This article was first written by Kerstin Gronauer and myself, Timothée Bourguignon, in April 2020 and published in the german magazine JavaAktuell.
"Meetings are toxic" wrote David Heinemeier Hanson (DHH) and Jason Fried in their book Rework. Ten years later, we are barely further. Do you recognize the following? Too many participants, too long, not focused, no plan, consensus culture, or results. In the end, only the feeling of wasted time lingers. But those damn meetings still manage to survive. When we managed to kill one-off, two new ones pop-up, like a modern hydra.
But wait a minute! Meetings are fantastic. You are not alone. No one can be held responsible for wrong decisions. Meetings stack up wonderfully like a modern Tetris in Outlook, and days go by in a heartbeat. How wonderful! Sarcasm aside: Meetings are a necessary plague. From an information management standpoint, we cannot remove them entirely. Thus we have to transform them and make them as efficient and effective as possible. Sharing meeting best practices is the purpose of this article.
Synchronicity vs. Asynchronicity
Synchronicity and asynchronicity both have pros and contras.
Working synchronously on topics is essential and valuable when collaboration & mutual inspiration is required. On the other hand, when introspection, creativity, reflection, focus, etc., are needed, synchronicity can be counterproductive.
Sharing information can be done very effectively in an asynchronous manner. It allows each participant to digest the content at their rhythm. But as soon as decision-making is required, async tends to become harder.
Your first job as the inviting party is to reduce the number of meetings. Use the right balance of synchronicity & asynchronicity to foster focus work. And with that, promote effective sharing, constructive participation, and fast decision making.
Short meetings, the key to success
How long should a meeting be? Do we need a lot of time? According to Parkinson's Law, discussions tend to inflate to fill the available timeframe. Is there a rule of thumb?
On the other hand, scarcity creates focus. If you stick to the best practices outlined here, meetings of less than 30 minutes will usually be sufficient.
Allow time for breaks and "meta" work
Let's take a look at Bob's calendar:
- He runs a software architecture review meeting from 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., which usually ends on time. After that, he usually writes a protocol, sends it by email, and sets the next appointment if needed.
- At 9:00 a.m., the status meeting starts with all team leads in the neighboring room. He seldom manages all of his to-dos before that meeting starts, and he never has time to grab a coffee.
- Bob leaves the status meeting room shortly before 10:00 a.m. and runs into a different building where his team works and takes part in the Daily Scrum, and so it continues.
- In the evening, when the meeting-marathon is finally, he comes up to writing protocol(s) and following up; if he still remembers the details.
Time for travel, preparation, follow-up, tidying up, getting a drink, fresh air, snacks, etc., must be considered. All these little activities around a meeting contribute to the success of an appointment. That is why we encourage you to follow the "22-minute meeting" format described by Nicole Steinbock and schedule less-than-rounded timeboxes: 11, 22, or 44 minutes instead of 15, 30, and 60 minutes.
Note: We didn't stop having limited attention spans and biological needs when we started working with video conferences from our bedrooms. So this applies to distributed work as well.
Note: Did you know that you can set the default length of meetings in Outlook and GoogleCalendar to be something other than 30 minutes? Don't let the tool fool you into playing Tetris ;)
Prepare your meetings. The organizer, the moderator, and the participants all have a role to play. And not unlike an excellent costumed party, you can seldom wing it.
As the organizer, send an agenda before the meeting. Give your colleagues time to prepare. A heavy meeting might require up to a week of preparation. I would frown upon agendas provided less than 24h before the meeting. By that time, I might have canceled my participation in the meeting already.
In the agenda, make sure you mention the goals of the meeting, the required preparation, and the expected output.
Mention participants by name in the invitation
When we call for a meeting, we "invite" people, which means they are free to refuse. Quite often, we say "yes" to meetings by default. That's pure peer pressure. But why should we attend? Because we fear missing out on something? We encourage you to enrich your invitations with "why" every participant should come.
Here is an example:
"Maria, your Git skills are particularly important for this appointment. Together With Bob's experience of our server landscape, we should quickly find a few solutions for our current CI/CD performance problems."
Maria and Bob now know precisely why their participation is essential. Maria now knows that she is there to wear her former-Git-expert-hat and not for her current role as a project lead.
