While effective meetings may not be the key to success, ineffective meetings are inarguably one of the largest time wasters in corporations. Applying these tips before, during, and after meetings will make us much more effective.
A software team will have many meetings, especially surrounding gathering and managing requirements. These can be brainstorming meetings, stakeholder interviews, or prioritization meetings. They can be requirement validation sessions, status updates, or any of a number of meetings surrounding the application of use cases to software product development.
Before the Meeting
The old chestnut, failing to plan is planning to fail, rings true here. An unplanned meeting isn’t an assured disaster, but the odds are that you will waste time. Always define the goal(s) of a meeting – if you don’t have clear goals, you don’t need to have a meeting. Communicate those goals and a schedule in an agenda, and make sure the prep work is done before the rest of the attendees are “on the clock.”
- Define Goals for the Meeting
The meeting must have a purpose. Define it as a goal or goals of the meeting. Include the list of goals in the invite. This sets everyone’s expectations, and helps keep topics relevant throughout the meeting. By consistently using goals in meetings, people quickly adapt to the rythm. Let people know that if the goals are achieved early, the meeting ends early.
- Prepare an Agenda in Advance
We should always send an agenda the day before the meeting (at the latest). The agenda provides preparatory value in that it allows people to review any relevant background information in advance. This avoids 90% of the need to bring people up to speed on the topics at hand. Only the chronicly unprepared attendees will both ignore the agenda and expect to derail the meeting because they didn’t do their homework.
Target specific times for each step in the meeting. We can monitor our progress throughout the meeting and adapt to the schedule if needed. The more lead time we have, the better the decisions we can make. Every item should be 15 to 60 minutes in length. Shorter times increase overhead, and longer times defeat the purpose of having checkpoints.
Remember to either allocate time for setup of projectors, finding chairs, dialing into a conference call, etc. If possible, show up early to do this, if not, let people know that the first five minutes will be spent on setup, etc. When working on building relationships, this setup time can also be used for small-talk. It also allows late-comers a second-chance to not disrupt the meeting when they arrive.
Include the list of attendees, and when everyone doesn’t know everyone else, include a one-liner about each person’s role on the project. Not their title, or a family history, just a blurb explaining how they are involved in this project.
During the Meeting
With a well-planned meeting, the main benefits come from using the allocated time efficiently. Make sure the right people are present, and the wrong ones aren’t. Show that you respect people’s time and appreciate their investment in attending the meeting – start on time, plan to possibly extend the meeting a fixed amount of time, and schedule a followup meeting if you overrun your contingency.
Remember, your meeting has specific goals. Make sure you run the meeting with the express purpose of achieving them. And make sure they are concrete and explicit. When everyone is investing their time in the meeting, they deserve to have a tangible return on that investment.
- Keep Topics Relevant to the Attendees
Keep a meeting topic focused, and only invite (on the “To:” line) the people who need to be there. You can use “CC:” to inform others about the meeting. Make sure that the invite specifies that “CC:” people are only being notified, and their attendance is neither required nor opposed. All “To:” people are expected to attend or be represented.
When topics need to vary, such as a status update (ala Scrum) on multiple related projects, organize the topics into different parts of the meeting, and invite people to attend specific portions of the meeting. Essentially, you’re running multiple meetings back to back in the same room. That’s ok. When people can avoid part of it, they will appreciate it.
- Demonstrate Respect for People’s Time
It may be unreasonable to ask people to turn off their phones. At a minimum, turn yours off, visibly putting it on the table while doing the rest of the meeting setup. If there is a possibility that an urgent call may come in (you are expecting a baby, for example), let everyone know that you might have to take a call, and apologize in advance should that happen.
Meeting start, end, and break times should be published in advance to set expectations. Strive to honor them, but remember the reasons for the meeting in the first place. If the team is really accomplishing stuff, It doesn’t make sense to terminate the meeting at an arbitrary time just because it represents the end of the originally scheduled time. Include an extra 30 minutes at the end of the schedule as a contingency. If you think it might be worth it to use the contingency, get buyin from all of the attendees before running over – they may have other commitments. Regardless, they will appreciate that you are showing that you value their time.
If you use the contingency time and still haven’t achieved the goals of the meeting, agree to a continuation meeting to be scheduled immediately after the conclusion of the current meeting. Many people won’t have access to their schedules during the meeting, so don’t try and nail down an exact time while everyone is still in the room. Agreeing on a day (next Tuesday) and duration is sufficient.
Strive to make the results of the meeting concrete. Concensus building and decision making are both important, but specific items results should be tangible. By making sure goals are measureable, this is very easy.
- The team agrees that feature X will be delayed to the next timebox.
- Tony has committed to provide a server to run our nightly test automation.
After the Meeting
In karate, we’re taught to punch through the board, not into the board. Follow-through is important with meetings too. When we have a meeting with a worthwhile goal, and then execute that meeting efficiently, we’re only hitting the board. We have to follow-up the meeting to punch all the way through it.
Start with a wrap-up at the end of the meeting. In addition to being a valuable active-listening technique, this summary allows everyone to leave the meeting with a fresh idea of exactly what was accomplished, and a reminder of what they have agreed to do.
Write a summary of the meeting results – basically a written document of the verbal wrap-up. Do this immediately after the meeting, and send it to all of the meeting invitees.
Make sure and deliver everything you have committed to doing during the meeting.
Always leave a short time at the end of the meeting to verbally summarize the decisions made in the meeting, confirm responsibility (and dates) for follow-up action items, and schedule the date of the next meeting (if needed).
As soon as possible after the meeting, send out meeting notes that document the responsibilities and major conclusions of the meeting. Make sure that all people originally invited to the meeting get this follow-up note (even if they did not attend), and include the information of who attended for future reference.
We were inspired or reminded of ideas by the following posts and their comment threads. Thanks to the authors and their readers!
- 9 Tips for Running More Productive Meetings at 43folders.
- Top 7 Strategies for Productive Meetings at Top 7 Business
- 9 Ways to Improve Your Time Management by Having Super Productive Meetings by Lorainne Pirihi
- Tips for Productive Meetings from CoOp Tools