it’s worth asking if parts of it can be split out async. Maybe updates can go into Slack while we meet to talk about strategic discussions or open problems. Maybe instead of demoing a new design and then discussing it in a meeting, a designer could send a video of the design, take some async comments and then meet to discuss the more controversial aspects of the design that weren’t fleshed out in comments.
The process for designing a meeting with these levers is straightforward. Break down what needs to be accomplished (goals), identify the audience for each goal, consider whether a goal can be fully or partially accomplished async, figure out the cadence for the meeting(s), and then write an agenda for each meeting you’re creating.
My single most important meeting design advice is never start with a meeting, start with your goals. Some of the worst meetings are those that try to do 5 things poorly rather than 1 or 2 things well. When you start by breaking down and defining what you want to accomplish, it becomes much easier to pick the right audience, agenda and cadence for your goals. For instance I was recently part of a weekly cross-org meeting that was attempting to push forward tactical code level changes as well as serve as an announcement/discussion place for important strategic announcements. Attendance was poor and the meetings were often low on engagement. The organizers were able to greatly improve this meeting by identifying and breaking apart these goals, shifting to 2 meetings: a monthly strategic meetings for managers and a weekly tactical meeting for engineers involved in the initiatives.
Once you have a set of goals, you should figure out the audience for each one. If the audiences of your goals are sufficiently different, consider splitting your goals across multiple meetings or async mediums rather than trying to cram them into a single meeting. Even if it feels inefficient for you as an organizer, it can greatly streamline the process and bring better outcomes for everyone as in the above example. If your goals all need roughly the same audience, just think carefully about who really needs to be included. There’s a lot of value in keeping information open, sponsoring folks for opportunities, and listening to all voices. However there’s a delicate balance between pursuing those goals and inviting chaos or wasting people’s time. If you’re having trouble cutting a meeting, consider inviting a smaller group but sending the minutes to a larger one to keep them in the loop, or workshopping a proposal with a small group and then presenting it to a different group of stakeholders.
At this point you should be able to see if you really need a meeting or whether your goals can be accomplished async, and what their cadence should be. Sometimes some goals may need a meeting while others can be handled async. For instance when we redesigned my team’s standups last year we determined that our “individual status updates” could be handled async through Slack, and the purpose of our standup Zooms would be connecting as a team, checking in on project status with a quick confidence check and an open floor for people to discuss issues and blockers. This allowed us to remove some boilerplate from the meeting discussion, honored my team’s desire to have more dedicated “team time” during the pandemic, and led to deeper and more relevant discussions. When in doubt I recommend starting with something happening async until it proves that it needs a meeting. If you do believe you need to meet in person consider starting with meetings scheduled on a case by case basis rather than immediately jumping into a recurring cadence. You’ll get a sense of how often the meeting is relevant.
Finally, make sure to have an agenda. If you’ve started with goals this is easier. Each goal covered by a meeting should be an agenda item. I’m currently running a daily project check in sync where we determined the goals were to make sure we stayed on track, make sure we were working tightly together across roles, and quickly resolve blockers as they arose. As a result the agenda for that meeting is a 2 minute review of our progress against project tickets in Jira, an open time for developers and our designer to demo any new updates to the team as they complete work, and then a period for raising blockers or issues for the team to discuss and hopefully resolve. Each section of the meeting is directly connected to a goal so the agenda was easy to write. For one off or informal meetings you may not have a written agenda, but I still recommend that you call out the goals as you start the meeting, and circle back at the end to make sure you’ve addressed each goal. This practice has made a big difference for me in terms of running effective meetings.
The quality of a meeting isn’t the result of a dice roll. You can make a meeting better with planning. Take the time to do it.