A Modest approach to hyper productive meetings that don’t suck.

I learned many awesome things during my first two years at the mobile commerce platform Modest, but the efficient way we held company-wide meetings was my absolute favorite.

A tiny, baby bit of background: Modest’s mission is to help merchants create better purchasing experiences for their customers. In 2013, CEO Harper Reed and CTO Dylan Richard introduced our team of about ten employees to the Holocracy management system. Our team tweaked what we learned about about techniques like “tacticals” (meetings about operational work) and “circles” (interconnected but autonomous teams) to make the management style work for us.

Last year after being acquired by Braintree/PayPal, we continued to use tactical-style meetings even as other aspects of our work evolved. Here’s why.

During Modest-style tactical meetings, everyone has an opportunity to check in with everyone else to share announcements, give updates, and ask questions. Despite having a team of over 25 members (including 50% who work remotely), our weekly tactical meetings rarely exceed the scheduled one hour timeframe.

A Modest tactical, 2016.

All you need to run a tactical meeting is a note taker and a facilitator. During the meeting, the facilitator keeps everyone on schedule and on topic (no crosstalk). After the meeting ends, the notetaker sends a recap to the entire team. This format works even for meetings of just two people.

How to hold a Modest-style tactical meeting

  1. Announcements 📢 The steering committee shares — and celebrates — the latest news. These announcements might include anything from introducing a new team member to sharing progress about a specific client/feature/department.
  2. Feature team updates 👯 Our cross-functional teams update the larger team on what they scoped/designed/built over the past week.
  3. Agenda building 📝 We go around the room, and every person on the team is given a chance to add a “tension” (perceived gap between what is and what could be) to the agenda. (Don’t forget to include your team members on Google Hangout!) We don’t talk in detail about these tensions until later. Topics for tensions can be anything, but you may only add one item at a time. We go around the room several times until we run out of tensions to add to the agenda.
  4. Discussion 💬 During this part of the meeting we go through and discuss every item on the agenda, one tension at a time. It is not uncommon to have repeat items on the agenda, but it’s key to go through them all. What one person has to say about that tension might be different than your tension, so it’s best to add your own item to the agenda.
    As we cover each topic on the list, it’s up to the tension owner to get what they need out of their question, announcement, or concern. Everyone can participate, as long as it adds to the topic. The goal is to have a quick conversation about it, cover what is necessary to mark that tension as “resolved,” and move on. 
    Any tensions that can’t be resolved within a few minutes get triaged into an action item (“We’ll set up a meeting on Monday to discuss this in detail” or “I’ll reach out to HR and report back to the team on what I discover.”)
  5. Demo 🎉 We end every meeting on a high note by sharing something that the team built, designed, launched, or tested over the past week. It can be something as small as new icons on a receipt, or as large as a fully functioning feature or product.

The Modest-style tactical meetings give every one of us on our team a voice that might be drowned out otherwise. This meeting format levels the playing field and creates an environment where everyone — from the summer intern to the CEO — has a chance to be equally heard.

I’m not claiming that our version of tactical meetings will solve all of your unfocused meeting problems or challenges with unheard voices, but if you are working to improve communication, inclusion, and transparency, give our approach to tactical meetings a try.

Animated GIFs and emoji can’t replace the face-to-face time that tactical meetings offer. In fact, tactical meetings are what has helped keep Modest’s collaborative, creative, entrepreneurial culture alive — and thriving.

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