I bag on meetings.
I bag on meetings because like any nerd I expect the universe to be efficient and orderly and there is no more vile a violation of this sense of orderliness than a room full of people randomly bumping into shit and calling it a meeting.
There are solid meetings out there. There are meetings that build a sense of structure, move forward for the entire hour, and finish with a sense of accomplishment. The question is: how do we make sure every meeting is like this? Let’s start by understanding why meetings showed up in the first place.
You’re sitting in your office eating a sour apple salt water taffy and you’re fully in the Zone. It’s great, forgetting there are other humans on the planet Earth; it’s blissfully productive until Richard walks in the room and Richard Wants To Talk.
“Stan is one day away from totally screwing our performance…”
Maybe if I ignore him, he’ll go away.
“No one is code reviewing his stuff…”
Maybe if I offer him a sour apple salt water taffy he’ll go away.
“And he just checked into your component.”
“He what the fuck what? STAN!”
Now, an important transition is occurring as you and Richard are running down the hallway to grab Stan. When Richard was rambling in your office, the two of you were talking, and talking is a conversation. Anything goes when it comes to a conversation. It’s a simple negotiation: make a point, get a response, retort, retort back. A conversation is verbal ping pong: there are many different styles, but for two players, you bat the little white verbal ball back and forth until someone wins.
When you and Richard walk into Stan’s office, the conversation has now become a meeting, and the core difference between a conversation and a meeting is that it needs rules so people know when to talk.
Alignment versus Creative
As I’ve mentioned before, there are two useful types of meetings: alignment and creation. Briefly, alignment meetings are tactical communication exchanges that rarely dive into the strategic. These are fine meetings that have a weekly cadence, and while there are lots of ways to screw up these meetings, their tactical repetition often keeps them on the rails.
Creation meetings — diving into solving a hard problem — involve, well, more creativity. Each hard problem requires a unique solution, and finding that solution is where creation meetings can go bad.
I’ve documented many of the rules for meetings in other articles. In this piece, I want to talk about some of the obvious and non-obvious rules around meetings.
A meeting has two critical components: an agenda and a referee. Let’s start with the obvious — the agenda. The agenda answers the question everyone is wondering as they sit down: how do I get out of this meeting so I can actually work?
Different referees have different agenda moves varying from sending it out in email before the meeting to writing it down on the whiteboard at the beginning of the meeting. Whatever the move, the agenda exists in everyone’s head – everyone can answer the question, “What do we need to do get the hell out of here?”
The other component is the referee. I originally thought the owner was the critical component, and while an absent owner is certainly a meeting red flag, the lack of a referee is a guaranteed disaster.
All active participants in a meeting can instinctively sense progress, and when progress isn’t being made, they get cranky and start looking for the exit. A referee’s job is to shape the meeting to meet the requirements of the agenda and the expectations of the participants. Style and execution vary wildly from referee to referee, but the defining characteristic is the perceptions of the meeting participants. A good referee is not only making sure the majority of the attendees believe progress is being made, they are aware of who does not believe that progress is being made at any given moment. And they’re looking for one thing…
If they’re doing anything except listening, they aren’t listening. There are lots of exits from a meeting that look nothing like a door. Every single moment of a meeting is not going to be interesting to you. When Stan and Richard dive deep on that one piece of code you care nothing about, you mentally wander. You reach into your back pocket, pull out your iPhone, check your mail, and you think, “Let ‘em wander… they’ll be back to the interesting shortly.” Two screw-ups here:
- You’re the referee and you’re checked out. You’re the guy running down the hallway to figure out whether Stan is going wreck your weekend with crap code. You’re the referee because you have the incentive to drive this meeting to some reasonable conclusion and… you’re checking your mail.
- You aren’t listening. This is what you’re hearing “Blah blah blah Jira blah blah scales linearly blah blah”. Thing is, there might be value in the blahs, but you will never know because you’re checking your mail rather than understanding where this meeting is headed. Worse, when the meeting goes off the rails due to your lack of attention, you have less of a chance of bringing it back because… you were mentally elsewhere.
The rule is for everyone in the room: if their attention is elsewhere, they aren’t listening. Frank, the guy who plays Plants vs. Zombies during staff and swears he’s listening? He’s not. He’s getting 50% of what’s being said, and worse, he’s giving everyone else in the room permission to slack.
