Getting Meetings Right
It’s hard to get meetings right. That’s where a lot of the work gets done, but as with any exercise in group think, there’s the potential to get side-tracked or waste time. Particularly as your people advance higher in the organization and their time spent in meetings grows, holding effective meetings becomes critical.
To succeed, you will need to be explicit about the nature of each meeting and have a thoughtful meeting architecture. If you do these things right, you will be productive, maintain meeting discipline, and handle urgent and unexpected issues gracefully. Getting meetings right requires some upfront effort. It’s worth it.
The Essential Meetings
These essential meetings are relevant to almost every manager:
The six team meetings are the ones you need to work with and manage your team. You can conduct all your team business within these meetings and use them to strengthen your team dynamic at the same time.
What’s in a Meeting
We’ve all been to bad meetings. They go much better when everyone has a shared understanding about the nature of the meeting. To start with, you need to spell out who the attendees are, what the topic is, the meeting duration, and the meeting frequency.
You also need to specify:
- Purpose: Are you doing work, making a decision, triaging issues, and/or communicating with a larger group?
- Owner: The person who leads the meeting and sets the agenda
- Note-taker and time-keeper: The person (or people) who records decisions and next steps and keeps the time
Define your meeting type. That might sound self-evident, but it’s often forgotten. Consider the daily 15-minute standup, a communication and triage meeting. When daily standups go wrong, it’s usually because people drift into work discussions and decision-making. But the meeting is too short for that—those matters should be taken offline.
Review which meeting types you’ve been using. It will shine a light on gaps in your meeting architecture. If all your meetings are triage meetings, when are you making decisions? If you’re only having work meetings, when are you communicating with your team? You need a good blend of each meeting type to be highly productive.
The one-on-one meeting is a well used, often abused meeting.
This meeting is for your direct report. You also can bring topics to the table, but ultimately your direct report sets the agenda. Typically, she might want informal feedback and advice on her work, management of her team, and working with others in the organization. Employees can also use this time to problem solve with you about critical business problems.
Every other week for 30 minutes is plenty of time to handle one-on-one topics.
It’s important not to use one-on-ones to do work that should include other teammates. When that happens, you end up developing a hub and spoke dynamic, with you as the hub and your direct reports as spokes who are more strongly connected to you than to each other. All work then has to flow past you, which destroys team function and makes you a bottleneck.
There are exceptions. For example, when on-ramping a new manager, it can be helpful to have weekly one-on-ones with her for the first three to six months as she gets up to speed. The frequency gives her extra attention, accelerating her integration and productivity, but also allows you to see your company through fresh eyes. At least one revered manager — Andy Grove, the storied CEO of Intel — was known to have weekly, hour-long one-on-one meetings with each member of his staff. But in my experience at Opower, bi-weekly and 30 minutes was the winning combination. [Doesn’t have to be you, Dan, but personalizing here is nice.]
This meeting should be the core operating engine of your organization.
Some not always obvious aspects influence how effective staff meeting are.
Set a positive tone: This meeting is all about solving problems, and it can be a downer. You will be more constructive if you celebrate victories before getting down to business.
Involve your team in setting the agenda: This is your meeting, but your team should be involved in defining and running it.
Use shared quarterly objectives as the content: Much of the staff meeting should be spent reviewing and discussing progress on the shared projects and operating metrics owned by the team. Having a working document that everyone refers to in the meeting keeps focus on the most important topics rather than the most urgent or fascinating topic of the day.
Sample One-Hour Staff Meeting:
- Hold a round-robin of positive news (3 min)
- Review quarterly projects, metrics, and past items. Flag topics for discussion. (5 min)
- Finalize the agenda. The leader selects and orders topics, assigns minutes per topic. (2 min)
- Discuss topics. Explicitly note the decisions and next steps. (40 minutes)
- Decide what information will be shared outside the meeting. (5 min)
Staff Meeting Documents
1. Staff Meeting One-Pager
Add rigor and focus to the staff meeting by creating a one-pager each quarter that spells out the team objectives, key metrics to track, and meeting structure. Print out and distribute a copy to each team member at the beginning of each quarter. (If you’re up for it, laminate it. People respect lamination.) Putting the hard copy in people’s hands facilitates a no-laptop policy that makes meetings more productive and also puts some weight behind the quarterly planning process.
