Better notes, better meetings

When Larry Page took over the CEO role at Google in 2006, I was, like many Googlers, excited to see what ambitious “moonshots” he would rally the company around. Nuclear waste powered datacenters? Retinal interfaces? Terabit video?

Larry’s actual first order of business turned out to be as banal as it was anticlimactic: he wanted to make meetings at Google more “meaningful” — and had specific ideas about how to do that.

Years later, I now see that making meetings “meaningful” is one of the easiest ways to improve happiness and productivity. It is, along with areas like hiring and planning processes, a prerequisite to delivering on those “moonshot” ideas.

Larry’s meeting rules

In his email, Larry was specific about what would make for more “meaningful” meetings:

  • Every meeting needs a single, clear decider
  • Every meeting needs a purpose and structure
  • No more than 8 participants, but widely circulate notes after
  • Make sure everyone is fully “present” (closed laptops)
  • Adhere to time constraints

These guidelines may not seem controversial, but they were pretty radical at Google. The company had always prided itself on being a very open, “flat,” easy-going, and meritocratic. Everyone was welcome to sit in on any meeting, and we had large status meetings just to keep everyone “in the loop.” We were driven by consensus, with ideas winning out because they were better, not because a “decider” picked them. In many cases, it wouldn’t even be clear who the “decider” would be!

Over the coming months, teams tried to implement Larry’s rules to varying degrees of success. I noticed fewer status meetings and smaller meetings; I felt more comfortable skipping meetings (“I’ll read the notes”) and excluding people from meetings (“I’ll send you the notes after”). Initially, some people did ask “who is the decider?” before a meeting began, but this seldom lead to anything but uncomfortable silence.

In my view, the lasting effect of Larry’s rules was to hold a high bar for meetings, and make us constantly work to streamline them. Meetings are extraordinarily expensive and emotionally draining for individuals and teams, with a tendency to bloat in number and size. Making meetings worthwhile — “meaningful” — requires constant vigilance and effort.

The secret is in the meeting notes

I would later find that the single easiest way to keep meetings “meaningful” was to focus on making the meeting notes meaningful. A meeting is a good one if we come away with a document that’s useful to the participants and, ideally, the wider team.

My favorite system for “running” meeting notes — and therefore running the meeting — is one I picked up from the Google Maps team.

Here’s how it works.

Before the meeting. I email the “skeleton” of the notes to participants, with placeholders for the key topics and any TODOs we will follow up on from prior meetings. Every topic or TODO is assigned to a specific attendee, hopefully ensuring that they come prepared. (Conversely, if one is not assigned any topic, maybe you don’t need to attend at all!)

During the meeting. Once the meeting begins, I throw up the notes document on the projector. I then work down the agenda, transcribing the discussion points in the document itself. If we agree to take action outside the meeting, I will call out a TODO and we assign someone to assure it gets done. Finally, if we run out of time, I “roll over” topics to further sessions.

(Before I started working this way, either we didn’t take meeting notes, or the task was assigned to a less active participant in the discussion. But in this system, it is the note taker who is the prime mover of the meeting: they are responsible for moving the meeting agenda along, recording the tone and content of discussion, and assigning actions to people.)

After the meeting. As soon as possible, I then send out the meeting notes to participants, and CC anyone who was not at the meeting but who might be interested in the discussion (e.g., the broader team). I typically summarize at the top the conclusions of the meeting and any TODOs assigned during the meeting.

Critically, I make sure to include all the raw discussion notes — which are particularly helpful for those who were not in the room. By skimming to the relevant discussion, one can understand not only a decision by why it was reached. I was once told, “I love your notes — I get all the benefits without wasting an hour sitting through it.” (I will often “onboard” a new team member by suggesting they read through past meeting notes.)

Stay vigilant

In short, it’s good to be skeptical of meetings. Watch out for meetings where:

  • Someone is just sitting there listening
  • You’re not sure who is “running” the meeting
  • You’re not sure if you need to attend at all
  • Unclear next steps
  • Key people missing

If you find any of those to be true, I have had success doing one or more of these easy techniques:

  • Nominate someone — or yourself — to “facilitate” the meeting. (I will often humbly volunteer by offering to “take the notes”)
  • Send agenda ahead of meeting. Encourage people to prepare for their parts, or skip the meeting if they don’t have any.
  • Present the meeting notes during the meeting itself. Use the meeting to complete the document together.
  • Send TODOs, notes broadly after the meeting with detailed discussion topics.

With quick and smooth meetings, Larry did eventually get to those moonshots, from self-driving cars to Internet balloons and a Star Trek-like computer you can just talk to.

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