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An ex-soldiers guide to meetings

Meetings are a regular staple of life in the combat arena that we call the office. As an operative in an office, I’d like to proffer a few suggestions from the eyes of a former soldier.

Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Bin meetings without purpose

No agenda — No attender!
Think like an attendee of your meeting. Why should they be there? The answer comes in the agenda. There must be a purpose for the meeting. In general, there are three types of meeting, which each needs a different agenda.

The group catch up. A parade. The agenda for this one doesn’t need to be set. The agenda is rooted in ritual and tradition. The people who need to speak, know what they need to say. The others need to listen. As a software developer — this for me now is a daily standup. Our formula is what did we do yesterday, what is stopping us from progressing today, what is it we aim to do today.

The decision meeting. As a soldier, this is your O group, for orders. The agenda for this type of meeting must be communicated beforehand. There should be a number of phases. Possibly — establishment of the problem, discussion of the problem, and decision. A commander runs this meeting, the meeting does not take place in its own form. There should be a formal phase of problem description, maybe a more informal ideation phase, then a re-formalising to the conclusion to this. But these are mostly informal steps. Grooming meetings take the same structure for developers. There is a formal statement of a problem. Which is then discussed informally, and at the end of the discussion a decision is made. A key point to a successful grooming session is that the agenda contains the list of decisions to be made, with sufficient background to allow people to prepare. Attendees can then read through the background, and prepare for the meeting. this preparation time is where each member can think about how to add value to the conversation.

The ideas meeting. As a soldier, this is the mess committee. As a software developer, this can be the project initiation planning session or an ad-hoc problem-solving meeting. There must be an agenda here to prevent this from becoming a social chit chat session. The agenda should be there, front and center — Bottom line up front (BLUF) before the meeting.

It takes two people to run a meeting well

In most meetings, there should be the person who is in charge of the meeting, and the person who runs the meeting. In a section orders meeting the role of the Second in command (2ic) should not be underappreciated.

Before a meeting, a 2ic should typically do a number of things. Let people who are attending know they will be attending. similarly. There may be people who are scheduled to be elsewhere, they or the meeting need to be rearranged. The meeting space needs to be prepared. If there is a model of the attack area, that needs to be built. If it's in a classroom, the tables and chairs need to be organised correctly or possibly removed. Soldiers need to be reminded to be on time. Observers may need dissuading or may need a space where they can observe without disrupting the meeting.

Entry to a meeting is also another place where you need help. You should be the face at the front. Your 2ic should be getting the attendees bums on the correct seats, water in bellies, and phones off.

During the meeting it is the 2ic that keeps their eye on the clock, and prompts the commander to move on. The resources you were distributing — yup that's theirs too. The 2ic may need to maintain order during the meeting. If the technology goes wrong, it is the 2ics role to implement rapid repairs to the technology, so that the commander can continue without interruption. Also indicate if someone is trying to contribute, but you haven’t seen them. and take notes of the meeting if notes are required.

After the meeting its the 2ic who should provide you with the most reliable feedback, and check that things are packed away, and if necessary destroyed. similarly, they may need to be caught up with some of the salient points. Theirs is not an easy job, you should also thank them

Even if your meetings are not as involved as this. You have enough on your plate with running the meeting, that you probably need someone else to share the load. Having a second person at least watching the clock, and keeping the meeting running to time makes a huge difference. This is probably more important with digital meetings. Having someone chasing the attendee who drops off to answer their phone in the middle of your meeting enables you to keep going.

On a similar note — start your meetings on time, and lean on your 2ic. Even if your 2ic needs to tell someone to shut the fuck up.

Only have meetings which are actually proper meetings, or call it what it is.

As we have moved online for the majority of meetings I have noticed a massive rise in the number of meetings that are not really meetings. Sometimes this is a good thing. I have a number of college friends that meet up infrequently via zoom for a beer and chat, still post-pandemic. This is good. However equally there are is another more insidious meeting that needs to be eradicated. The presentation. The presentation involves PowerPoint usually, or a person sat at their home desk on teams, or go-to-meeting and presents a slide deck.

There is no interactivity in this. Interactivity with attendees is the key here. If you’re doing one of these, and not expecting interaction from the audience, then it's a presentation, not a meeting, and don’t do it as a meeting.

Even if you’re saying to yourself at the moment — “I’ll ask for any questions at the end”. If you’re going to read a PowerPoint — just send the PowerPoint. Modern standards of literacy mean that most people who you are working with will be able to pick up the meaning without you having to read aloud like a primary school kid demonstrating that you can read. Move on, you’re beyond that now.

If you’re wanting to talk to people, to convey more meaning, using facial expressions, hand gestures, body language, eye contact and all that jazz — good. Do that in a video. Use Streamlabs, or something else similar. Make the video, edit out the bits where you trip over your tongue, or pause for a well-earned fart, and send out a polished thing.

By “send it out”. Think about having a team blog or wiki rather than an email. This usually gives you the chance to get questions at the end. Post notes, and change things. Emails invite personal responses that can’t be seen by everyone else.

If you’re now asking “How will I know that people have seen my thing”? Then you need to also be asking other questions like:
- If the attendees are my team, and I can’t trust them to listen when I send stuff, can I trust them to work for me?
- If the attendees are attending to learn, and they don’t attend, then who loses out, them or me? is there a better way of checking they read or watched the presentation? Checking learning rather than attendance perhaps? If I do a lesson on first aid, am I better off taking the names of those who attend, or looking at who can do CPR on the dummy the next week?

There are of course good reasons to have conferences, lectures, and presentations. In-person these can be great experiences. But, there are also the important bits in between lectures where attendees get to socialise, network and talk.

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Brian Jones

Brian Jones

Coder, Dad,

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