At Opower, the best way we found to create and disseminate the kind [give even more anecdote here] of quarterly objectives you want in the one-pager was through a company-wide, Objectives and Key Results (OKR) process. See this article (INSERT LINK?) for best practices on implementing OKRs.
The outputs of each staff meeting should include: decisions, next steps, and cascades. The meeting document is a lightweight way to hold the team accountable.Tips for success include:
- Review it weekly, at the start of the meeting, when you are soliciting agenda topics.
- Give every open item an owner, a concrete deliverable, and a due date. Without these, the next steps are useless.
- Make every decision concrete and record the decision date.
- Keep the decision log at the bottom. You don’t need a log of next steps, agenda items, or cascades. It’s sometimes helpful to keep recently completed items crossed out on the document as a reminder.
The standup meeting needs the least prep, but it’s hard to keep on track:
Kick off this meeting with a round-robin: everyone gives a quick update on what they’re working on since the last standup or staff meeting, plus any issues they’re having.
The key to this meeting: it’s primarily a triage meeting. You don’t use it to solve problems. You identify problems and the subgroup of people who should work on them. All work and decision-making should happen in those subgroups.
One exception: if there’s a topic that can be discussed and decided in less than two minutes, go for it. But the way this meeting goes south is when it drags on as a subset of attendees argue about something — and maybe it is something important — that nevertheless should be taken offline. [Anecdote – here or after previous graf; would be good to have one about how someone messed this up.]
Operational Review Meeting
The operational review meeting is highly valuable, but requires the most prep.
The purpose of this meeting is a thorough monthly check-in on the health of the business. The key is having each of your direct reports prepare robust operational dashboards. If your organization is smaller, dashboards can be shared across multiple direct reports leading intertwined groups.
Example dashboards for various departments:
- Sales and Marketing Dashboard (from Opower, 2015, an enterprise SaaS company)
- R&D Dashboard (from Opower, 2016)
Distribute dashboards at least 24 hours in advance. Expect everyone to review them. Open the meeting with a discussion of the high-priority topics and decide which ones need the most time. After this you can set the agenda. Some sample agendas:
|Exec Management team||R&D team||Customer Service team|
|Agenda setting: 10 min||Agenda setting: 10 min||Agenda setting: 10 min|
|Client Success: 20 min||Architecture: 20 min||Fulfillment: 30 min|
|People: 20 min||Dev Ops: 20 min||Call center: 30 min|
|R&D: 20 min||Quality Assurance: 20 min||Channel mgmt: 30 min|
|Sales & Marketing: 30 min||Development: 30 min||Next steps, cascades: 15 min|
|Finance: 20 min||Product management: 20 min|
|Next steps, cascades: 15 min||Next steps, cascades: 15 min|
For each topic, everyone else asks questions and discusses progress against milestones.
This meeting is terrific when:
- Team members are actively engaged in problem solving and understanding the issues of other parts of the team. When a team is highly silo-ed and disengaged from work outside of their direct purview, the operational review meeting will fall flat. And, frankly, you will have other problems, but it will show up here very clearly. [Good place for anecdote. ACtually need one to explain what “other problems” might be.]
- Dashboards are not being manufactured for this meeting alone. If you’re seeing stand-alone dashboards designed to please the boss, and if they don’t have grip or relevance outside the meeting, then you won’t get the engagement and quality discussion you seek. As the boss, it’s essential that you work with your direct reports to make sure they’re managing you the same way they’re managing their teams. Sometimes it’s a compromise, and you may have to be flexible on what you want to see on the dashboard to get the right alignment, but it’s worth it.
Topical Deep Dive Meeting
The topical deep dive meeting is a formal name for the “we gotta schedule a separate meeting on this topic” meeting. It’s a previously unplanned meeting on a single topic. Why include this meeting in the taxonomy? So that people feel empowered to invoke it in other meetings. By becoming part of your company’s meeting culture (“Hey guys, I’m calling a topical deep dive on this”), it affords an escape valve to address important topics while maintaining meeting discipline.
The recipe is loose:
Anyone can call for a topical deep dive; the meeting leader approves or rejects it. To set one up:
- Identify the owner of the meeting. This might not be the leader of the current meeting.
- Identify the prep work needed, and select an owner and team for it.
- Preparation is essential to successful topical deep dives.
