Meetings, Meetings, Meetings

Most people are really bad at meetings: they don’t have an agenda going in, they don’t take minutes, they waffle on or wander off into irrelevancies, they repeat what others have said or recite banalities simply so that they’ll have said something, and they hold side conversations (which pretty much guarantees that the meeting will be a waste of time). Knowing how to run a meeting efficiently is a core skill for anyone who wants to get things done. (Knowing how to take part in someone else’s meeting is just as important, but gets far less attention—as a colleague once said, everyone offers leadership training, nobody offers followership training.) The most important rules for making meetings efficient are not secret, but are rarely followed:

Decide if there actually needs to be a meeting.
If the only purpose is to share information, have everyone send a brief email instead. Remember, you can read faster than anyone can speak: if someone has facts for the rest of the team to absorb, the most polite way to communicate them is to type them in.
Write an agenda.
If nobody cares enough about the meeting to write a point-form list of what’s supposed to be discussed, the meeting itself probably doesn’t need to happen.
Include timings in the agenda.
Agendas can also help you prevent early items stealing time from later ones if you include the time to be spent on each item in the agenda. Your first estimates with any new group will be wildly optimistic, so revise them upward for subsequent meetings. However, you shouldn’t plan a second or third meeting because the first one ran over-time: instead, try to figure out why you’re running over and fix the underlying problem.
Prioritize.
Every meeting is a micro-project, so work should be prioritized in the same way that it is for other projects: things that will have high impact but take little time should be done first, and things that will take lots of time but have little impact should be skipped.
Make one person responsible for keeping things moving.
One person should be tasked with keeping items to time, chiding people who are having side conversations or checking email, and asking people who are talking too much to get to the point. This person should not do all the talking; in fact, whoever is in charge will talk less in a well-run meeting than most other participants.
Require politeness.
No one gets to be rude, no one gets to ramble, and if someone goes off topic, it’s the chair’s job to say, “Let’s discuss that elsewhere.”
No technology
(unless it’s required for accessibility reasons). Insist that everyone put their phones, tablets, and laptops into politeness mode (i.e., closes them). If this is too stressful, let participants hang on to their electronic pacifiers but turn off the network so that they really are using them just to take notes or check the agenda.
No interruptions.
Participants should raise a finger, put up a sticky note, or make one of the other gestures people make at high-priced auctions instead if they want to speak next. If the speaker doesn’t notice you, the person in charge ought to.
Record minutes.
Someone other than the chair should take point-form notes about the most important pieces of information that were shared, and about every decision that was made or every task that was assigned to someone.
Take notes.
While other people are talking, participants should take notes of questions they want to ask or points they want to make. (You’ll be surprised how smart it makes you look when it’s your turn to speak.)
End early.
If your meeting is scheduled for 10:00-11:00, you should aim to end at 10:55 to give people time to get where they need to go next.

As soon as the meeting is over, the minutes should be circulated (e.g., emailed to everyone or posted to a wiki):

People who weren’t at the meeting can keep track of what’s going on.
You and your fellow students all have to juggle assignments from several other courses while doing this project, which means that sometimes you won’t be able to make it to team meetings. A wiki page, email message, or blog entry is a much more efficient way to catch up after a missed meeting or two than asking a team mate, “Hey, what did I miss?”
Everyone can check what was actually said or promised.
More than once, I’ve looked over the minutes of a meeting I was in and thought, “Did I say that?” or, “Wait a minute, I didn’t promise to have it ready then!” Accidentally or not, people will often remember things differently; writing it down gives team members a chance to correct mistaken or malicious interpretations, which can save a lot of anguish later on.
People can be held accountable at subsequent meetings.
There’s no point making lists of questions and action items if you don’t follow up on them later. If you’re using a ticketing system, the best thing to do is to create a ticket for each new question or task right after the meeting, and update those that are being carried forward. That way, your agenda for the next meeting can start by rattling through a list of tickets.

[Brow2007] and [Broo2016] have lots of good advice on running meetings, and if you want to “learn, then do”, an hour of training on chairing meetings is the most effective place to start.

Sticky Notes and Interruption Bingo

Some people are so used to the sound of their own voice that they will insist on talking half the time no matter how many other people are in the room. One way to combat this is to give everyone three sticky notes at the start of the meeting. Every time they speak, they have to take down one sticky note. When they’re out of notes, they aren’t allowed to speak until everyone has used at least one, at which point everyone gets all of their sticky notes back. This ensures that nobody talks more than three times as often as the quietest person in the meeting, and completely changes the dynamics of most groups: people who have given up trying to be heard because they always get trampled suddenly have space to contribute, and the overly-frequent speakers quickly realize just how unfair they have been.

Another useful technique is called interruption bingo. Draw a grid, and label the rows and columns with the participants’ names. Each time someone interrupts someone else, add a tally mark to the appropriate cell. Halfway through the meeting, take a moment to look at the results. In most cases, you will see that one or two people are doing all of the interrupting, often without being aware of it. After that, saying, “All right, I’m adding another tally to the bingo card,” is often enough to get them to throttle back. (Note that this technique is intended to manage interruptions, not speaking time. It may be completely appropriate for people with more knowledge of a subject to speak about it more often in a meeting, but it is almost never appropriate to repeatedly cut people off.)

Online Meetings

Chelsea Troy’s discussion of why online meetings are often frustrating and unproductive makes an important point: in most online meetings, the first person to speak during a pause gets the floor. The result? “If you have something you want to say, you have to stop listening to the person currently speaking and instead focus on when they’re gonna pause or finish so you can leap into that nanosecond of silence and be the first to utter something. The format…encourages participants who want to contribute to say more and listen less.”

The solution is to run a text chat beside the video conference where people can signal that they want to speak, and have the moderator select people from the waiting list. If the meeting is large or argumentative, this can be reinforced by having everyone mute themselves, and only allowing the moderator to unmute people.

The Post Mortem

Every project should end with a post mortem in which you reflect on what you just accomplished and what you could o better next time. Its aim is not to point the finger of shame at individuals, although if that has to happen, the post mortem is the best place for it.

A post mortem is run like any other meeting, but with a few additional guidelines [Derb2006]:

Get a moderator who wasn’t part of the project
and doesn’t have a stake in it. Otherwise, the meeting will either go in circles, or focus on only a subset of important topics. In the case of student projects, this moderator might be the course instructor, or a TA.
Set aside an hour, and only an hour.
In my experience, nothing useful is said in the first ten minutes of anyone’s first post mortem, since people are naturally a bit shy about praising or damning their own work. Equally, nothing useful is said after the first hour: if you’re still talking, it’s probably because one or two people have a lot they want to get off their chests.
Require attendance.
Everyone who was part of the project ought to be in the room for the post mortem. This is more important than you might think: the people who have the most to learn from the post mortem are often least likely to show up if the meeting is optional.
Make two lists.
When I’m moderating, I put the headings “Do Again” and “Do Differently” on the board, then do a lap around the room and ask every person to give me one item (that hasn’t already been mentioned) for each list.
Comment on actions, rather than individuals.
By the time the project is done, some people simply won’t be able to stand one another. Don’t let this sidetrack the meeting: if someone has a specific complaint about another member of the team, require him to criticize a particular event or decision. “He had a bad attitude” does not help anyone improve their game.

Once everyone’s thoughts are out in the open, organize them somehow so that you can make specific recommendations about what to do next time. This list is one of the two major goals of the post mortem (the other being to give people a chance to be heard).