11 Tips for Productive Meetings

The following is a thought piece I wrote for the internal Plastiq wiki. I wanted to share it in case others may find it useful for their place of work. Please be in touch with any questions, comments, or suggestions! A document like this only gets better with iteration.

Meetings are useful for two reasons and two reasons only: information sharing and decision making.  A meeting should be called for one, the other, or both reasons.

Importantly, when I refer to “meetings”, I don’t mean ad hoc chats that may arise spontaneously around the office, although it’s important to be mindful of those too.  Rather, meetings in this context refer to a time and place reserved for a set list of attendees to gather together and accomplish a well-defined goal.  They can range from the informal (one-on-one catchups) to the formal (exec weeklys), and generally they would be well-served to follow some general guidelines.

So, without further ado, here are my 11 tips for productive meetings (in no particular order)…

1. Participants arrive / call-in on time.

If a meeting starts at 2pm, that means all participants are prepared, present, and ready to collaborate at 2pm.  Being ready and on time for meetings reflects not only respect for other peoples’ time, but also a mature understanding of the fact that as a start-up, time is the our most precious resource.  Five people waiting five minutes for a sixth person to arrive to a meeting is nearly half an hour of work time that could be spent in more productive ways (including relaxation!).

  • If you will be late for any reason, send everyone a quick note to let them know, including your ETA.
  • [Additional Note] Ideally, mutual respect for each other’s time is enough of a motivator to keep people punctual.  Unfortunately in reality, that’s not always the case.  If you find that folks need a little extra motivation to show up on time, here are some ideas:
    • Set different expectations.  For example, if meetings are scheduled on the hour, start discussion a little after the hour (e.g., 12:04pm) to give folks time to change gears from whatever they were doing and show up ready to roll.  As long as everyone has the same expectation for when discussion can start, those who don’t need the extra time don’t have to waste it waiting for others.
    • Make accessibility a primary concern.  Try to reduce any hurdles for members joining the meeting.  If you have a geographically distributed team, invest in a good conference line and phone system (or even better, set up teleconferencing so everyone can see each other!  We’ve had good success with Google Hangouts and Chromeboxes).  If everyone is meeting in person, try to set the meeting in a place easily accessed by all participants.  Be very clear about the meeting location (or call-in number or Hangout) in the invitation to the meeting, so everyone knows when and where it’s going down.
    • Money talks.  Consider “charging” meeting participants $1 for every minute they are late to the meeting.  The money can go to a communal company booze and/or fun fund.

2. The purpose of the meeting is clearly defined.

Everyone should know the purpose of a meeting when they arrive (i.e., what information sharing and decision making will be expected).  This enables participants to come thoughtfully prepared and ready to roll.  If the purpose of the meeting cannot be clearly defined, reconsider whether or not it is really necessary.

3. An explicit agenda exists, but it leaves some wiggle room.

A good meeting is both structured yet allows for open dialogue amongst anyone who wants to raise their voice.  The agenda should serve the purpose (point #2) of the meeting, and outline what information may need to be shared and what decisions may need to be made.

4. The leader is clearly defined.

Like a company, meetings need leaders to keep them on track.  This is usually whoever calls the meeting, but may not be, provided the leader knows they are actually the leader.  Good meeting leaders facilitate information sharing, constructive discussion, and decision-making.  They don’t dictate, but bring everyone together toward achieving a clearly defined goal.  Meeting leaders / facilitators are also responsible for stepping up to enforce the guidelines outlined here.  For example, if someone violates the “every comment should be additive” guideline, the meeting leader should acknowledge it (and if necessary cut it short) in order to facilitate meeting progress.  Importantly, leaders should not do this in order to call out a specific person as violating a guideline (indeed, sometimes the most important thing they can do is self-police), but they should make it clear that it’s for the good of everyone involved to keep the discussion moving.

5. Someone is taking notes.

As elephantine as we may believe our memory capacities are, things always tend to get a bit hazy with time.  Notes don’t have to be as specific as “meeting minutes”, but they should keep track of points that drive a meeting toward accomplishing its defined goal.  Good types of things to keep record of include:

  • New information shared
  • Decisions or conclusions
  • Action items / todos

6. The meeting drives action or definition upon its conclusion.

Meetings are the opposite of Vegas – what happens in them absolutely should not stay within them!  After a meeting concludes, here are some best practices to ensure that it ends up useful:

  • Distribute a meeting summary. Write a short and effective email summarizing the meeting, what was decided (and why!), and the action items assigned to each person. It’s also important to set a deadline and any check-in points before the deadline itself.
  • Schedule a follow up (if necessary). If you need another meeting, be sure to communicate to the attendees when this will be and set the expectations for the meeting. Then schedule it!

