How I run effective, short meetings

Heddy Stern
Oct 21, 2016 · 4 min read

Problem: As a Product Manager at Pivotal Labs, my job is to train clients to be agile product managers (PMs). Sometimes client PMs have not worked on small teams before or they didn’t participate in the team’s decision making processes before coming to Labs. So, one of the skills we work on is facilitating group decision making.

Decisions happen anywhere — in a side conversation at the desk, on a manager call, and in a team meeting. This piece isn’t going to focus on every decision making process, I’m going to focus on decisions that happen during meetings.

Teaching someone how to lead a great meeting is not as simple as I thought it would be. As I worked with a few new PMs, I found that tactics that felt natural to me were really foreign to new PMs. I‘ve capture some of it to share here.

The 7 steps

1. Outline the goals

Before I schedule a meeting, I figure out:

  • What decision point will I be finalizing in this meeting?
  • What is my ideal outcome?
  • What is the worst possible outcome?
  • Why do I need these people in the room?

2. Make sure the right people are planning to attend.

Make sure that the people that can say “no” AND “yes — here is your funding to take action immediately ” are in the meeting. If the “yes” and “no” people can’t be there, reschedule until they can. If you don’t reschedule, then you will have to have the conversation all over again. That means you’re wasting people’s time and they will dread coming to your meetings in the future because you are wasting their time.

There’s no reason to have the same conversation twice because the meeting is a place to make a decision. If the deciders can’t be there, than the decisions can’t be made. Reschedule.

3. Listen to the perspective of every potential attendee beforehand.

To be more explicit, schedule time with each attendee before each meeting to talk about what’s going to happen. With the most important people, I sometimes schedule two conversations before the big meeting.

I want to understand:

  • What does this attendee want to get out of the meeting?
  • Are they expecting the same outcome that I’m expecting?
  • Can they help me get us to the ideal outcome outlined in step 1?

By talking and listening to people before the actual meeting, I won’t be blinded by new information. And, I can work to get their alignment on my ideal outcome.

Chatting with attendees before the meeting helps them formulate their own opinions before they walk into the room. If they haven’t formulated their opinion before the meeting, it can be hard to predict what direction they’ll go in. Checking in before the meeting gives them time to think through risks and goals and makes them feel better about the meeting they’ll attend. In fact, I do not walk into the actual meeting if I don’t already know that we’re aligned on the best direction for this decision. If we need more time to align on the decision, I reschedule the meeting. I want to be able to predict the outcome and opinion of every important attendee before we walk into the room so it can all go smoothly.

This step is the most important step to a short and effective meeting.

90% Of the work that goes into a great meeting actually happens before the meeting starts.

The meeting itself can be short because we’ve heard everyone’s opinion before hand and sketched out a potential meeting conclusion.

4. Recruit a wingman for the meeting.

This person is going to help you keep track of time and keep everyone on task. Try to get one of the most powerful attendees on your side for this. While talking to them in #3, ask them “If we go off track too much, can you help me get us back to task?” “I’m worried that this person will bring up our last failed product as a reason to crush our plan, can you help me advocate for this cause?”

5. Start the meeting with 1 sentence about the goals of this session.

Literally this starts with “The goal of this 30 minutes is to leave with [a clear set of backlog priorities for this month that everyone is aligned with.]” (If you did #3 correctly, this should be a refresher for everyone)

6. Trust someone else in the room to come up with a good answer if the right questions are asked.

What I’ve learned from leading meetings is that when a crazy idea comes up, I’m not the only one that doesn’t like it. If I’m silent long enough, someone else will knock down the bad ideas. This is especially true if you do your pre-work and talk to everyone ahead of time. Giving someone else time and exposure helps everyone feel like ideas can be considered and consensus can be reach by a team, rather than a top-down PM-rules-only approach. After all, a PM can’t come up with all the best decisions alone.

7. Take the time allotted seriously.

If a meeting is 30 minutes, don’t let it go past 30 minutes. Use the limited time to force people to get to a decision point. You can use phrases like “we only have 5 minutes left so what can we do

    Heddy Stern

    Written by

    Associate Director @PivotalLabs in Boston

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