Director of Engineering @Lambda School. Prev, @Amazon, @CBSInteractive, @CMU, @NIT-Allahabad.
When it comes to scheduling meetings, I am a firm believer in Maker’s schedule vs Manager’s schedule. In his essay, Paul Graham touches upon the topic of optimizing the number of meetings. In this article, I would like to talk about another related aspect of meetings, i.e. how to optimize the meetings themselves by establishing good meeting etiquettes.
I believe that the preferred way of communication should be asynchronous and meetings should be avoided as much as possible. A single 30 min meeting with 5 attendees takes up a combined total of 2.5 hours. However, most of the time, a similar discussion could happen by collaborating on a document asynchronously. If a discussion requires a meeting at all, it should be kept light and short. A meeting lasting more than an hour should be a rare occurrence, if at all. Following good meeting etiquettes would ensure that meetings are as efficient as possible. Here are a few things that could help in making meetings short and productive.
The meeting organizer should ensure that the meeting invite has the right amount of information required for attendees to be productive. This includes a descriptive title (“Quick Sync” works only for informal meetings), explicitly marking attendees as required or optional (so attendees come prepared and in the right state of mind), including information about the conference call (ideally a URL link and not a meeting id, so attendees don’t have to figure out where to put the meeting id in), the meeting background/agenda/goal, and any other notes or resources that the attendees need access before attending the meeting. Ensure that all resources linked in the meeting invite have the right access permissions so attendees don’t give up after clicking the link once and then come unprepared to the meeting.
The meeting organizer should start the meeting on time. Attendees should feel free to cancel the meeting if the organizer doesn’t show up after 10 minutes into the meeting. All attendees should show up on time so the meeting can end on time. Meetings should start within 3 minutes of the scheduled start time.A note-taker should be assigned explicitly. Most of the time, the organizer becomes the note-taker but there is no rule around it.
The note-taker should try to capture the main points of the discussion as well as the next steps with specific owners (more on this later).The meeting organizer should be responsible for following the agenda of the meeting. They should also bring the meeting back on track if attendees get into tangential discussions. It is alright to say, “Let’s take this discussion offline”.
Each meeting should ideally end with the organizer summarizing the decisions and the next steps. Each next step or action item should have an explicit owner to ensure accountability. More often than not, action items remain undone because everyone agrees that they should happen but no individual is directly responsible for them (i.e. the concept of DRI). E.g., a team may agree in a meeting that they need to improve communication with stakeholders but unless someone is assigned the responsibility to make it happen, most team members would not hold themselves accountable for it. If everyone owns the task, no one owns the task.
The notes from the meeting should either be published on a public forum (wiki or internal documents) or emailed to attendees post-meeting, so any unfinished discussion items can be followed-up offline and everyone has clarity about the next steps.
Circulating meetings notes also helps those meeting participants who couldn’t attend the meeting in getting on the same page with everyone else. If the meeting requires discussing a document, it’s best to allocate some time (e.g. 15 mins) at the beginning of the meeting to allow all attendees to read the document and provide feedback on the document itself.
Post-reading, the organizer (or meeting leader) should address the most important feedback items (to use the time efficiently) and leave the rest for offline discussion. This ensures that all attendees are given a fair chance to understand the discussion topic as well as provide their feedback. This way the discussion is not biased based upon the loudest voice in the room.
Keeping meetings short essentially means making them more efficient. This would only work when everyone is following the same basic meeting etiquettes. A single non-compliant person can easily derail meetings, making them inefficient and longer. We need to avoid this pitfall and ensure that everyone is aligned on the meeting etiquette.
Thanks for reading. I hope these tips help you out in organizing more productive meetings. Feedback is welcome.