Here's a bonus point. When preparing this meeting, I added Mark to the list. But I could not formulate a practical reason for his participation. I wanted to invite him for political reasons, but he would not contribute anything to the solution.
If you follow these first steps, your appointments should already feel significantly better. They will be short, prepared, with the right persons. So nothing can go wrong, right?
The implementation itself can still go awry. That is what we are going to focus on next.
Moderator warm-up, the early bird catches the worm
For the moderator, the meeting starts long before the first participant enters the room. The moderator has to show up early enough to have resolved potential problems by the start of the appointment. What can go wrong? Fresh air in the room would be good. They are missing a suitable adapter for the projector. Flipchart or post-its are missing. The whiteboard is closer to an homage to former meetings than it is to a blank slate. The dry-erase pens don't work anymore. There are not enough chairs. Or in our dematerialized world: access rights are not set. Preparing breakout rooms takes time. Locking the moderation zones on the virtual boards is tricky, etc.
The moderator has to imagine the appointment, think about using the room, and prepare accordingly. The moderator not only provides the framework but also gives energy to the room. When the moderator exudes energy, is having fun, and is comfortable, this influences the participants. When in-person, we always put music in the room to relax before the start.
Land in sight
The agenda must be visible to everyone in the room. The moderator must be able to refer to it at any time. If the discussion goes astray, it is easy to refer to the agenda and ask the participants.
Here is an example:
** The clock beeps ** "We had planned 10 minutes for this point, and the timebox has expired. We can have another 5 or 10 minutes donate, but then ** reference to the following items on the agenda ** we are unlikely to be able to cover these points today. Do you want to try to conclude in 2 minutes? Focus on this discussion? Or park this topic and continue with the agenda?"
File and forget
In his book "Getting Things Done," David Allen recommends writing down all we cannot do immediately. This "file and forget" reduces our "cognitive load," it helps our brain to "let go." So help your participants with a visible parking lot. Collect ideas that are not directly related to the current discussion but should not be forgotten and move on.
Oh, look at that, our participants are here now!
"Let's get started!" - German punctuality
It is precisely 9:00 a.m. We can start. Oh, right. There is the elephant in the room. Or more rightly so: the elephant is missing. What happens when essential participants are missing? Yes, it can still occur that participants are late or do not come at all. Due to the many changes that we have already discussed, this is a risk. But if you followed our guidance, it should already be drastically reduced:
- Because of the 22-minute meeting culture, your colleagues have no reason for showing late. They also know that 5 minutes make up 22% of the total meeting time, that's a LOT, and thus they should not miss it.
- Because you invited your colleagues personally, they know how vital their participation is.
- Because you sent the agenda and the preparatory steps in advance, your colleagues are already prepared and well aware that this meeting is coming.
- If you've played that game a couple of times already, your co-workers will know that your meetings run smoothly and start on time! Praise the participants for their timely arrival. Then start on time. What if an important person is not there after all? Then start anyway in time and ask the group if they think you have the quorum to continue. It is then not your decision as to the moderator, but that of the participants.
Where do we want to go?
It is precisely 9:00 a.m. Everyone is there. Let's start! First, remind everyone of the purpose of the said meeting even if you have described the agenda in detail in the invitation. Make sure the agenda is visible to all participants. Take 30 seconds to check if you all have the same understanding. If you spot a discrepancy, you have to react, clarify and maybe even postpone the meeting.
Then clarify the priorities in the following order.
- Important and urgent issues
- Urgent and less important issues
- Important and non-urgent issues
And hopefully, the issues that are neither important nor urgent were erased from your agenda long ago, right?
Finally, take a look at the quorum and the preparedness. If some essential persons are missing, or if the participants didn't do their homework. It is often better to reschedule than try to wing it.
The moderator: Thomson and Thomson and Thomson
It is precisely 9:02. Everyone is there. We know why we are here. Let us start! Or maybe not. Three roles need to be clear before we start: moderator, timekeeper, and note-taker.
In most meetings, the same person will perform those three roles. Splitting the roles can be entirely unnecessary for shorter meetings with few participants. But for larger, more difficult meetings that require more moderation, it can be helpful to have a separate person for timekeeping and note-taking. One can even have multiple moderators. The agenda should already define timeboxes that the timekeeper can refer to.
