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Engineering Better Meetings

Meetings have a bad reputation in the corporate world.  Everyone seems to have war stories of boring, wasteful, time-sucking meetings.  In my own experience, I would estimate that about one in fifteen meetings that I attend is “effective” in my own definition.  Alas, for my junior colleagues just entering the workforce, it is entirely possible that they have never actually participated in a meeting that was executed well.

If you have never once attended a meeting that was effective and efficient, then you may have naturally developed a somewhat jaded view.  You don’t have a positive point of reference.  This is a shame, because meetings can be a useful tool, depending on how they are conducted.

Why Should Engineers Care About Meetings?

When I talk about “meetings” here, I am referring to the typical tactical stuff that normally involves technical people: product planning, technical discussions, design meetings, tactical planning, and so forth.

Adopting the general attitude that “meetings are bad” amounts to throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  Meetings can provide fertile ground for self-development, and can also bring fascinating insight into the way organizations work.

Imagine a senior engineer, call her Jackie, in a large company who dials in to an important meeting with several vice-presidents.  These VPs don’t know the engineer directly, but this particular engineer is fairly savvy with remote calls.  She notes who is speaking.  When giving a technical perspective, the engineer identifies herself by name, and addresses the speaker by name.  She sticks to fact-based statements, avoids superfluous commentary and negative tones, and attempts to translate from her technical knowledge to business terminology.  She doesn’t use the word “no,” but she will carefully qualify any “yes.”  She listens to what is said, and what is not said.

By the time the call is over, the VPs have heard Jackie’s name several times, and are hopefully impressed with her cool demeanor and rational approach.  By paying attention to her surroundings and doing some very modest self-promotion, Jackie has just developed some potential new contacts in her career, and possibly now has a better understanding of the positions and decision-making of the VPs in question.

This shows how meetings can actually be a useful networking tool within an organization.

What Makes Meetings Suck?

Having seen professional meeting facilitators in action, I can say with confidence that there is a huge difference between meetings that are professionally run, and those that are amateur night exercises.

My claim is that most meetings suck because we allow them to suck.  We simply don’t apply the diligence that we should.

What do I mean by meetings that suck?  You probably know them by their symptoms:

  • A meeting probably sucks if it has no defined purpose or structure.
  • A meeting probably sucks if no progress is made toward meeting goals.
  • A meeting probably sucks if nobody is prepared.
  • A meeting probably sucks if the right stakeholders are absent.
  • A meeting probably sucks if it starts late and ends late, goes far too long, or is too short to resolve anything.
  • A meeting probably sucks if it is on a call where you cannot determine who is speaking.
  • A meeting can suck if dominating personalities are involved, at the expense of everyone else.
  • …and there are probably many more symptoms.

Lest we imagine that technical meetings are somehow immune to these problems, I would point out the irony that technical meetings are sometimes the most likely to go completely off the rails and down a rabbit hole of over-analysis and solutioning.  Thus, I believe meeting effectiveness skills can be very beneficial to technical and non-technical audiences alike.

Meetings, Engineered

Meeting effectiveness is not rocket science or brain surgery!  That said, an effective meeting requires a bit of planning and the application of some skills.  As engineers, we have talents in both areas, so we should take to this like a duck to water.

Basic Meeting Effectiveness

The basic ground rules of effective meetings are already well-known.  Any Google search will reveal these things:

  • When in doubt about whether to have a direct conversation or a formal meeting, choose the direct conversation instead.
  • Start on time.
  • End on time.
  • Include a clear agenda every time you schedule a meeting.
  • Publish the mechanics of the meeting well enough in advance: date/time/time zone/dial-in information.
  • Take notes and socialize the notes afterwards.
  • Include follow-up from any previous related meetings.

Adhering to these rules alone can make a large improvement in any organization’s meeting practices.  We should practice these rules all the time.

But those are basic things.  Child’s play.  You didn’t come here for child’s play, did you?

Advanced Meeting Effectiveness

What is not so well-known are some of the advanced tools for achieving specific meeting outcomes.   These can be more challenging, and they require a corresponding amount of interpersonal skill on the part of the meeting planner.

  • Every discussion point that requires some outside work to be done (sometimes called an “action item”) must be assigned to a person in the meeting.  That person must accept the responsibility of working on that item, sort of like asking someone to call “911” in an emergency.
  • If prior preparation is needed (e.g. a software design is being reviewed, etc) tell your attendees that you expect this up front, and give ample preparation time before the meeting is to occur.  This is extremely important in an engineering context, particularly when you are responsible for checking the work!
  • Cancel the meeting if the attendees are not ready to discuss the topic.  Reschedule when the attendees have prepared, and firmly ask for commitment to this necessary preparation.
  • Decisions made by the group must be captured in the meeting notes.  A decision that is not written down is called “an assumption.”  Don’t let that happen.
  • Make sure the proper stakeholders are present.  If the decision makers are not present, the meeting may be a complete waste.  This is a common challenge in high level strategic meetings, and customer-facing sales meetings.
  • Name a moderator for the meeting.  This person’s role is to keep the meeting on pace with its schedule and agenda.
  • Name a recorder to take notes for the meeting.  This person’s role is to keep unbiased notes and socialize them, so others can focus on the problem.
  • Use the moderator to ensure that opinions are heard, and that strong personalities are kept in check as needed.  This is valuable for situations that have plenty of conflict.
  • Get participant feedback to evaluate and improve your own meeting practices.
  • If the purpose of the meeting is coercive, you may attempt to strategically plant the moderator and other roles in the meeting.  This can get political and thorny, so I recommend you get advice before attempting it.

Some of these rules might seem  fairly self-evident.  Some of them might require future blog posts to explain.  Either way, this should give you the impression that meetings can be used as a tool, a sales opportunity, or even a device used to sway group opinion.

Engineering Better Meetings

How can we change meeting habits in our organizations?  Let’s ponder a hypothetical scenario.

Imagine that someone sends you a two hour meeting invite without an agenda.  What happens?

  • You attend anyway.
  • It’s an unpleasant and wasteful experience.
  • You grumble about it under your breath.

We’ve all been there.  Why do we do this?  Because we are used to allowing it.

I propose that we lead by example.  I think we should inject our own diligence to making each and every meeting a bit better, a bit shorter, and a bit more focused.

It will not happen overnight, but eventually other teams in an organization will notice.

Let’s say that I receive the invitation to that two hour, sure-to-be-horrible meeting.  Rather than just accept it, I call up the organizer.  I say “Listen, Joe, it would really help us out if you could attach an agenda to that meeting.  I think it would keep everyone on track, and we might finish early.  If it would help, I could suggest a couple items for that agenda?….”

Joe will probably say “Yeah, that’s a good idea, I just didn’t have time.  I’d really like your help with it,” assuming he is not the defensive type.

Now we have an agenda.  That’s a big improvement already!

I might even volunteer to help moderate the meeting, if I think the topic is challenging enough or important enough.  Perhaps I could help improve the entire outcome.  I might help Joe out by reminding him when there are five minutes left in the meeting, so that he can wrap up the conversation.

Maybe I will go one step further and propose the basic effectiveness rules to my team like this:

  • We start by rating our own effectiveness and recording our total meeting times before introducing the meeting rules.
  • We continue to measure ourselves after we apply the rules.
  • We adjust some of the rules to suit our specific needs.
  • Through our measurements, we find that our meeting times dropped 20% and our effectiveness went way up.
  • Now we have quantifiable numbers to work with, and we can share those numbers with other teams, to promote better practices.

Think about it.  With enough of us doing this, I think we really can engineer better meetings!