Meetings are essential for many purposes, but at the same time many people perceive them as the worst source of wasted time. Running efficient meetings is therefore essential for a high-performing company.
Is the meeting necessary?
We all know the jokes about meetings that should have been an email. A first step towards better meetings is therefore to ask yourself if a meeting is really necessary.
Meetings are a good choice if:
- The team has to come to a quick decision
- The subject at hand is urgent
- The subject at hand is particularly complex so that the group has to come together to explore various facets and come to a common view
- You need to build energy, human connection and commitment
It is also essential to recognize that costs and benefits of meetings are not the same for everybody, depending in job roles and personality types. See the “Maker schedule vs manager schedule” section below.
There are some meeting types that can add a lot of value in the best case, but can also end up as time wasters:
- Update meetings: Many teams use weekly or even daily meetings to update each other on progress or other current events. That’s often a good way to check in with everybody, provide context and identify issues. However, pure routine meetings where everybody just reads their to-do list are typically a waste of time. The agenda should therefore focus on aspects that need action (such as asking for help from others), not on pure information exchange. It’s also the moderator’s job to keep the meeting interactive, e.g. by asking for details from participants when something is not clear.
- Brainstorming meetings: Effective brainstorming can be a great source of creative ideas. However, this type of meeting requires that participants come prepared, that the moderator is experienced in guiding brainstorming meetings, and that the focus of the meeting is very clear.
Who needs to participate?
Meetings with too many participants are almost never effective.
Highly successful leaders such as Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos have/had strict rules on how many participants they tolerated in a meeting. A good guideline is the “two pizza rule” used at Amazon: If the participants of the meeting can’t be fed with two pizzas for lunch, there are too many people in the room.
An important rule is that each participant should have a very clear reason to be in the meeting and a clear path to add value to the group. If they are just going to be a passive listener, they should not be there and can pull the necessary information from meeting minutes.
A simple methodology
The ROAD method is a simple methodology for making meetings more effective is . It covers four elements that help focus the process and outcomes of meetings and is easy to implement.
R stands for Roles
Meetings are best run if it’s clear who plays which roles. This methodology suggests three key roles that need to be assigned to one participant each:
- Moderator: Keeps the meeting on track, activates passive participants, makes sure that all important points are covered. When issues come up that should be addressed but don’t fit the current agenda item, the moderator writes them down in a “parking lot” space, e.g. on a whiteboard.
- Scribe: Takes notes during the meeting, summarizes the key decision points and sends minutes to all participants after the meeting
- Timekeeper: Makes sure that the meeting follows the timing in the agenda
- Optional: Sidetrack guard. Uses a commonly agreed-upon keyword when the meeting is getting digresses from the actual topic.
O stands for Objectives
Each meeting should have a small set of clear objectives that should be reached.
Pure information exchange is rarely a good objective. Other forms of exchange (such as emails or recorded videos) are a better way to use everybody’s time.
A stands for Agenda
A meeting should have a structured agenda with a clear time allotment assigned to each agenda point. In most cases, it’s a good idea to stick to short meetings with not more than 3-4 agenda points.
A best practice to deal with more complex agenda points is to reserve some “miscellaneous” time at the end of the agenda as a buffer. It’s in the timekeeper’s authority to take some time from this buffer pool if an agenda item runs over its planned time for a good reason.
The agenda has to be sent well before the meeting, ideally at the time when participants are invited.
Any relevant materials should be also shared in advance as pre-reads.
Meetings should consistently start and end on time. Compromising on this send a signal to the team that parameters don’t have to be taken seriously, and this can have negative consequences in other areas.
D stands for Decisions
Each meeting should end with a clear summary of the decisions made during the meeting. It’s the scribe’s responsibility to write these decisions down and share the minutes after the meeting.
In today’s world, probably the majority of meetings are going to be remote and take place on a videoconferencing platform. The same best practices as outlined above apply to these meetings as well, but there are a few additional considerations that make remote meetings more effective.
- If a part of the group is together in the same room, every participant should use their own laptop so that remote participants can clearly see everybody. This makes a huge difference in being able to parse facial expressions.
- Using a live, shared doc (e.g. on Google Docs) for the agenda and minutes keeps everybody on track.
- Make sure that audio quality is optimal. Room microphones in meeting rooms are often a compromise. Make sure that the mike is close enough to the speaker. Remote participants should use headsets if possible since they provide much clearer sound with less echo suppression compared to built-in microphones and speakers in laptops.
- Video should be on for all participants by default. There might be exceptions when somebody is on the move or has another good reason to turn the camera off, but the normal expectation is to be able to see everybody.
Maker schedule vs manager schedule
A classic post by Y Combinator founder Paul Graham explains the difference that meetings make in the schedule and productivity of people with different jobs.
“Managers” are people who have a highly interactive job and therefore spend most of their time communicating with people. Examples, apart from actual managers, are often product managers, sales people, marketers, customer success people and, yes, VCs. These kind of job roles tend to have a highly fragmented daily schedule with often many meetings. It’s therefore natural for people with such a job to call a meeting because it’s their natural mode of operation.
“Makers” on the other hand are people whose job requires a lot of concentration and uninterrupted time. Examples would include programmers, designers, writers and scientists. For makers an unnecessary meeting can be a disaster that ruins their productivity for a whole day. Makers have a strong preference for asynchronous communication since it allows them to benefit from their most productive times without interruption.
In most companies, managers and makers have to collaborate. Since “managers” are often the more powerful people, they tend to impress their preferred mode of working — synchronously in meetings and calls — on everybody else. This can have a very significant impact on team members with a “maker” job.
So if you are a manager, ask yourself if a meeting is really necessary or if it’s just to most convenient solution for yourself. Be aware of the very significant cost that each meeting has on the productivity of your maker colleagues.
Again, a short half-hour meeting can easily ruin a maker’s entire day if it happens at the worst possible time. A good mental exercise is therefore to multiply the time of all makers present at a meeting by an hourly rate of 1000 EUR. If you still think that the meeting is worth that cost, have the meeting. If not, there might be a better way.
How to Run a More Effective Meeting
Illustrations by Antoine Corbineau We've all been stuck in a bad meeting. You arrive on time only to have the meeting start 10 minutes late. The agenda? Unclear. The person in charge? Also. Some people start to offer ideas, others shoot them down.
On this page, we're detailing how to optimize meetings in an all-remote environment. If you're going to have a meeting, at least have a little fun "How do you do meetings right?" is a common question asked of all-remote companies like GitLab.
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