Then your role as a timekeeper (or moderator) is to ask the group what to do. We recommend using a clock that is visible to all participants and has an alarm function. The alarm function helps Interrupting discussions: when it's time, the clock will ring, even if Arthur is holding one of his legendary monologues.
How you record the protocol is usually of secondary importance. Just help the participants concentrate on the meeting itself. Aim at making the minutes visible to everyone during the appointment, for instance, by sharing your screen. In a physical space, try to make it so that you can simply take pictures in the end to have your notes. Use post-its to better change the organization of your ideas and being able to "rewrite" parts. With a bit of practice, this can foster participation and cooperation among all the participants.
It is precisely 9:03. Everyone is there. We know why we are here. We understand who moderates and who protocols. Let's start! Briefly recall your basic meeting rules. In the mid-term, your colleagues will know all of these rules, and this will go fast. Again, make those rules visible in the room.
Examples of meeting agreements:
- No laptops
- no cell phones
- respectful interaction together
- A standard (hand) signal to signify that we are drifting, speaking tokens, etc.
Attention, these rules have to be created once with the group and be understandable for everyone.
A sequence example:
"Hey colleagues, so that we can get through as quickly as planned, I'd kindly remind you of our rules ** point to the flipchart hung up for everyone to see **. Please keep your cell phones in your pocket. If you have to take a call, answer a text, or email, please go outside. That way, everyone knows that you are not available at the moment. Please close your laptops. As just agreed, Leo will write down the notes for us. Thanks again, Leo. As always, please treat each other with respect. Last but not least, do you remember our are-we-drifting hand signal ** make a hand signal **? It helps us recognize when the discussion is perhaps no longer effective for you."
Fred, let the others talk!
It is precisely 9:04 a.m. Everyone is there. We know why we are here. We understand who moderates and who protocols. We have insisted on our basic rules back in memory. Let's start!
In some groups, it is sometimes helpful to introduce a speaker token to avoid interrupting each other and not hearing themselves out. The moderator can also use the token to include everyone in the room in the discussion. You can use anything as a token. But maybe not a heavy item like Chet Rong from "The Rong Way to do Agile" (8) recommends it!
It is precisely 9:05. Everyone is there. We know why we are here. We understand who moderates and who protocols. We have insisted on our basic rules Called to memory. We have defined a speaker token. We can start!
For meetings longer than the 22 minutes one, we'd recommend doing a "Check-In" (after the McCarthy Core protocols) and briefly reflect on our feelings. We simply go around the room and express our state of mind using the words "MAD, SAD, GLAD, and AFRAID."
For example, if Ida says at the beginning that she is "afraid about the Project-Phoenix topic because it has a potentially massive impact on her team," everyone knows that she might react more emotionally than usual when defending her team.
Now the appointment can finally really start. It can sound a lot, but with a bit of repetition, those exercises will last only a couple of minutes. The meeting agreements will be visible and no longer require a lengthy introduction. The recorder and timekeeper will volunteer in a heartbeat. The agenda will be clear. So 2 minutes after the start, you will be already deep into the subject matter.
What happens during the meeting -from the moderator's perspective- would merit its article. If nothing else, as a moderator, pay attention to speaking time. You are the voice of the oppressed. Make sure they have a chance to be heard. And don't mistake this with making them talk.
The only thing missing now is the conclusion of the appointment.
Time to say goodbye
The conclusion itself may take time, depending on how well the appointment went. 5 to 10 minutes is not uncommon. Above all, it must be clear what the next steps are. As moderators, we recommend: reformulating! If you are unsure whether something was understood correctly, simply reformulate it incorrectly and see how the participants react.
Don't exit the meeting with a clear mandate for someone to do something.
As often as possible, gather feedback. Whether you use the "Return On Time Invested" (ROTI) format ("How good was that Time invested in the appointment?"), "Amazon Review Stars," "Fist-of-five," or simple catchphrases... the organizer needs to know what went well and what went bad on today's meeting.
And finally, don't leave the room without taking pictures of what you created together. If necessary, install a scanning app on your smartphone. These apps can also edit images and use them straight away. Generate PDFs. And send the whole thing.
Our meeting culture is generally insanely bad. With our tips, you will be able to straighten it again. Practice and experiment with all of these best practices and generate your own. Learn these rules to better break them in the future. Have fun with it!