Following the acquisition of Jabber by Cisco in 2009, I went from working in a 60 person company to a 100,000 person company. One of the most striking cultural differences in that transition was how the once-separate companies viewed meetings. In Jabber, if we needed to make a decision, we chatted about it really quickly and then made the call. People had line-of-sight access to most of the people they needed to work with so it was all pretty easy.
At Cisco, EVERYTHING involved a meeting. The most common type of meeting involved getting a LOT of people together with a two-word agenda, complaining about Webex for the first ten minutes until we were through the technical hurdles, talking almost randomly around what people thought were the key issues for 55 minutes before people realized they were five minutes late for their next meeting, and then rapidly breaking up with no action items or decisions. It was madness.
So you know that I’m not anti-meeting, I want to be really clear. As a company grows, communication is a huge challenge and effective meetings are an absolute necessity. What I struggled with was not the number of meetings. I struggled with the quality of the meetings. Frankly, they were just a colossal waste of time. Preferring to light a candle instead of cursing the darkness, I put a presentation together with Joe Hildebrand on how to have a meeting and walked all Engineering leadership through it. Following are the guts of that presentation.
Meetings are important but we should make sure they’re useful to everybody. Make sure to have the:
- Correct People. Everybody must have a purpose. Inviting people so their feelings don’t get hurt is not a purpose.
- Correct Agenda. This allows everybody to come prepared.
- Correct Outcome. Capture the actions and decisions. If it isn’t written down, it doesn’t count.
Before the meeting
- Try to avoid the meeting in the first place. Is this something that can be solved with an email, text, or phone call? Do that instead.
- Create the agenda. The agenda should be specific and include a small number of topics. It should define what success of the meeting looks like. Be explicit about the role of each person attending. Are they there for input or to make a decision? Do you want their general opinion or a specific perspective based on their expertise in a given area? In some cases, it may be easier or better to just IM/text each attendee to let them know why you’re inviting them. The bottom line is that nobody should walk into a meeting wondering why they’ve been invited.
- Invite the right people. For any working meeting in which discussion or decision-making is required, only invite those critical to the conversation. The more people you have in the room, the less likely you’ll be to accomplish anything. Make sure all required participants can attend.
- Reply quickly. If you’re invited to a meeting, accept or decline quickly so that the organizer knows your availability. (And let’s be real — “tentative” really means “no” so just say it.). If your role is unclear, seek clarification. If none is forthcoming, decline the meeting.
During the meeting
- Start on time. (Pot, meet kettle.)
- Stick to the agenda.
- Appoint a scribe. The meeting organizer is the scribe if one is not appointed. When appointing one, please be sensitive to the proven gender-bias in doing so. Make sure men get equal time scribing.
- Capture action items
- Capture decisions
After the meeting
- Send notes. The scribe should send notes out on the same day, preferably immediately after the meeting. Any disagreements / corrections to those notes must be brought up within 24 hours.
- Action items translate into real work. They become requirements, tracked tasks, filed defects, etc. Make sure to use the tools that you use for all your organization’s other activities rather than fall prey to the notion that you’ll just remember to do these things.
- Re-evaluate recurring meetings. After each recurring meeting, ask yourself if it is still required. Also ask if the attendees are still correct. Often, recurring meetings outlive their usefulness and continue to exist just because they always have.
I’d love to say that the quality of meetings really improved after putting all of this out there. In reality, some meetings did get better but others didn’t. By gaining agreement on these basics, though, I gave permission to everybody to decline the ones that lacked basic hygiene. In so doing, many of us regained control of our calendars and attended only the effective meetings. That meant we could more time to make our customers happy and generate revenue.
What did I miss? Feel free to comment below on what you believe to critical meeting hygiene.