Friday, December 13, 2013

Effective meetings begin with a focus on purpose

I'm all for eliminating meetings... but focusing overmuch on eliminating meetings is just as harmful as the mindless meeting culture. Meetings have their uses. I contend that if we focus on having purposeful, effective meetings, the number and frequency of meetings will automatically be reduced.
There are really only three kinds of meetings, because there are only three reasons to have a meeting:
  • Conveying information
  • Making decisions
  • Solving problems through collaboration
If you're clear on what the purpose of your meeting is, and there isn't a better way to accomplish that goal, then have that meeting. The very exercise will result in fewer, better meetings.

Meetings that convey information

Status meetings are by far the most common meeting in this class. Stop that. The only useful status meeting is a Standup, and then only if it's run properly. The vast majority of status is much more effectively communicated through text or images that can be explored and referenced at people's own pace. Status meetings typically occur when people are bad at contributing to a status document or database of some kind—but using a meeting for accountability is harmful in the extreme. There are other management tools available to hold people accountable for communicating status.
Announcements are valid things to hold meetings for, but only if it's important that the vast majority of affected parties receive the information at the same time, or if a Q&A session will be profitable. For example, announcing particularly good or bad news is probably best done in a meeting. However, announcement meetings are way over-used. Everyone thinks their announcement is important, but most of them aren't that big a deal: send an email instead.
Ramp-ups are essentially unstructured classes that are designed to quickly familiarize a small group of people with deep or complex information. Most such meetings are best turned into either training or quality documentation, because these are much more repeatable. However, there are cases where new people need to be quickly brought up to speed on a problem or requirement, and a ramp-up meeting can be appropriate. Good ramp-up meetings are focused and generally precede some kind of problem-solving work.
Note the absence of meetings to "discuss" anything. Discussion meetings are absolutely pointless and should be terminated with prejudice.

Meetings to make decisions

Effective decision-making meetings should exclude explanation of the problems at play. Documenting the problem space and possible solutions should occur before the meeting, with sufficient time for attendees to review before the meeting begins. If the decision is urgent, allow a few minutes at the start of the meeting for people to read the documents.  If you're explaining the problem in a decision-making meeting, you have failed.
The meeting should be very narrowly focused. Give attendees as much information as possible beforehand, and be clear about what decision needs to be reached at the meeting's end. If you leave the meeting without a decision made, it usually means there was insufficient preparation on the host's part.

Meetings to solve problems through collaboration

Sometimes it can be very useful to sit in a room (real or virtual) with a bunch of invested people and work through a problem. This is, in my opinion, the best sort of meeting. These work best if the problem is well-defined ahead of time, and if the meeting is kept relatively informal but on-task. Leading a collaboration meeting means being willing to kill "rat holes" (unproductive digressions), table—and note for later—interesting discussions that are off-task, and generally herd cats. 
However, far too many of this type of meeting get called. Collaboration meetings should only occur when the real-time interactionamong the entire group has significant merit. Many collaboration meetings are better done through exchanging messages, use of revision systems, or judicious parcelling of work. 


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