Meet Differently

A recent episode of the Freakonomics podcast covered meetings. Two or more people gathering to accomplish the business of business, as they defined it. It gave me some things I hope I remember the next time I’m organizing a recurring staff meeting…

  1. Organize an agenda around questions-to-answer
  2. Hold smaller meetings
  3. Keep track and time

Meetings need agendas, just about every book I’ve read which touches on meetings agrees on this point. The agenda needs to be communicated to participants in advance, so folks can come ready to accomplish it. Folks need to know what to expect. Without an agenda meetings usually devolve into chaos, although sometimes it takes a couple aimless meetings in a row to hit this point. Staff meetings often don’t have a pre-published agenda, but they generally do have a set of topics they proceed through in a set order, and that becomes the known-agenda for the group.

Generally my agendas are lists of topics – that’s not the most effective way to manage a meeting though. In the podcast Steven Rogelberg says, “if you can’t come up with any questions, you shouldn’t have a meeting”. A meeting isn’t for distributing announcements – there are other, better, less time-intrusive means for that. A meeting is for collaboration on problems, which can be stated as questions.

Organize an agenda around questions-to-answer

This also makes it easy to shake out the folks that actually need to attend the meeting. Getting everyone to attend is a waste of their time. Getting just the folks who have inputs on question answers is the minimum group for attendance. If others have input they can attend too after seeing the meeting agenda.

One question I’ve needed to answer in the past is, “what work from my team am I going to present to my bosses this week?” I’ve often taken it on myself to answer this question, but it occurs to me that the transparency I’d provide by bring this question to the workers, getting their input, and providing my feedback, could be excellent.

Smaller meetings, like shorter meetings, make better use of my folks’ time. When nugging the group of attendees down based on inputs required, I’m building a smaller meeting. I can also build smaller meetings by holding more meetings but with targeted groups.

For instance, when I led tactics development I could have met with the team leads individually to gather their inputs for the week. What’s their status update, what are their blockers, what are their accomplishments… This would have given me personal time with each lead (valuable), time to track their updates, time for them to provide me feedback they might not in a larger group, and time for me to provide them more private feedback. Then, our larger group meeting might have asked the questions, “which of these accomplishments are most valuable to raise up”, “which blockers can be solved in the group”, and “which blockers are most valuable to raise up?”

I actually did that on occasion, thinking back. Not in such an organized way, but as a result of intuition. There were reasons at the time I didn’t fully embrace the method (partly because it wasn’t my job but I felt like I still had to do it) so I did it only about 90%. A mistake.

Anyway.

Hold smaller meetings

If a meeting has questions for the full group, and also some for only a subset, after the full group part is complete let the folks unconcerned for the rest leave. Open the door, take a 30 second break.

For small staff meetings, to improve group openness, risk-taking, and personal connection, consider taking 10 minutes at the beginning to do “a rose and a thorn.” Everyone tells what they see as the best part and worst part of their week/week-to-come.

Keep track and time

Start on time, end on time. Set the meeting for the amount of time the questions will take, not some arbitrary value like “an hour”. If there’s pre-reading required, consider scheduling-in time at the beginning for folks to complete it.

Take minutes, and if the group decides work needs to be done and follow-ups need to occur then assign those tasks to someone. Write that assignment down. Discuss when you’ll expect the result, then come back to it later. Put all that in the minutes and send that out to the participants.

Announce “last call” at the end of the meeting, or as we do in the Air Force ask for any “reattacks”. Maybe plan for the last ten minutes for this, and set an alarm that shouts “LAST CALL” or “REATTACKS!” at that time. That’d at least be fun.

Folks are going to complain about meetings. We all do – even when they’re useful. At the least I can try to make them a good use of my folks’ time.

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