How great companies run meetings.
What we learned watching an afternoon of meetings at TINT.
Have you ever wondered how successful companies work? Not at the abstract level, but at the day-to-day, what-are-people-actually doing level? If so, this article is for you.
This is the first installment of our “meeting spotlight” series. Each article will take you inside a thriving company for an hour, an afternoon, or a day, and give you a window into what folks are up to. You’ll get a glimpse of what a meeting looks like inside that company.
We’re focused on meetings for two reasons. First, meetings tell the story of a firm’s culture. How do people interact? How is work getting done? How do they make tough decisions? Meetings provide a window into how companies actually work. By seeing how other teams operate, we hope to give you some inspiration you can apply to your own work.
The second reason we’re focused on meetings is because figuring out how to have great meetings is what we do. I’m a co-founder at Sunsama. Sunsama helps teams plan, run, document, and share their meetings, right from their calendar. We study real-world meetings to make sure what we’re building is real-world useful.
So with that out of the way, let’s jump in.
Pirates & Shoutouts
How TINT runs its meetings
“Reach under your chair, you’ll find an envelope taped underneath.” The team giggles in surprise, and the promised envelopes are pulled from their hiding places. “Ok, these are pirate hats. Everyone take one and put it on. Today, I want everyone to imagine that they’re a pirate, and that together, we’re on a mission to navigate our way across choppy seas to the golden treasure.”
It’s 12:20pm on a Wednesday, and we’re about to dive into the Q3 OKRs portion of the TINT weekly all-hands meeting.
TINT, for the unfamiliar, builds content display technology that helps marketers integrate user-generated content into websites, jumbotrons, and campaign microsites. Want to make sure all the new tweets from happy customers get seen by the world (in real-time)? TINT will hook you up.
Started back in 2012 as a team of four, TINT has grown into a thriving 30 person startup. Gone are the days when the co-founders knew everything that was going on. As their startup has grown, they’ve had to find ways to keep everyone on the same page, which is why TINT created its weekly all-hands meetings. Originally started as a daily standup, the format evolved as the team grew and they wanted a less time intensive way to bring everyone together.
I was lucky enough to be granted status as “fly-on-the-wall” to watch and learn how the TINT team runs their meetings. Here’s what I learned from an afternoon at TINT HQ.
12pm — 1pm
Once a week, the entire company gets together and meets for an hour over lunch. The co-founders determine the agenda and structure of the meeting. Since about 20% of the team is remote, there’s a big screen with Google Hangouts open so everyone has a chance to get involved.
1. Talk through the meeting’s agenda (5 minutes)
Tim, the CEO and meeting facilitator, walks through what’s on the agenda for the meeting, and sets expectations around timing.
2. Team updates (15 minutes)
Someone from each team (e.g. engineering, support) stands up and has 3 minutes to give high-level updates on the past week. This gives everyone an opportunity to learn what’s going on outside their immediate workflow.
For each team, the update structure is:
- 3 big wins
- 1 failure
- 1 funny story
3. Q3 OKRs (20 minutes)
Ryo, co-founder and COO, walks everyone through the Q3 OKRs by way of a pirate narrative. OKRs, or “Objectives and Key Results”, are a means for making sure everyone in the company knows what they should be working towards. The nautical theme makes the presentation more engaging and the objectives feel less abstract (e.g. “we need more gold without sailing around as much” vs. “we need to raise MRR”). Since you don’t see pirate hats every day, I asked Tim about this later. He said:
The pirate hats are meant to humanize the meeting. One thing to remember is we’re all human beings that resonate with funny, good vibes. That’s why we end with shoutouts, and share failure stories. I am a big advocate of humanizing relationships :)
Even with the pirate theme, this is a methodical discussion, with a lot of effort putting into defining the exact targets they want to hit, and why those targets are being prioritized.
Towards the end of the presentation, everyone pairs up and is given a chance to reflect and discuss with their partner what’s the single most important thing they think the company should be working towards over the next quarter. This gives them an outlet for expressing their own aspirations for the company, and gets them thinking about the different things that will need to come together to make that happen.
4. Shoutouts (5 minutes)
Open forum for folks on the team to shoutout praise for other teammates. Some shoutouts submitted in advance, others just yelled out around the room. Anything from “Rocco really killed it when we were doing rearchitecting” to “Thanks to Joel for stepping in for me while I was out on vacation.”
Tim is disciplined about laying out and sticking to the agenda, so everyone knows how long they’ll have for each of the topics. If someone is running over time, he’ll help nudge them along so they can prevent the meeting from running over.
This is a group that knows how to not take itself too seriously. Everyone’s rocking some sort of overlay (mustache a favorite) in the Google Hangout, and folks have an opportunity to share silly moments from the week during their updates. Also, pirate hats. This lightens up the mood and keeps it from feeling like a snoozefest.
There’s a dedicated note taker who jots down highlights from the meeting and shares them afterwards. This gives everyone a chance to revisit what was brought up, and keeps people who might not have been able to make it included in the discussion.
The OKR discussion highlights one of TINT’s cultural trademarks: everyone has full visibility into the financial situation of the company. A lot of the OKR discussion centered around revenue, and went into detail about the current financial positions of various sales channels. Everyone knows where the current strengths and weaknesses are in terms of financial health, and uses this understanding to know where to focus their own efforts to make sure the company keeps in the black.
2pm — 3pm
TINT Sales Training
Brad, Customer Success Strategist at TINT, put this meeting together to teach the rest of the sales team what he had learned about speaking with customers. The presentation focuses on tone, cadence, and word-choice. Six other folks from the sales team join, and the meeting is part presentation (led by Brad), part discussion.