7. The invite list has been carefully considered.

It’s just as important to consider who will not be invited to a meeting as it is to consider who will be invited.  The invite list should be precisely tailored toward the goal of the meeting, and should include only those individuals absolutely necessary for:

  • Information Sharing – Both people who are sources of information and those who need to be “kept in the loop”
  • Decision Making – Whoever can make choices which drive action.  Necessary decisions should be known in advance, per point #2.

Note that proxies for sources of information and decision-makers are often a good way to optimize a meeting’s invite list.

  • If you find that you are no longer needed in a meeting or were unnecessarily invited, please raise your hand at any time, say that you don’t feel like you have information to give/receive or decisions to make on the present (and future) discussion topics, and leave quietly.

8. Meetings run no longer than they need to be.

Meetings often follow the rule of diminishing returns – that is, it’s tough to be “on point” and productive for longer than an hour or so.  If you see folks’ eyes glazing over, it might be worthwhile to take a break or cut the meeting and reschedule another time.

9. Every comment is additive, relevant and objective.

Non-adherence to this guideline is perhaps the greatest source of wasted time in most meetings I’ve attended.  It’s very easy for this guideline to be broken because those three descriptors exist on a continuum of grey, rather than black and white.  Therefore, it’s up to the leader of the meeting to play a big role in establishing an instinctual threshold for each (see point #4 for more information).  Basically, comments should be:

  • Additive.  Comments should add to the discussion, either with new information or perspectives, and not simply restate something that has already been said.  It’s easy for people to make non-additive comments, particularly when they agree with something (it’s a natural thing to do), but they should at least try to make sure they are building on the present discussion.  If you wish to express agreement with what someone is saying, feel free to try snapping your fingers – it’s less distracting, and still enables the speaker to gauge how their comments are being received.
  • Relevant.  Comments should be relevant to the discussion, driving the group towards the goals of the meeting.  Note that relevant in this context is different from important.  Important topics or issues may (and hopefully, do) arise organically during a discussion, but if their inclusion in the meeting does not drive the group toward its goals, such topics should be noted (by the note-taker, set point #5) and tabled for discussion at a later time.  Other types of comments which are not relevant include:
    • Ad hominem arguments (i.e., personal attacks) – The identity (or title) of a meeting participant should not lend undue gravitas (or criticism) to his or her comments.  In a collaborative work environment, there is no room for personal attacks.
    • Complaints – Criticisms are superfluous unless they explores areas for improvement which help derive relevant solutions (but I’d call that “constructive feedback”).
  • Objective.  Comments should be kept as objective as possible to drive rational discussion which helps accomplish a meeting’s goals.  This may be a contentious point, because it is supremely important that every participant’s perspective is heard, and some would argue that perspectives are necessarily subjective.  To that I say the following: perspectives are only subjective insofar as the objective factors which give rise to them have not yet been fully explored.  As an example, I could say “I don’t like this logo,” which would be a very subjective comment.  Or, I could dig a bit deeper and say more objectively, “I don’t like this logo because it has too many colors which would not translate well to different mediums”.  If you ever find yourself wondering whether you are being too subjective, proceed to ask yourself why you feel a certain way, at least three times in a row, diving deeper every single time.  Provided you are honest to yourself, wherever you end up will be strictly more objective than where you began.

10. Electronic device usage is kept to a minimum.

It should be considered an incredible opportunity to have people join together for a meeting to accomplish a specific goal.  Everyone should be engaged in the present discussion.  No matter how well people think they can multitask, taking any attention away from the present dialog is a disservice to the other participants who are giving up their time to be present.  Participants should keep each other responsible about this rule, because using electronics in meetings follows the broken window theory – one device in use begets more devices in use, until everyone except the person currently talking is on their phones / computers.

  • In the event an emergency (personal or professional) does arise, the affected person(s) should excuse themselves from the room.  If critical members of the meeting must exit, depending on the expected length of departure, participants should consider a break or rescheduling the meeting.

11. Interruptions are permitted only in the case of emergencies.

This is an extension of the notion of respect for peoples’ time, as it applies to everyone not in a meeting.  I have seen meetings of five people interrupted by a single person knocking on the door to tell one of the attendees that they “sent you a response to your email about that thing”.  Such distractions are just impractical.  If someone really needs something urgently from an individual in a meeting, he or she should write it on a note and slip quietly into the meeting to give it to the relevant meeting participant.