However, the problem here isn’t with Frank, it’s the referee. Frank is not sensing progress, so Frank has left. The referee has forgotten…
If steam isn’t coming from their ears, they might stop listening. It is the responsibility of the referee to constantly be visually surfing the room to determine who is and isn’t engaged. This is hard.
Referee. Solid agenda. Seven people. At any given point in the meeting, three of these people are verbally sparring about the topic. In addition to making sure the three active participants don’t kill each other, the referee — in real time — needs to figure out whether the other four are mentally present, and, if not, what to do about it. This is really hard.
This is really hard because refereeing these meetings is incredibly situational. You’ve got seven people, each with their own personalities and agendas. You’ve got whatever mood they happen to be in at that precise moment. And you’ve got whatever topic merits this meeting in the first place. Given all of these fuzzy variables, what possible relevant advice can I give you to keep everyone engaged? Here are a few small tips:
- Pull them back. If they don’t look engaged, steer the conversation toward them and ask them a question relevant to the current state of the topic: “Stan, no code reviews? Really?”
- Reset the meeting with silence. If several folks have checked out, one of my favorite moves is referee silence. When all eyes are on you, count backwards from 10 and watch what happens — Frank is going to look up from Plants vs. Zombies and wonder, “Why’s it so quiet? What’d I miss?”
- Change the scenery. Are you sitting down? Ok, stand up. Have you been writing stuff on the whiteboard? No? Try it. Small tweaks to the scenery might change nothing or they might give someone a nudge out of their mental haze.
A meeting’s progress is measured by the flow, and the referee’s job is keep it moving along at a good clip, which is why the referee sometimes needs to…
Own it. There is a variety of meeting denizens you’re going to encounter as both a referee and a meeting participant. The one I want to talk about is the person who believes it is their moral imperative to contribute to the meeting simply because they were invited. Yes, talking is a sign of active engagement. Yes, you never know what random verbal curveball is going to magically improve a meeting. Yes, this person always talks… every meeting… like forever.
There is a point where the referee becomes the dictator and owns the meeting. They own it. They actively demonstrate control of the meeting, and when you’re the person who gets owned, it stings a bit, but this meeting is not about you. It’s about each and every person sitting in the room wanting to get out of this meeting where real work is done.
For the referee, the decision to step in and shut someone down during a meeting isn’t one taken lightly. A good referee knows that abuse of the dictator role eventually results in everyone shutting down, which is just as inefficient as that one person who never shuts up. Summoning the dictator effort is a last ditch effort geared at fixing the problem right now, but doing it in such a way that the problem doesn’t show up again. It’s a gut referee call that you’re going to screw up before you perfect, but an important and immeasurable part of running a good meeting involves…
Improvisation. The solution to whatever the hard problem might be is going to show up in one of two ways: random brilliance or grindingly hard work. The path to either involves a competent referee doing everything I describe above while also knowing when to ignore it.
A good referee knows:
- The meeting is nowhere near the stated agenda, but everyone in the room is showing all the non-verbal signs of progress, so screw it, let’s see where it goes.
- This person who appears to be rambling and wasting everyone’s time is onto something that might lead to random brilliance, so let them ramble.
- The glaring danger signs for a meeting that is doomed whether it’s a lack of preparation, the absence of a key player, or the fact the team is wound up about another issue entirely.
- The courage it takes to stop this meeting five minutes into the scheduled hour because there is no discernible way to make progress.
Meeting management, like people management, is often the art of managing a moment, which means that the only rule that applies is entirely dependent on the snowflake-like context of the moment.
A Culture of Meetings
Somewhere in the evolution of a growing company, meetings take over. At the time, it seems like a good idea because the product roadmap is all over the floor, key people are quitting, or there’s lots of yelling in the hallways. Whatever the disaster, a single well-led, efficient meeting with the right people provided a solution to a hard problem. Those who were watching noticed and thought, “Alright, we now have a new tool to solve problems — it’s called a meeting.”
With this fresh sense of validation, meetings spring up all over the place. They become the fashionable solution to problem solving — to making progress. More folks are invited to these affairs because everyone believes that if you’re invited to a meeting, you are somehow more professionally relevant. People start becoming scarce around the building, checking someone’s free/busy schedule becomes part of the culture, and suddenly we’re worrying more about the care and feeding of meetings than getting shit done.
Meetings must exist, but meetings cannot be seen as the only solution for making progress. If you must meet, start the meeting by remembering the definition of a successful meeting is that when the meeting is done, it need never occur again.