Managers work through meetings. In this short post, I posit three dimensions along which we can improve meetings and present tips that have had the most impact on my meetings along these dimensions.
Growing up as an engineer, I equated meetings with wasting time. Naturally, when I become a manager, I tried to reduce or eliminate meetings, which did not work (duh!). I failed to understand that meetings are a manager’s work. I might as well have been trying to become a champion swimmer by eliminating water.
Andy Grove’s High Output Management was the bright light that cut through the darkness of my anti-meeting feelings. Grove devotes an entire chapter to meetings, calling them “the medium of a manager’s work” (good summary). He decomposes meetings into different classes, identifies why they are necessary, and builds a framework around how much time and energy should be devoted to these. For the first time, things made sense.
Since that step-changing moment, like any competent engineer, I have been focused on optimizing meetings. To make something better, we have to agree on what “better” means. I think of improving meetings on three dimensions:
- Correctness: did the meeting achieve a good outcome? If it was a decision-making meeting, did we make the right decision?
- Efficiency: how quickly did we get to our goal? Did we communicate clearly?
- Culture: did people feel included and heard? Did people move forward as a team, even if they disagreed with the outcome?
In the sections below, I present tips that have made material differences along each dimension. This note is not a comprehensive survey; it’s meant to be a quick 1-2-3. For the impatient: skip directly to the tips.
A disclaimer: This material is not original. The business world has studied meetings forever. This 1976 article (HBR) is one of the best on running good meetings. Here’s New York Times and Rands In Repose. My contribution is to distill tips that you can copy without having to read through tons of meeting-theory.
Another disclaimer: Meetings can range from huge (company all hands) to tiny (1-1s). Somewhere in between are the 5-15 people meetings where a company’s crucial work gets done. This article is about those meetings.
I am a big fan of Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (video summary). Our savannah evolved brains are hardwired to do what he calls “Type-1 Thinking”. When our ancestors saw a lion, they didn’t spend much time thinking deeply about their choices; they climbed a tree. The ones that thought hard aren’t our ancestors. When we sit in meetings where we see material for the first time and have to pass judgment under the gun, we are engaging in Type-1 thinking.
The alternative is to engage the slow brain. This deliberate, rational process is called “Type-2 thinking” in Kahneman’s lore. Engaging the slow brain is challenging: it is genuinely hard work and time-consuming. But it leads to better decisions on complex topics.
Tip: Send all materials out 24 hours ahead to be read as homework. 📖
Engage your slow brain. Read in the peace of your home or wherever you can think deeply. Think about it in the shower, or on your run, or wherever you do your best thinking.
Sending everything out as homework is taxing. Gathering materials and putting things together a day early shifts the schedule. It also forces more work on everyone attending the meeting: they need to spend time reading, digesting, and preparing for the meeting the day before.
My advice is to ease into this: try doing this with your most important meetings first, then work backward until pre-reads become team culture.
People have put much energy into making meetings more efficient. Good meeting hygiene goes something like this:
- Send the agenda out ahead of time.
- Define and focus on the goal.
- Keep track of time.
- Make a decision.
- Write whatever was decided and send it out to everyone.
There is some variation, depending on the type of meeting, but mostly variations on the same theme.
I believe #2 is the most important. It is amazing how many meetings people go to and ask, “why are we here?”. Or we are halfway through the allotted time, and we haven’t even talked about the most important thing we are here for. What’s the problem? We are missing a goal.
Efficiency Tip: Have a clear and stated goal. Focus the conversation on said goal. 🎯
Meetings with unclear goals tended to meander off course, people ratholed on things that were secondary to the task at hand, and these meetings mostly resulted in follow-up meetings, with no actual progress made.
Start your meetings with an articulation of why you’re all in one place and what success is.
“Let’s talk about making things fast.” is not a goal statement. We can talk about the topic for a long time, but to what end? Is it because we think the site is slow? Is someone complaining? Or do we believe in speed as an engineering value and want to enforce it?
“We are here to decide whether or not we should invest in performance right now.” This statement clarifies our purpose, what success would look like (a decision, positive or negative), guides the conversation (is your point germane to deciding whether we should invest now or later?)
