Overthinking Life
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Overthinking Life

The Ultimate Guide to Highly Efficient Meetings

ACT I

When I first interned, I noticed the engineers would have six meetings with the same people talking about the same things before any actions were taken. It was then I decided not only do I not like long meetings, but I’m going to avoid them.

This worked for a number of years before Apple. Apple, by nature, was very collaborative. This meant meetings. I was lucky though, for I had a Highly Effective Engineering Program Manager (Highly Effective EPM). I have learned wise things from this engineer on how to run efficient and short meetings, and I want to share them because I believe meetings more than 29 minutes and 59 seconds are a waste of time (with a few qualified exceptions).

Meetings are boring and expensive. They are the most expensive gathering during the workday versus the amount of work getting done.

Efficient meetings start with 30 minutes in length. They always have an agenda, and there are snacks.

Some are not convinced of having snacks in meetings, but snacks/food resolves a fundamental need for people. On top of this, how many times have I foregone food because work was on a roll? When people are hungry, usually they have more difficulty concentrating and/or agreeing with others. These are keys for solid collaboration. Snacks also help create the social process that is the design process (as a wise engineer once said, “The design process is a social process.”).

30 Minutes is also key. Why not an hour or two hours? By setting a time limit, it forces one to focus on what’s important. There are always too many priorities and things to do, but this is very important so that a real focus on the essentials can be achieved. The agenda aids in this by making it clear what we’re having a meeting for anyhow. If you don’t know why you’re having a meeting, don’t have a meeting. If you aren’t clear why you go to a specific meeting, why go? If you gain nothing from a meeting and give nothing to a meeting, the meeting is just a waste of your time.

The meeting cycle is also important because the informal meetings before and after are just as important to efficient meetings. The main key for the meeting cycle is establishing the components of an efficient meeting. The pre-meeting is getting people to have the discussions that shouldn’t be had with a larger audience. For example, if I have a new idea, it is better that I socialize the idea first before bringing it up in the meeting. This gives people a chance to think more deeply about the idea, and it also allows the more introverted time to discuss with others.

Introverts may not feel as comfortable debating ideas in a meeting with a larger crowd. For good collaboration, I keep the idea in my head that everyone works a bit differently, and for the best ideas to come out, time is required. I’m very extroverted, but I have found my ideas are better received when people aren’t first hearing them in a meeting.

I prefer Efficient Espresso. That’s where people have espresso with me, we bullshit, and in a short few minutes, more gets done than one would think. Sharing espresso has been such a joy and so helpful to my work life. I usually have espresso twice a day, and it provides a nice opportunity to socialize with people and then kick around some ideas in a relaxed environment.

In case, you want to know how much a meeting cost, check out this cost calculator. You put estimated salaries for everyone in the room, and you can watch the cost go as the meeting progresses. It helps to answer the question, is this meeting really helping?

ACT II

Communication Efficiency is very important to effective meetings from one-on-ones to larger crowds. I learned early on, a little face time with people went a long way. I was working as an intern at Ford Motor Company, and I was shadowing an engineer who was responsible for getting a car rigged with sensors for summer testing. The car was used to test climate control hardware instructions the desert. He tasked me with talking to the mechanic everyday. He took me over to the other building about ten miles away, introduced me, and told me to go everyday. He said talk about anything and be nice because if the mechanic sees us everyday, it puts a face to the work. Then the work becomes more personal.

For three weeks, I went over there everyday, and I got to know him. The end result was the job was done with high quality. Even though I can’t pinpoint my contribution, the lesson was shown to me in many more examples over the years. I would have difficulty getting traction, but suddenly, I would talk to the person face-to-face, and the work started to move forward. Roadblocks disappeared.

Another key for meeting efficiency is the Engineer:EPM Ratio. The optimal number of EPM’s in a meeting is 1 for every 4 engineers/engineer managers. Too many EPM’s, and there’s too many people trying to drive schedule. Too few, and the boat is rudderless.

Meeting efficiency is also tied to the number of people in a meeting. I have found one-on-one meetings provide more than me working alone on an idea. That isn’t to say larger meetings are unnecessary. Some meetings like data analysis meetings allow everyone to see what everyone else is working on. While not very efficient, they are often required to communicate up the management chain.

This doesn’t mean meetings aren’t important, but I have worked to keep the number of meetings I go to at the level I need to be able to get my work done. That means not above or below. I usually ask myself the following to determine how much I need to go to a meeting:

  1. What could I provide to a meeting?
  2. What could I get from a meeting?
  3. Will I feel disconnected from the conversation to the point I would pull out my laptop and start working?
  4. Did my manager want me to go?

ACT III

Go to fewer meetings. Worry about getting shit done not who sees you doing it. Don’t waste time in inefficient meetings, but do participate and contribute to meeting efficiency by staying on agenda, putting down your phone/computer, and engaging.

If you like, follow me on Twitter and YouTube where I post videos of espresso shots on different machines and espresso related stuff. You can also find me on LinkedIn.

Further readings of mine:

Hiring: Lessons Learned

Staccato Espresso: Leveling Up Espresso

Espresso filter analysis

Decisions by Consensus

Wisdom: Learning from Others

Abandon Ship: How a Startup went Under

How to talk to Strangers at Work

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Robert McKeon Aloe

Robert McKeon Aloe

I’m in love with my Wife, my Kids, Espresso, Data Science, tomatoes, cooking, engineering, talking, family, Paris, and Italy, not necessarily in that order.