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Rules to Better Meetings - 10 Rules

Office meetings are often ineffective, because:

❌ People are not prepared
❌ There is a lot of discussion but no resulting "action items"
❌ Rat holes - Time is wasted digressing to unrelated topics
❌ People forget the meeting is on and do not attend
❌ People turn up late with no notice
❌ Meetings go well overtime

If you have a 1-hour meeting with 5 people in attendance, you're not just wasting 1 hour if it's not productive, your wasting 5 man hours. One hour for each attendee. That's a lot of man hours!

With this in mind, here are some rules on how to facilitate a great meeting and how to make sure they are productive and achieve an outcome.

  1. Do you make sure the meeting needs to exist?

    Meetings are awesome to brainstorm ideas and get in-sync. For some topics they are way more effective than typing on a group chat. There are a few benefits that meetings have, which make them useful to have (for the appropriate topics/reasons)

    1. In the simplest and most basic way, a meeting defines the team, the group, or the unit. Those present belong to it; those absent do not
    2. A meeting is the place where the group revises, updates, and adds to what it knows as a group
    3. A meeting helps every individual understand both the collective aim of the group and the way in which their own work and everyone else’s work, can contribute to the group’s success
    4. If a back and forth is likely for the topics on the agenda, a meeting may be the best way to let everyone have their say, so the group can align on a shared commitment to a course of action

    However, a meeting is an expensive thing, as the operational cost of a 1 hour meeting with 5 attendees is not 1 hour. It is at least 5 hours, plus the time it takes everyone to get back into the zone after the interruption to their usual workflow.

    Therefore, only schedule a meeting if the purpose couldn’t have instead been achieved via an email or a group chat (e.g. Teams).

    meeting could be email

  2. Bloating a meeting with unnecessary numbers is the #1 way that a meeting can be doomed... before it starts. Any meeting with more than 10 people is destined to have people attend but who do not participate or contribute. Aim to keep it to 6 or fewer.

    A few ways to do this are to:

    1. Analyse the agenda to see whether everyone has to be present for every item (it may be possible to structure the agenda so that some people can leave at half time and others can arrive)
    2. Split it into two separate, smaller meetings rather than one big one
    3. Determine whether one or two groups can be asked to resolve some of the topics in advance, so that only one of them needs to attend with the resolutions

    lots of people meeting

  3. Meetings can be good for the few and unproductive for the many.

    A meeting can be useful if it meets these three criteria:

  4. Before - Do you share the agenda?

    Before a meeting, to give it the best chance of success, you should make sure you have done the following:

    • Create a meeting agenda prior to the meeting

    • Send an appointment to all meeting attendees to ensure the meeting appears on their calendar.
    • The meeting starts the minute the invite is sent, not when it physically starts.
      That means read the agenda and prepare. For example if feedback is needed on a large document, give people the link to the document + give advanced warning that their feedback on the document will be taken ahead of time.
    • Make sure all the presentation setup is working.
      E.g. At SSW, they have 'AV Setup meetings'.
    • For attendees, if you are going to be late, contact the organizer or the person in charge of the meeting to let them know that you are running late and what time you will be arriving.

    Figure: Good Example - Appointment template and for Scrum meetings

  5. Any good meeting has a clear goal, and an agenda that breaks that goal up into items that are “For information,” “For discussion,” or “For decision”.

    A few other ways to make the most of the attendees' time would be:

    • The early part of a meeting tends to be more lively and creative than the end of it, so if an item needs mental energy, bright ideas, and clear heads, put it high up on the list
    • Start with the low hanging fruit so you get some decisions made
    • Keep the important topics closer to the front, than the end
    • Some items unite the meeting while others divide the members. The leader may want to start with unity before entering into division, or they may prefer the other way around. The point is to be aware of the choice and to make it consciously. It is always a good idea to end the meeting on a unifying item
    • Don’t get side-tracked for too long by urgent, but not important, items. Keep non-important topics timeboxed
    • If your meeting is more than an hour or two, consider adding a break
    • To improve future meetings, at the end of the meeting, do a quick debrief (aka retro) to see how long the meeting took, if anything was covered that didn't need to be, etc.