To build this discipline, start each meeting by asking two questions:
- Why are we here?
- What would success look like at the end of the meeting?
You may feel this is rote work, but soon, the team will adapt, and these questions will be answered in the material before anyone has to ask.
Humans are social animals. Meetings aren’t just about getting work done. There are a lot of other things going on in meetings - the establishment of social status, signaling on who’s a Big Deal, validation of ideas, people, and their work. We can pretend to be robots, but we aren’t (yet).
The cultural aspects can go very right - people come out of meetings with clarity, purpose, camaraderie, eagerness to make progress - or it can go very wrong - people not feeling heard, hurt feelings, anger, and frustration at adverse outcomes.
Leaders tend to focus a lot of correctness and efficiency, but forget about the cultural element. To build a strong, cohesive team and organization, pay attention to this part.
When I was working on Facebook Stories, we observed a phenomenon in any prominent meeting. As things were getting started, people would walk into the review room — and make a beeline for the chairs on the side while the table was unoccupied. Even worse, the people sitting off-table were often women or minorities or people who were shy or reserved by nature. They might be the primary authors and experts — their work was about to be presented, but they didn’t sit at the table.
Culture Tip #1: Everyone sits at the table. 🪑
(The credit for this tip goes to Adam Mosseri, Head of Instagram, boss extraordinaire. He would publicly call out people and get them to sit at the table, even if he had to stand on the side.)
We may think this sort of physical signaling doesn’t matter. And most meetings nowadays have some people dialing in remotely. Our non-scientific evidence would suggest otherwise.
Designers should present designs. Researchers: research. Data scientists: analyses. This idea seems obvious but is rarely the case in practice. Typically, the Product Manager, the one synthesizing the materials to create one cohesive narrative, presents the work. Not only does she present the work, she also takes the first stab at answering questions, all while the primary author, the expert, is sitting in the room. Net result: people feel voiceless.
Culture Tip #2: Authors present their work. 👩🏽🔬
Let primary authors talk about their work, even at the cost of interrupting flow. Changing speakers mid-flight seemed awkward at first. Presenters want to control the room because they feel it will get them to better outcomes. However, we’re not in the middle of a sales pitch; we’re in the middle of trying to come together as a team and work things out.
One way to ease into speaker rotation is to enforce crediting. “Liz and the research team found this through their survey work. I am going to talk through this, but they’re the experts.” Clear attribution gets you halfway there.
In its optimal state, speaker rotation makes everyone on the team feel valued. They feel like the leader knows who they are, and cares about them, and binds them closer as a result.
Every meeting has someone that talks too much (I know; I used to be that guy) and people that don’t speak up, even when they have the best knowledge or the most astute and relevant opinion. It is the leader’s job to make sure they have heard from everyone in the room by creating space for the quietest people to speak.
Culture Tip #3: Everyone speaks at some point, and nobody interrupts. 💬
The way to accomplish this is to quiet the loud person — indirectly: by giving them high cognition tasks like being the scribe, or directly: by telling that you understand their perspective and would like to hear from others instead.
Getting the quiet people to speak can be harder. The most effective technique, in my experience, is to directly ask them. “Jo, what do you think?” Keep a mental track of who has spoken and remember the people dialed in on Zoom.
Also — getting people to speak up is not useful if they get interrupted or passively ignored. Both these behaviors make people feel like nobody cares or values their thoughts. Fixing interruptive or ignoring behavior takes work and courage. One has to call out the interrupter publicly, and often, the person interrupting is the leader. The best people do this, gain the respect of everyone in the room, and build stronger teams as a result.
I hope you incorporate one or more of these tips into your meeting repertoire. If you had to pick only one, I’d recommend the pre-read / homework tip. I guarantee it will make your decisions and outcomes better.
Do you have tips that have made your meetings infinitely better? I’d love to hear them (so would the world!). Drop me a line.
I’m your host, Rushabh Doshi. After spending nearly a decade managing some of the brightest engineering teams at Facebook and YouTube, I’m taking a break and doing some writing, spending time with my family and figuring out my next thing.
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