Tactical advice for effective meetings

24 January 2021

A single question to improve the overall quality of meetings: Is a decision needed?. If ‘no’, then consider alternatives. If ‘yes’, then there are a few straight forward housekeepers for much better meetings.

Running meetings tend to either be ineffective, where most participants walk away knowing it was a terrible use of time, or effective at enabling a group to go further faster. Google Startup Lab has a talk Meetings that don’t suck that uses slightly more colorful language to describe meetings. One way of estimating your average experience is by using a meeting capability maturity model. The challenge is that the ineffective ones are much easier to run by accident.

Onto the two categories of meetings decision meetings and non-decision meetings.

Non-decision meetings

There are a few categories of non-decision meetings that come up often. Some are useful, others are not so useful.

1) Status update meeting

  • Remove if possible, this is the easiest type of meeting to remove and save time on
  • Could an email or slack message replace this?
  • A few questions answered, can those happen by email or slack?

2) Problem-solving, strategy, brainstorming, planning, other

  • Is there a decision hidden here?
  • Keep it scoped
  • Limit attendees
  • Work to make everyone a participant, not an observer

3) One on ones

  • Keep them sacred

4) Daily standups

  • Good chance to get a team all together
  • Keep it quick and simple, more tips here

Decision meetings

If we know a decision needs to be made, the best way to enable our team is to be as clear as possible. Ideally, nobody gets surprised walking into a decision meeting, all the relevant information was shared beforehand, space was created to decide without a meeting, and everyone walks out with clarity.

These are a few questions you can ask before a decision-making meeting.

What is the decision?

  • Can it wait for a meeting?
  • Can it be decided without a meeting?
  • Is the decision clear and unambiguous? (e.g. yes/no)

Who are the deciders?

  • Can block execution
  • Ideally 1 person

Who are the reviewers?

  • Can not block execution
  • Have valuable input

What is the agenda?

  • No agenda, no meeting
  • Needs a decision and decider
  • Includes links to materials
  • Has a way to comments ahead of time

Sample agenda

Agendas do not need to be complicated to get the job done. This is a sample that gives an attendee enough information to prepare, ask questions before the meeting, and the decider an opportunity to decide without a meeting.

Subject: Database upgrade agenda

Hey everyone,

We need to decide if we are going to go ahead with a database upgrade, this is the agenda for our meeting Thursday at 2pm:
- Explored alternatives - Steve (doc link, 10 min)
- Proposed upgrade plan - Eduard (doc link, 15 min)

Decision: approval to start plan (decider: Dinesh)
Reviewers: Ade (Eng), Juliana (Ops), Vivek (Security)

Links attached, please take a look before the meeting and see
you Thursday!

When will it happen?

  • Shorter is better. avoid 30/60 minute back to back meetings if 20/50 could work also
  • Consider maker vs manager time, especially if you invite engineers
  • Try to ‘defrag’ meeting schedules if possible (I am currently using clockwise to defrag my calendar)
  • Avoid last-minute invites and give time to prepare

During the meeting

  • Stick to the agenda
  • Take notes (list attendees, capture action items and decisions, don’t transcribe)

After the meeting

  • Confirm and circulate action items
  • Make the notes available
  • Get feedback on the meeting!

If you look at a decision meeting and it is not clear how or what decision could be taken without the meeting, you can probably ask one of these questions to get insight.