Efficient Meetings

Meetings are a subject that is near and dear to my heart. I spent a little less than six years in the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment. During my time there, we had a lot of meetings. Army process really focuses on the After Action Review (AAR), performance counseling, and the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP). The thing is, even with all of the meetings that were generated around this, they never felt burdensome, overwhelming, or superfluous. As I rose through the ranks, becoming a leader myself, I realized that I had picked up a lot of the techniques required to keep meetings efficient, informative, and enjoyable.

These qualities certainly would be out of place describing the typical meeting I’ve been involved in as a professional software engineer. I think that the difference in cultural lineage is really pronounced here, and I hope that I can provide some tips to bring down the pain out there in my industry.

As a bit of a disclaimer, the well-read visitor may be rolling their eyes, assuming I’ll just be beating the dead horse flesh wardrum of ‘NO MORE PROCESS’, but you might find some fresh ideas here.

Designate a Meeting Owner

This rule supersedes all others. Whenever you are having a meeting, delegate someone as the ‘owner’ of the meeting. This person will be responsible for enforcing the other rules below, as well as more generally making sure that things stay on target and moving forward. This role doesn’t need to be the person with the most interest in the meeting, or the most senior person - it can be anyone really.

Designate a Secretary

This role takes notes about meeting events. Specifically, make a note of topics covered, decisions made, and action items. Once the meeting has finished, the secretary should do a speedy recap of the topics and action items, ensuring participants know what they are now on the hook for.

Have a Clear Purpose and Subject

If you’re having a meeting, there’s a purpose behind it. If not, then don’t have the meeting, you’re just wasting time. Ideally, this purpose should have a quantifiable goal or product - i.e., determine minimum viable product requirements, assign work, get a progress update, etc.

Only Involve Relevant Parties

If you’re meeting to ferret out some ideas about what’s causing increased latency in your backend, there’s no need to have your art team, your design team, or your frontend team present. If some of the artifacts generated at the meeting concern these other teams, meet with them separately. If you start dragging in irrelevant parties, they are going to get bored and more importantly, lose faith in your new ‘Let’s Do Meetings Right’ initiative.

Stay On Task At All Costs

The formal, attendance required meeting is not the place to make jokes, discuss the new season of Arrested Development, or critique process. The meeting owner should feel completely free to enforce this, and participants should understand that it’s not personal if they get asked to hold their tangent until after the meeting. In practice, once you have to call people out on this the first couple of times, it won’t happen again.

Clearly Denote the Start and End

Often times, prior to a meeting start, people will mill around, making small talk, coffee, etc. When the time for the meeting starts, the meeting owner should grab everyone’s attention, let them know that the things are started, and cover the agenda.

Conversely, rather than letting the end of the meeting occur as a strange fizzling feeling, announce that all topics have been covered and have the secretary read back the items mentioned above.

With this simple commitment to be explicit about the start and the end, you can cut down on the amount of time your participants waste.

Start On Time. NO EXCUSES

This one is easy, but also often broken. If a meeting is scheduled for 2 pm, then at 1:59, everyone should be there, ready to start. Anyone that can’t make the start time should notify the meeting owner beforehand, possibly triggering a reschedule if their attendance is crucial.

Prepare Before, Not During

If you are attending a meeting where you will be expected to discuss a topic, or present some information to the group, come to the meeting already prepared and researched. It makes no sense to lose time hitting google, trying to remember something, or saying, “I don’t know”. Make sure you come ready to address the questions and concerns of others, with any relevant documents at hand.

The Distilled List of Power!

Behold, all you need to transform your meetings into a streamlined powerhouse of knowledge synthesis!

  • Designate a Meeting Owner
  • Designate a Secretary
  • Have a Clear Purpose and Subject
  • Only Involved Relevant Parties
  • Stay On Task At All Costs
  • Clearly Denote the Start and End
  • Start On Time
  • Prepare Before, Not During

Note that these rules are not only intended for the grand quarterly all hands, but also for stand-ups, design meetings, engineering pow-wows - any event that has required attendance and more than three participants.

If this seems like it might feel a little alien to your culture, that may be a good thing. Put the system in place and your employees will be thankful for the minimized time investment and maximized output you’ll gain. The meeting should be sacred and inviolable!

Until next time.