My Sudden Epiphany About Meetings

Yesterday, I got to watch an internal company presentation about how to give better meetings. Sounds like something that would happen at a Monday afternoon all-team — not a ideal use of fifteen minutes, in the perfect working environment, but a laudable subject to tackle quickly if, in the case of this instance, the office had acknowledged that everyone sucks at running useful meetings.

The presentation covered these sorts of good behaviors:

  • Make sure everyone who needs to be in the meeting is invited
  • Make sure everyone who needs to be in the meeting and is invited actually shows up
  • Make sure you are descriptive in your meeting title and body, including agenda items and desired meeting outcomes
  • Make sure you attach all necessary documents to the meeting invite
  • Make sure you give everyone enough time to prepare for the meeting
  • End meetings 5 minutes before the top of the hour so meeting rooms don’t get backed up
  • Don’t use devices in the meeting if you don’t need to use them (I admit this is my gravest sin as a meeting attendee — you always think you can skim an email and listen. You can’t. You never can. If you are saying you can, you lie.)

There were other more nuanced, employee-specific insights in the meeting rundown — and there was some great feedback after the presentation, leaving me torn between feeling so very, very sad that so many companies have these problems and so very happy that this company is actually trying to tackle the problem, as remedial as some of their guidelines have to be.

And then, my epiphany came.

When I started working at Medium, one of the most immediate and obvious cultural shifts was into the system called Holacracy. (Medium, when I left, had evolved beyond Holacracy into their own custom system — but many of the trappings I’ll talk about now continued on.) Holacracy is an entirely different way to run your company, from the org structure (or official lack thereof) through to how meetings are structured, and while I’ll be the first to say overall I think Holacracy is a cluster fuck, sitting in my meeting about meetings yesterday, I realized Holacracy’s way of dealing with meetings was, in truth, kind of brilliant.

To toot my own horn: I’m a pretty good manager and I share most folks’ hatred of shitty meetings and believe I run mine very efficiently. When I ran a large support team at Tumblr, we pared our usual hour-long weekly meetings back to half an hour and often those ended within fifteen minutes (and didn’t happen when we didn’t need them) and yet everyone learned more and actually paid attention during those shorter meetings because of the way we prepared and executed to the meeting. Eliminating bullshit does wonders for morale.

Holacracy’s meetings went beyond my previous toolkit of meeting efficiency, which generally included agendas that were shared with the team before the meeting (with a request for folks to add on to it and discuss the topics with me before the meeting so those topics would be executed well), time boxing topics, and ensuring we polled the room to give the less assertive folks time to weigh in. Holacracy includes a “check-in” round at the beginning of a meeting, where people state how they are doing. This could be “I’m great, happy to be here,” or “distracted, my project is bollocked right now,” or “my pet is at the vet and I’m super worried.” At first, I thought this was a pretty hippy, touchy-feely kind of way to go about things, but sitting in my meeting about meetings, I realized that check-ins give the entire room some crucial information: insight into everyone’s mental states. Are you waiting for a call from your babysitter or a client or have a horrible headache? That matters — and impacts how well you can be part of a meeting. Understanding that before you dig into an agenda is crucial — that knowledge can shift the conversation so that everyone is productive because they can deal with those life circumstances head-on.

Holacracy also eliminates pre-meeting official prep. Everyone shows up and round robins “tensions” to create an agenda. I’m not a full believer in this: I think pre-meeting prep is important, but polling the room for ideas that didn’t make pre-meeting prep is huge to allow everyone a voice — even those who were busy (or distracted or reading reddit) before the meeting. Shit happens. The entire point of a meeting is to get stuff done and move forward: tensions are a great way to insert anything from a question to a concern into a meeting in a friction-free environment. Add in ranking these agenda items and time-boxing them to keep any topic from running the meeting and you have a very efficient set up.

Likewise, Holacracy’s “check out” process at the end of the meeting is, again, touchy-feely, but also really important. How your team feels before they leave the room matters. Are you still concerned with a problem you addressed? Sweet, say so, and you can catch up later about it — rather than stewing, or sending an email, or doing something passive aggressive or otherwise non-efficient. Do you feel good? Does your head still hurt? Are you excited to leave and pick up your cat from the vet? All of this matters — for the meeting, for your coworkers, and for the next day and next meeting when you meet again.

As I start running more meetings, particularly those with increasingly large teams of people, I’m going to keep a lot of what Medium’s meetings taught me. Half a year ago, I don’t think I would have said that — and while I’m still not sure I can talk about check-ins and check-outs without a little bit of a smirk, I really do believe they work better than every other method I’ve tested. Yes, I realize that working outside a culture where these methods are mandated will make my meetings a bit jarring at first (and probably make me look like a super-duper hippy person who used to work at Medium — I am, I’ll own that) but, if I do it right, I’ll also run faster, more productive meetings where participants actually pay attention.

Tl;dr — sometimes the weird stuff works. Complacency over shitty corporate problems (meetings) is bad. Mocking non-traditional methods (Holacracy) is bad. Somewhere, in the middle, there might be brilliance.

Well, I hope.

I’ll let you know how it goes.