Getting The All-Hands Right
Can you really run an effective all-hands meeting each week? Is it worth it?
I think so. Meetings don’t kill companies. Valueless meetings kill companies (and individual motivation). In 1999, what was Google thinking? Shouldn’t they have been working?
In this post I offer some tips for all-hands meetings. They’re biased to my experiences and personal viewpoints.
I read this answer on Quora that fired my spidey sense:
Meetings pull people off of important tasks and slow productivity. If people aren’t on the same page, I would look at project management and other management techniques being used in the organization and have team leaders convey important information. I would use the all hands meeting for only big things like a merger, change in benefits, serious HR issues.
Hmmm. Is productivity the goal? Or efficacy? What are these “management techniques”? Should “team leaders” be the sole conduits for “important information”. And imagine how cool that meeting will be when they announce the merger, change the benefits, or address the serious HR issues. Joy!
I’m not about to say that weekly meetings are must. That’s a big investment and something you need to work hard to make valuable. But I would suggest holding them MORE often than is immediately comfortable. Stick to your guns. They can be improved and be made more valuable. Here are some examples (and stories) of companies that hold weekly meetings:
Be Proactive. Not Reactive
It’s painfully obvious when leaders are holding an all-hands to address rising discontent vs. holding to a cadence. If there is not enough regular “news”, then you’re likely not moving quickly enough or creating enough impact. Stick to a cadence and defend it. David Karp (Tumblr founder and CEO) was quoted as saying:
One of my biggest regrets is waiting until we were about 20 people to start holding regular weekly All Teams. Getting up there in front of so many people I adored was overwhelming, and my first attempt was hardly inspiring. I realized I could have had three years of practice, and a chance to work my way up to the big team, if I’d started earlier.
Don’t Micromanage The Message. Let It Emerge.
Myth, ritual, and narrative are incredibly powerful, but they are difficult to manufacture or fake. Ask carefully … what priorities are you truly embodying (and mythologizing) in your all-hands meetings? What is the story? What is the talk that is walked?
Executives often see all-hands meetings as “alignment builders”. The advice is to keep it “efficient”, stick to the agenda, and monitor every word to “stay on message”. To many employees this will come off as too slick and controlled. Let it be messy. Let it be unscripted. Tell the story. Connect. An “efficient” meeting message can be easily communicated by other means. But myths, ritual, and narratives can’t.
Engage Introverts (And Mere Mortals)
Only the most vocal people will speak up in front of the whole company. How do you engage the mere mortals and the introverts? Set up an anonymous “topic/question inbox” and always address one (or more) of these issues. Always. Make them public before the meeting. Relying on your direct reports to communicate back the water cooler talk is a risky proposition. Go straight to the source.
Skip Status-Checky Stuff
Don’t waste time communicating financials or dry progress-to-goal updates. This is far better communicated in a shared presentation or email. Or video. Those interested in the nuts and bolts will read on their own time. The time is too precious for relaying information that is equally comprehensible (or perhaps MORE comprehensible) in written form. Why isn’t this information simply available for all who care?
The risk of communicating this in meetings is that you’ll either oversimplify for the audience — missing valuable angles — or go over most people’s heads. Hit the key points and move on. Focus on the important variances.
Share The Stage
Let non-executives / non-managers speak for 40–60% of the time. They are your rockstars. This sends the right message. Inspiration can come from all areas of the company. I’ve seen UXers, Business Analysts, Marketers, Engineers, and Salespeople absolutely wow large companies. Consider that Google allocates 50% of all-hands time to QA.
Who will share the stage?
No Tech Issues
Deal with technical issues when involving remote workers. Have a backup option. Test the equipment. Have an open chat. Use quality microphones. Get a good quality video camera. It all matters.
Record The Meeting
On any given day you’ll have team members sick, on the road, or otherwise unavailable. You might also have virtual employees in a different timezone. Don’t leave them out. A side benefit is that you can go back and critique how the meeting flowed. To engage their remote employees and leave them feeling like part of the team, HelpScout replaced their all-hands with a video update.
Share Wins, Losses, and Learnings
It is incredibly important to make vulnerability, failure, and learning from your mistakes “safe” in your organization. Doing so in public sends a strong message, especially if leaders address their own missteps. Vulnerability (and humor) brings people together.At Etsy, all-hands meetings begin with an opening talent act by an employee. That’s a sign of a safe environment. Information should move both ways.
General Stanley McChrystal (leader of the Joint Special Operations Task Force from to 2003 until 2008) was known to run inspiring DAILY huddles. How did he make those meetings valuable? An INC magazine describes his strategy:
By continuing to share his own news — good and bad — and being nonjudgmental toward the other brave sharers. He also made the meetings as fast — and filled with can’t-miss discussions — as they could possibly be. If a particular individual had a four-minute speaking slot, the “update” portion of his slot was limited to the first minute. The rest was open-ended dialogue, which Silverman says helped “in creating a shared consciousness.” That is, the units began to learn more about how their own projects fit in with the whole. Moreover, the updates had to be about the present day. “No one wanted to hear what you’d done in the last war,” the co-authors write.
Make The Meeting Optional
There should be no stigma around missing the all-hands. Some people simply don’t care. Meetings just aren’t their thing. Others have lost interest. And that’s a valuable data point.
Return To Past Issues
Have teams “groom” a small set of initiatives that deserve a regular update. Keep this list fluid and relevant. But return to old topics to provide an update. One common complaint about all-hands is that they aren’t “two way” and don’t answer prior questions. If you mention a projection in an earlier meeting, make sure to close the loop. This gives an expectation of continuitity. Topics come full circle.
Mind The Timing
Monday’s tend to drag. Teams are not in the right headspace to tackle a lengthy meeting with a big workweek ahead of them. Mornings beat sleepy afternoons. Friday afternoons are a wash. “Branch day” can cause major distractions for dev teams. You’ll never find the perfect time, but there are terrible times. Avoid them.
Meeting, Measure, Learn
Typical negative responses to all-hands meetings include “too frequent”, “not relevant”, “no new information, and “boring”. This is vague and hard to quantify. Instead, send out regular anonymous surveys regarding the all-hands meeting and monitor trends in those results. The kneejerk response to these surveys is to make the meetings less frequent. Instead, consider sharing meeting feedback at a subsequent all-hands and take steps to adapt and experiment.
What has worked for you? When a frequent all-hands meetings not a good idea? What do you do if the meetings simply don’t drive value?