Make meetings suck less

Some thoughts from the trenches on how Product Managers (or anyone for that matter) might run better meetings. Adapted from a talk I gave to aspiring PMs & engineers at Cornell Tech on 9/30/2014. #practicalPM

CC-BY-2.0 by Luis Argerich from Buenos Aires, Argentina

A few observations

  • People hate meetings, esp. engineers. Why? Because most meetings suck.
  • As PMs, we have an opportunity, and responsibility, to fix that.
  • With a bit of forethought we can make meetings effective and ~painless.

Some advice

What follows is my practical advice, from a PM perspective, based on lots of time spent in meetings good and bad at tech companies large and small.

1/ CALL AS FEW MEETINGS AS POSSIBLE

  • A PM should always be maximizing their team’s make-time (e.g. coding). Going to a meeting, even if short, can be very disruptive to everyone’s “flow”. Have a high bar by recognizing the cost everyone bears. Implication: seek to minimize occurrence & length of meetings as much as possible.
  • Many meetings can be avoided through: (1) Brief email thread; (2) Group IM chat; (3) Quick / informal huddle. Start here whenever feasible.
  • Meetings do become necessary when (1) Resolving a contentious topic and/or other means not working; (2) Joint creativity (brainstorming) required; (3) Need to clarify nuanced or sensitive issue; (4) Long tail of other reasons.

2/ KEEP MEETINGS LASER-FOCUSED

  • Invite as few people as possible. Guideline is < 7 people for maximum effectiveness. Even more important is inviting the *right* people.
  • Meeting invite should always contain clear statement of meeting’s purpose. Be as detailed as possible; include key questions to be addressed. Allows people to decide whether to attend and/or to prepare appropriately. Conveniently serves as agenda during meeting.
  • Always restate the purpose when kicking off meeting. People need reminding and helps set tone + expectations for discussion.
  • Curtail off-topic conversation quickly. Ask people politely to take irrelevant stuff “offline” (outside of meeting).
  • Tailor meeting style to group. If your team => minimize socializing (lots of time outside meeting for that). Else => some socializing appropriate to build rapport & relationship.
  • Adjourn early and aggressively. Getting out is as (more?) important than getting in. Too easy for meeting to expand to fill its calendar slot. As soon as goals of meeting have been met, end the meeting! People will appreciate getting some of their life back (trust me, you’ll be a hero).
  • Kill meeting/topics if consensus elusive. No sense spinning endlessly on topics that are clearly not converging. Take them offline and seek resolution (e.g. escalation or other) path.
  • Treat the end of meeting as a hard stop (assume someone else will need the room). Exerts a positive pressure to drive resolution.

3/ MAKE SURE VALUE IS CREATED

  • Wrapping up meeting is your opportunity to clarify meeting’s value. Summarize what was decided. To enforce accountability, explicitly outline: (1) Action items & owners (2) Next steps. Doing this helps keep you honest: did this meeting accomplish anything useful?
  • After meeting, type up notes of above, circulate to attendees (& others if relevant). Set reminder to follow-up on action items & next steps; chasing stuff up is critical to realizing meeting’s value.

Why bother?

Because meetings are a necessary evil and too important to neglect.

  • Better meetings = More effective decision making = ↑ execution velocity
  • Less time in meetings = ↑ execution velocity, ↑ team happiness
  • Running a great meeting = ↑ trust in you, ↑ influence over long term

PMs — let’s keep getting better and make meetings suck less for everyone.