Notes from Back to Work #115

I’m the weird kind of nerd who listens to podcasts on Saturday nights and tonight I was catching up on some episodes of Back to Work. Episode 115 was about meetings and I figured I’d jot some notes down. I’m glad I did, it was a good show. All insight goes to Merlin and Dan, I just took the notes so I’d remember it.

The show stems from a talk Merlin Mann did at Twitter in September of 2010. If you haven’t seen it before it’s well worth the time to sit down and watch it.

Merlin started the episode by recommending Paul Graham’s Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. It’s a great read from a few years ago and helps construct the question, what’s the default time chunk you think in? Do you build your day around half-day chunks or is your calendar full of 30 minute interruptions? This is part of why middle of the morning meetings feel like death. If you schedule something at 10am or 10:30am you’ve suddenly disrupted everyone’s flow for the first half of the day.

Before diving in to the meeting specifics Merlin also riffed on leadership and credibility. As he put it, credibility is when you say something and you do it. Over and over again. There’s a big difference between management and leadership. Leadership is when you do stuff so well that people trust your judgement and respect the positions you take.

We have to take meetings more seriously, Merlin argues, because too many of them currently feel unproductive and selfish. Meetings are where we aren’t doing our primary work. That’s workable but it requires a meeting to be well-run and to make progress. As Merlin said later on in the episode, meetings are when the right people are in a room to talk about the right problem in order to figure what they have to do to get back to work.

As with many things, no one thinks their own meetings suck. It’s only until you ask around that you find out your meetings are actually the ones everyone dreads. It’s so rare that any of us have the humility to admit that our meetings are the ones which suck.

Part of the underlying problem with meetings is that we tend to seek out only the problems we understand. The other problems we assume belong to someone else. Since meetings are a complex beast involving company culture, people’s schedules, and more they are complex problems to solve. There’s no silver bullet to things but there is a buffet of ideas to pick from.

The main goal with improving meetings is finding what works for your company and its culture. The only way to know what works is to ask around. Have you ever asked someone on your team how the meetings are going? Why not?!

Great meeting managers find a way to be leaders and decision-makers, they’re not just bean counters getting people in a room together so that they can pawn off any tough decision on the group’s vote. The powerful person in a company is not the one who says “no” but the one who is allowed to say “yes.”

The buffet of ideas that Merlin introduced was tenfold. The purely ideal meeting:

  1. Has a purpose
  2. Has an agenda
  3. Defines a grazing policy
  4. Sets hard edges for time
  5. Schedules guests
  6. Designates a timekeeper
  7. Prevents ratholes
  8. Has a focus
  9. Creates follow-up
  10. Has consistency

Before any meeting starts you need to answer the question of, “How shall I prepare for that meeting?” for everyone on your team. That’s where the first 2 steps come in.

The purpose of a meeting sets the tone for what will be covered. One way to approach it is to come up with a topic sentence; this provides focus and helps center you. As the leader of a meeting the purpose is where you have the opportunity to show that you have thought this through.

An agenda gets in to the nitty gritty of the purpose. It’s a listing of what will be covered in order to get to the purpose or goal. Bonus points for assigning time estimates to each individual section.

The key aspect about both the purpose and agenda is that they have to be set ahead of time. If they aren’t in place and in the hands of those attending before the meeting starts then they serve no purpose. Without them you’re wasting the time and attention of others.

Dan asked Merlin why people are typically so resistant to these two, relatively simple, aspects of meetings. The blunt answer is that a lot of people don’t think they need to respect the time and attention of others. They really need to, though. No one is so busy that they can avoid posting these things ahead of time.

If you’re not good at illustrating the value of a meeting through it’s purpose and agenda then don’t be surprised when people sit there glass-eyed. The Ritz-Carlton apparently has an internal saying of, “We’re ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” It’s a shorthand for the fact that everyone deserves respect.

The grazing policy Merlin discussed is, essentially, setting a clear expectation as to what’s kosher to do during the meeting. Can you play on your phone? Have a laptop open? There’s no right or wrong answer to those, there just needs to be a clearly defined answer.

A productive meeting also sets hard edges for time. In some companies it’s tough to be in control of when your meeting starts; people may come late, have prior meetings that run over, etc. What you can control at a minimum, though, is ending your meeting on time. By doing that you can let people get back to their day and have a clear understanding of when they’ll be done.

The scheduling guests bit was an interesting idea, I thought. The gist is that in a lot of meetings there are long stretches of time when no more than a handful of people need to be there. Scheduling guests allows you to ensure that you bring people in for just the amount of time they need to be there. It also generates a certain propulsive nature to your meeting. Things move forward as each new guest comes in.

The idea of a designated timekeeper isn’t surprising. Basically set someone who is not the leader of the meeting to take notes and keep time. This lets the leader focus on the content.

An effective meeting prevents ratholes. Intense implementation arguments go offline and outside of the entire group. Hash it out without involving everyone.

Merlin used the term “parking lot” to describe where good ideas that don’t meet the meeting’s focus go. In a lot of companies these good ideas are just looking for someone to own them and make happen. But if they’re outside the scope of the current meeting they should be brought up at another time.

Every meeting should create follow-up. Task lists and actions are what ensure the meeting is actually getting things done. They’re also a huge credibility builder as you keep things moving forward. Before ending a meeting Merlin’s tip was to wind it down by saying, “Let’s wrap up, here’s what I’ve got for…” Then, before everyone leaves the room email the task list your note and timekeeper has compiled to everyone. Finally, start the next meeting with those follow up items. What got done? What didn’t get done? If you have an action that’s coming up at every meeting then you have a problem.

Finally, a meeting should have consistency. It’s not about making all 9 of those things above happen, it’s just about being consistent with them.

The four things Merlin suggested trying at your company are: setting an agenda, defining hard edges, setting a grazing policy, and making sure you hit the follow-up.


Daniel says:

Nice… thanks for taking notes.

Comments closed