I’ve seen a lot of meetings go sideways. And with the events of the past few years, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in remote work – and communication challenges for organizations that aren’t adapting to current circumstances.

Dear reader, I’d love to save you some trouble there.

What Do I Mean by “Feedback Loops”?

In software development, feedback loops are key. If we can iterate 10 times on something while our competitors are still getting their shoes on, chances are we’re going to come out ahead. This ability to adapt and respond to change is one of the driving forces at the heart of agile software development. Many loops exist all over our organizations, and the more we improve those loops, the more we improve our organization.

Meetings are A Crucial Form of Loops

They involve scheduling and logistical acrobatics, they steal focus, they cost a lot of money, and they often lead to more follow-ups and work (not to mention more meetings.)

What can we do to get ahead of and shrink these expensive feedback loops?

The Best Meeting is No Meeting at All

What is the outcome of a meeting? Surely we can try to get to that outcome faster.

If your meeting is to… ..then try this instead
Make an announcement E-mail, Organization Chat e.g. Slack or Teams. A notable exception here is around organizational alignment on crucial topics, where you may need all the people to hear the same thing in the same place at the same time.
Get Feedback/Consensus Set up a form and send via e-mail, start a discussion thread, take a poll in your chat tool, do one-on-one outreach
Reach people who don’t read your e-mails Accept that those people might be too busy or too disinterested. Maybe they don’t need to be involved. If you have a decision to make, make it without them. Also, try more communication channels. Chat tools, phone, one-on-one meetings, etc. Also, ask for feedback on why your emails aren’t resonating.
Present awards or praise Private congratulation and a public e-mail announcement? Make a part of another meeting? (meetings for praise/celebration can be very nice; just do it consciously.)
Brainstorm A meeting might be helpful for this. But ensure you facilitate, do the prep work, and block off time

Making a Decision First

I got this one from Al Pittampalli’s great book, Read This Before Our Next Meeting.

How can we make a decision if we’re not doing it as a group in meetings?

  • Find who the accountable person is and get them to make a decision instead.
  • If you’re not sure, ask the group to make someone accountable and volunteer for someone to choose you.
  • Did nobody volunteer? Congrats, you’re it! Make the decision or drop it.

An Actual Agenda

Ever been in a meeting where you or others realized you weren’t really needed halfway through? Painful, right?

Every meeting invite should contain:

  • A clear goal / expected outcome of the meeting
  • An idea of why an invitee is invited to the meeting, down to the most granular level possible.
  • Exactly what discussion points you intend to cover

Beyond just listing those items, you have to ensure that you actually stick to it, so if the discussion deviates, others who have opted out (more on this shortly) will have a chance to weigh in. If people can’t miss a meeting because of an inevitable important side conversation, painful meeting bloat will continue.

Encouraging Opt-out

Sometimes when you invite people to a meeting, they feel that they have to attend. This leads to a lot of wasted time.

State in your meeting invite if it’s OK to opt-out and when – but also that the work of the meeting will go forward without the attendees who aren’t present. If someone really does feel they’re critical but has a conflict, they can ask for a re-schedule (or better yet – delegate their proxy to someone else).

Respecting Time Boundaries

  • Your meetings should start on time. I usually allow two-minute buffer max for technical issues. If someone is late, they should be able to catch up on the notes.
  • Your meetings should end 5 minutes early. Do not be the person who causes someone to be late to their next meeting if you can ever help it. The extra 5 minutes likely don’t make a difference to your meeting.
  • Aim to accomplish the purpose of the meeting and end there. Did the meeting run over for some reason or things go off the rails? This is your opportunity to revisit either your planning for the agenda or your facilitation skills.
  • Celebrate when the purpose of a meeting is achieved under the allotted time.

This will drive a focus and energy for the meeting, because the time constraint ups the ante and because there’s a shared sense of being accountable for the outcome.

Prep For Your Meetings

Don’t let the meeting invite just be an empty space.

  • Add context, background, notes on prior discussions, things that have been tried etc. to the meeting invite.
  • Indicate that you expect people to actually read this prep if they’re going to attend the meeting.
  • Refuse to recap for anyone or go over the points. Assume people read it, because you would read theirs. (also, make sure you read theirs!)

Capture Notes and Actions

  • Take notes, or ask someone you trust (and who can type quickly) to take notes. Taking notes is also a great way to remain in a facilitator role rather than taking all the air out of the room while leading the meeting. Don’t forego this because you can’t type fast. If you’re taking meetings and you type slow, cut the scope of the meeting.
  • Your notes should start out with a section for “next actions”. Names and rough dates should go next to any item entered there.
  • Capture as much as possible, including any additional decisions made and any additional context needed.
  • If possible, capture the notes on a screen everyone can see. Encourage people to correct the notes if they seem unclear or incorrect.
  • Send the notes out before the end of the meeting. I usually take live notes as a reply-all e-mail to the meeting, so that people who choose to opt out are still informed, which encourages them to not waste time attending if they don’t need to.

How To Get There From Here

Maybe you’re in an organization where this advice sounds like it comes from another world. I was once in such an organization, and used the techniques above to start a shift after reading Al’s book. Whenever I got the chance to run a meeting there, I’d send a short write-up of these rules, either to individual meeting attendees or as part of the invite. I framed it as an experiment – “this is something I’m trying that I think will help all of us. But in order for it to help, I have to stick to it.” I spent time prepping for my meetings. I made sure the notes were there. I celebrated when someone didn’t have to attend, or when we finished early. I called out people who had clearly done their prep work and thanked them. I asked for feedback on how my facilitation could be more effective.

I started to notice signals that something was taking hold when others began adopting my rules and I got positive feedback on how attendees felt. People were more energized and engaged around our topics. And, since the people who weren’t interested could opt out, the more engaged people had less noise around moving things forward. I also started to use this to opt out of meetings that clearly didn’t add value for me, which in some cases led those organizers to ask for feedback which I could use to discuss facilitation techniques.

What do you think?

Your mileage may vary, but I hope this helps. Let me know in the comments if this resonates, and tell me some of your techniques for improving meetings!

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