    Tip: A meeting is better without going down rat holes... Start a meeting with “Who will be the scribe so we can take notes of side issues? Let’s aim to keen on track and avoid rat holes”

    Figure: Don't go down rat holes

  6. The aim of most meetings should be to come up with next steps. These should be shared with the intended recipient, as well as CCing all other attendees.

    It is a good idea to have a scribe who is drafting the action points during the meeting, so if it's not already clear who that is, say "Who will be the scribe?" at the beginning of any meeting.

    The leader should allow time after the meeting to check the action points before their next meeting.

    The scribe should also document the decision-making process by writing down each person's arguments. After everyone comments on the options, the notes can be reviewed as a group and often the best course of action is clear.

    Common action items include:

    • The outcomes from agenda points marked as “for decision”
    • Off topics that require more discussion by subsets of the meeting’s attendees – aka a “parking lot”
    • Ad hoc tasks that come up from brainstorming, usually sent as separate email tasks or created as PBIs in a backlog
    • A date scheduled for the next meeting (if needed)
  7. As businesses become larger and more complex, it's harder for the decision makers to keep up to date with every product change or be in every meeting. Responsibilities for decision making cannot be delegated but gathering the information to make an informed decision can.

    One common tactic is to have a delegate attend the meeting on their behalf and then loop them in at the end, bringing them up to date with an executive summary.

    Here are some tips to doing this effectively:

    1. Ensure the meeting has an agenda

      • it should list the delegate (who is receiving the information)
      • that the last 5mins of the meeting will be used to loop in someone else
    2. Take notes during the meeting
    3. Summarize the info/action items with the other people on the call
    4. Call up the person you want to loop in
    5. Loop them in (done by the delegate)

      • Lead with the main message and action items; for example, "We need to adjust X in product Y" or "We should look into using X on the next project"
      • Include a recommendation where possible
      • Group information around the most important themes
      • It's an executive summary - if you have to recite the meeting, then it isn't a summary. If everything is important, then nothing is important.
      • If the delegate says something incorrect the other attendees of the meeting have a chance to correct them

    With this strategy, the decision maker can get to the important points quickly. They can be told:

    • What's important
    • Why they should care
    • What action needs to be taken
    • What are the choices
    • What decisions have to be made and when
    • What is your position - don't leave out the recommendation

    They know that there is a lot more detail behind what appears to be a one-line summary. If they want more detail, they can drill down or ask for more information.

  8. Do you start and finish on time?

    Keeping to your meeting’s timebox shows that you respect your attendees, and allows for you and them to be efficient and able to plan their days effectively. One meeting going over by 30 minutes can have knock on effects for the rest of the day, and a culture of this will create that feeling of “meeting dread” that can be so common.

    Always start your meetings on time. Especially for meetings that are regular, as it will teach your attendees that they need to be there from the start, and they will not be waited for.

    You can (and should) still have a few minutes of informal conversation at the beginning and end of each meeting, but don’t let it get out of hand.

    meetings comic

  9. Make sure that you cover as much of the agenda as possible within the timebox, and keep other topics to a minimum.

    When you identify topics that do need to be hashed out, but are off topic and don’t need to be covered in this meeting, keep track of them in a “Parking Lot”.

    E.g. During the meeting you can call out “Off topic. I think that topic should be saved for the “Parking Lot”. Who is interested in joining that?”

    parking lot
    Figure: Video - See the Parking Lot in action:

  10. It can be difficult to get everybody into a meeting, especially these days when many meetings are online. It is important that time is not wasted in these situations, so it's good to be proactive and have a plan for when the decision maker is busy.

    Make it a ceremony

    You have already shared the agenda, so pick out the best item and ping the decision maker on teams before the meeting:

    "We're meeting in 30 minutes, I'm excited to be talking about xxx"

    Be persistent

    If the meeting should have started and the decision maker has not joined, then add them to the call, ping them again, or call them. If you don't get a response, tell them "I will call you towards the end of the meeting for a summary", as per Do you know how to loop someone in at the end of a meeting?

    Once you have done the above, you can start the meeting without the decision-maker. You may choose to start with the less important items in the agenda, or the ones that won't require a final decision ("For information" items) that can be easily summarised at the end of the meeting.

    teams request to join
    Figure: In Microsoft Teams, add someone to the call by Show Participants | Request to join

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