1. Presentation on improving speech patterns (20 minutes)
Brad talks through a slide deck he’s prepared, with folks often chiming in with anecdotes to back up discussion points or add their own lessons learned from past calls with clients.
2. Breakout activity (5 minutes)
Everyone partners up and talks with their partner first about a topic they have no knowledge of or interest in, and then about something that gets them fired up. The exercise gives people a chance to hear the changes in speech patterns in both cases, and be mindful in their own conversations with clients not to fall into the disinterested/uninformed cadence.
3. Finish second half of presentation (15 minutes)
Brad closes out the rest of his presentation, including a brief recap of what patterns he had noticed when listening to recordings of other teammates’ calls, and how they might improve.
4. Closing discussion (5 minutes)
Everyone chimes in with what they took away from the presentation, and adds a few of their own ideas for how to improve.
Even though this was a presentation, Brad threw in a good mix of interactive activities and kept the atmosphere open for discussion. It felt like 60% presenter talking to the group, 30% discussion within the assembled group, 10% breakout activities, which was a better balance than if the presenter had just barreled through his slides.
The meeting was self-organized. Kudos to Brad for taking the initiative to spin up what he had learned from his own review of call recordings and sharing them with the rest of the group.
Using recordings of past conversations seemed like a powerful tool for teams like TINT’s to be able to reflect on their performance and improve in a non-abstract way. Hearing how you talk to someone else is an eye-opening experience.
3pm — 4pm
TINT Engineering OKRs
Led by Nik (co-founder and CTO), the engineering team gathers for an hour to map out what they’re going to tackle over the next quarter to meet their OKRs. 6 folks from the engineering team gather, one remotely, as well as one rep from the support team. The product OKRs had already been established in a previous meeting, so this meeting is really about mapping out features and projects to tackle that will achieve the established objectives.
1. Set the agenda (5 minutes)
Nik sets the stage for the objective of the meeting and a loose structure (dump > trim > prioritize > assign ownership).
2. Initial feature dump (5 minutes)
Nik writes out some possible features to tackle on the whiteboard as a means to get the discussion started. These were ideas that had surfaced over the past quarter and matched up to this quarter’s objectives.
3. Review product OKRs (10 minutes)
To make sure everyone is on the same page in terms of what metrics need to be hit, the group pulls up the product OKR deck that lays everything out clearly. This gives the team a chance to refamiliarize themselves with the list, and make sure their suggestions are on track.
4. Suggest specific features, discuss whether they’ll have a major impact (30 minutes)
Back to the whiteboard, the discussion opens up, and everyone takes turns offering up suggestions. This is where things get juicy, with a lot of proposals coming from all corners, each in turn coming under discussion by the rest of the group. A lot of discussion at this stage is what kind of impact a suggested idea would on a particular objective.
5. Trim down feature list by voting and eliminating based on scope (10 minutes)
With the whiteboard now full of possibilities, features/projects are trimmed down. Similar items are consolidated. Ideas deemed out of scope are scrapped. Features that don’t tie back to an OKR are erased. As a final step, everyone walks up to the whiteboard and votes on items they want to tackle by writing their initials next to it. The catch here is that writing your initials next to a proposed feature means you’re willing to take ownership for seeing that feature/project to completion. The discussion finishes with the trimmed list of features and the prospective owner list noted. The next step will be formally sorting out who is going to do what (some items had multiple folks interest in ownership…I’m looking at you mobile app).
Having the product OKRs in-hand was hugely valuable for this meeting. They helped guide all of the discussion, and made sure features were relevant. After the initial feature dump, grouping features by product OKR was a central part to how things got trimmed down and prioritized.
Big questions (e.g. “what are some features we could build that would address the product OKRs?”) are helpful to prep the team for in advance. Getting people to come up with big answers on the spot is hard, much easier if people have had to think it over in beforehand.
It’s hard for remote participants to be involved at the same level as folks in the room, especially when you’re using analog mediums for capturing information (like whiteboards). Even still, though it added a bit of overhead, having the remote engineer be part of the discussion led to stronger contributions, and allowed for them to have a say in the emotionally charged question of what really needs to be done.
Having folks outside the engineering team on-hand during this meeting proved to be a big help. In this case, the support team rep was able to chime in when a proposal came up for a feature that would cut down on a certain type of support ticket. Turns out it was a non-issue, as over the past few months the volume of those types of support tickets had declined substantially. It felt like having a teammate from other branches (e.g. sales) present could be useful for similar reasons, as feature impact can be hard for the engineering team to assess on its own.
Wrapping up the day
That wraps up our afternoon at TINT. At Sunsama, we’re always looking for ways to improve the meeting experience, so here are my key takeaways that we’ll try and bake into our own product experience.
- Having the right media on-hand when you walk into a meeting makes a difference. We’ll add support for attaching and previewing files straight from the meeting page. That way, when you need to pull up that reference deck during your planning meeting, it’ll be right at your fingertips.
- Getting everyone together to share progress and celebrate success keeps you feeling good and connected with your team, so long as it doesn’t drag on too long. We’ll try and make it easier for individuals to walk into each update with their bullet points already available for the group. That’ll give them more time to share their best stories out loud without sacrificing visibility into other important progress.
- The magic moments are happening outside the screen. Having an actual paper pirate hat you can wear during a meeting is something no “meeting tool” is going to recreate. We’ll try and have a light touch so that the tools you bring into a meeting don’t get in the way, and instead, help set the conditions for the kind of playfulness that brings out the best in us.
We missed the dance party later that night (11pm on a Wednesday, come on, how do you do it?), so we’ll save that chapter for another day. Thanks again to the TINT team for letting us take a peek inside how they work together. If you want to see more of the TINT life, check out their instagram. Tune in for the next installment of our company meeting spotlight in the coming weeks!