- Agree on the attendees and meeting length.
- Identify the decision being sought.
Clearly defining the purpose of the deep dive prevents all sorts of problems, such as:
- Running out of time.
- Not having all the right people in the room (and wasting others’ time)
- Not having all the data you need to have the discussion
The biggest benefit of the deep dive is that it forces you to determine the successful preconditions of the discussion.
Some leaders like to have offsite meetings. Others think they are a waste of time. They’re both right. Good offsites can boost team morale; bad ones can be alienating.
Offsites succeed when:
- Topic(s) are clearly identified and appropriate to justify the long format.
- Preparation is complete to facilitate discussions.
- Everyone attends, for the entire time.
- Next steps and decisions are documented and acted upon following the meeting.
It can be helpful to establish an annual cadence of offsites, with preset agendas, which sets a shared expectation for the offsites and helps establish team buy-in. Here is a sample schedule for a company with a calendar-aligned fiscal year:
- Q1 Topic – Team: team health and team building. Examples:
- a. Classic team-building exercise (e.g., the much lauded and mocked ropes course)
- b. Group discussion of personality tests (e.g., Meyer Briggs, Discovery Insights, etc.)
- c. Analysis and discussion of team dynamic (e.g., Patrick Lencioni-style offsite)
- Q2 Topic – Strategy: business and key strategy decisions. Examples:
- a. Multi-year financing plan (e.g., debt vs. equity, self-fund vs. fundraise)
- b. Multi-year product plan (e.g., new products, competitive threats)
- Q3 Topic – Budget: setting annual budget profile. Examples:
- a. Topline analysis with team sign-off on annual topline goal
- b. Department-level expense allocation with team sign-off
- Q4 Topic – Talent/People: talent and culture discussion. Examples:
- a. Review and discussion of compensation for top 10 percent
- b. Discussion of culture gaps and plans to remediate
Be specific about the offsite agenda and the deliverables expected in advance of the meeting. Here’s an example of one such agenda, for a one-day offsite on budget: [Should be a link like the other specific examples such as Opower dashs… RMW to-do; would be good to work an anecdote in for off-site — good or bad]
Sample Day-Long Budget Offsite Agenda:
The goal of the plan discussions will be alignment and buy-in on all aspects of the plan (e.g., sales plan matches our marketing and product plans). This will give us clarity. It will drive to our standard operating objectives for the year. It will also drive to a new monthly metrics deck
For each of the following topics, one of us will lead the discussion with simple documents as our guides:
- Budget — CFO lead (1.5 hours)
- Prep doc: Headcount and expense lines by departments
- Sales plan by region and solution: EVP Sales (2 hours)
- Prep doc: Solution line & regional breakdown: review & forecast
- Prep doc: New org chart by region and solution line
- Prep doc: Top deals pivot table by solution and region
- Prep doc: Marketing Org chart — CMO
- Lunch and break (1 hour)
- Marketing & Product plan — SVP Product + CMO (2.5 hours)
- Prep doc: The top 5 to 7 things we’re doing this year to allow us to win — CEO
- Prep doc: 6-month committed roadmap — SVP Product
- Prep doc: Final marketing messages — CMO
- Prep doc: Architecture priorities— SVP Engineering
- Operational plan — SVP Client Success (1 hour)
- Prep doc: Org chart by region/strategic customer
- Prep doc: Implications on budget and potential opportunities to borrow budget
- Break (1 hour)
Project meetings are any recurring meetings related to one particular project. They should look exactly like staff meetings. When they don’t go well, it’s almost always because they’re not being run this way.
The most common problem with project meetings is that the team running the project isn’t held to the same standards as they would be in a typical boss-employee relationship. Projects need:
- An empowered owner: the owner’s role can’t be limited to updating the gantt chart. The project leader must make decisions about project direction and planning the same way a manager typically does about her team. If she doesn’t have the authority to make the decisions the team needs, she’s the wrong owner and someone more senior needs to own the meeting.
- Dedicated members: the members of the project team need to identify as being on the team, expect to be judged on their performance, and have the time needed to do a good job.
Once these preconditions are met, the project team should function like any other permanent team in the organization.
All-hands meetings have all levels of employees within one or more department in the organization. Some managers, devoted to the democracy of the hyper-flat organization, mistakenly use them for work, decision-making, or triage. [One or two line anecdote. Just would be nice to personalize this observation] Don’t. All-hands meetings are great for communication. And that’s it.
Typical all-hands recipe:
Running an effective all-hands is simple:
- Give at least one week’s notice.
- Make attendance mandatory, like any other meeting.
- Present content appropriate to the entire group.
Frequency: weekly, monthly, quarterly?
There’s a wide range of appropriate frequencies for all-hands meetings. Some companies like to have them weekly, some quarterly, and everything in-between. Here are the two common modalities:
The weekly (the recent trend):
Either can work. In fact, doing both at the same time is not a crazy choice. The shorter, weekly all-hands format fosters a feeling of connectedness within the company and updates people on recent events. The longer, quarterly format is good for reflecting on progress across a greater time horizon.
Here are suggested agendas for each type of all-hands meeting.
The weekly (the recent trend):
- Department update (one / week): 5 min
- CEO update: 5 min
- Recognition of extraordinary work: 5 min
- Q&A open session: 10 min
- CEO-led quarterly review: 20 minutes
- Department updates (3-5 min each): 20 min
- Recognition of extraordinary work: 10 min
- Q&A open session: 20 min
Some tips on Q&A
Q&As can be challenging. But they’re worth it.
1. It can be scary to field questions you aren’t prepared to answer.
This is a fear worth fighting. The key is to allow the answers “I don’t know,” and “Let me get back to you,” into your repertoire. Building an authentic, two-way communication channel with your team will inspire them. Showing them you don’t know the answer to everything builds trust and loyalty by exposing your vulnerability.
2. You get the same questions from the same vocal group of employees.
Every organization has that guy who has a question at every meeting, whether or not most people care to hear the answer. Modern technology has afforded an awesome solution to this problem. There are a number of providers of audience interaction tools, including Sli.do and Google Slides Q&A, which allow your audience to submit questions electronically. Employees then vote on the which questions to address. This is a game changer. “She who is least afraid of speaking in public” loses to “She who has the most widely applicable and important question.” And the good news is these tools are somewhere between free to cheap.
Designing Your Meeting Architecture
After you have defined all of your meetings types, the final step is assembling the various commitments into a single, rational plan. This is your meeting architecture.
The architecture allows you to:
- Add up time spent in meetings: A rule of thumb is don’t spend more than 25 percent of your work time in regularly scheduled meetings.
- Share with your team: It’s useful for your employees to have access to your meeting calendar. They might ask to be a part of a meeting you hadn’t thought to add them to. They might identify a redundancies.
- Manage your meetings: Meetings tend to grow in size and length if untended. This helps you keep a handle on your meetings specifically, and your department’s meeting culture more broadly.
Here’s a sample meeting architecture document.
Tricks for well-managed meetings
Even with a well-specified architecture, and the best-laid plans for work, decisions, triage, and the rest, meetings can still go badly wrong.
Some tools for keeping meetings under control, organized by the problem they solve:
1. Ending the never-ending debate: Call a vote.
You’re in a heated discussion with a member of your team. You want to get to consensus, but she is arguing vehemently against your soon-to-be decision. It occurs to you that you don’t know if you’re all alone in this argument, or if she is. Or, maybe you’re one of the bystanders, watching two people on your team argue vehemently while no else talks.
What do you do? Call a vote!
Establishing the protocol where people can call a vote on a hotly debated topic can put protracted debates to bed in a second. Everyone just raises their hand for position A or B. And more often than not, the group is, in fact, not split. Once that’s clear, the person in the majority can move on with the power of the group behind her.
2. Resolving the unresolved disagreement: Disagree and commit.
Maybe you have a healthy debate on a topic, after which the group arrives at a decision. Everyone seemingly leaves the meeting thinking the matter resolved. [Good place for anecdote. It’s already here and just needs details.] But later you learn one meeting attendee disagrees with the decision and is treating it as unresolved. Even worse, she’s operating as if the other choice is still being pursued.
How do you prevent this?
Introduce “disagree and commit” into your culture. Few decisions are truly unanimous. Teach your team to commit to and implement a decision even when didn’t agree with it.
End contentious decisions with a “disagree and commit” wrap-up. State the decision and go around the room asking everyone to give a thumbs up to the decision. This gives you a public commitment from everyone.
When you put these two together you get a much more streamlined process where you can [TBD]