written by cyle gage
version 0.1, last updated 12/04/14

How to Run a Meeting

Why are you having a meeting?

The very first question you always have to ask is very simple: why are you having a meeting? Really. Meetings are terrible for a few obvious reasons:

There are often better ways of solving a problem than a meeting. Don't allow the "we'll just call a meeting" habit. Revolt against it. It's a cheap way to push off work and waste peoples' time.

Ok, So You're Meeting Anyway

Let's proceed under the assumption that you are having a meeting because you really actually need to. It's an important topic with a diverse group of people who don't meet regularly and all of them are intregal to the topic. Everyone should have something to say.

Here's how you run that meeting.

Keep it Short

A good meeting at a typical company should start at 15 minutes long for one major topic between three or four people. That's it. Got two topics? 30 minutes. Got six people? 30 minutes. Got four topics and seven people? An hour, fine.

If you have more than seven people and/or more than five or six topics, you should work really hard to make sure the meeting is fast, or maybe it needs to be separate meetings. Or maybe you're going about this massive project all wrong. It should take effort to justify a big, long meeting.

Don't make a "default" assumption that a meeting should be an hour. Have respect for other peoples' time, and assume the meeting should be short. The only exception to this is if the meeting is some kind of loose, unstructured creative brainstorming time. In that case, maybe block off a lot of time. But this is rare.

Make the Purpose Clear

Why are you all in a room together? As the person running the meeting, make this perfectly clear the first time you meet. Say it out loud explicitly: here's the problem we are here to solve. Here's the project we need to discuss. Here are the tasks that need to be completed and require all of your attention.

Make it difficult for anyone in the room to wonder why they're present. If they are wondering that question, address it head-on, because it's possible they don't know what you think their role is.

Start an Agenda and Notes Document

Open a new spreadsheet in Google Docs. Share everyone in the meeting on it. Here's what it should look like:

Date and Time of MeetingAgenda Item DescriptionNotes
Agenda item title here (brief)Description of what's to be discussed and maybe even why it's being discussed.Any notes you collect during the meeting.
Another agenda itemA descriptionBlank if it's before the meeting, full of notes afterwards.

If the meeting is recurring, just add a new block of this at the top, pushing down the old meetings but keeping them in the same sheet. That way you have not only the agenda items of past meetings, but also the notes, and the agenda of the next one or two scheduled meetings. Everyone should have access to see it well beforehand.

Here's what an agenda might look like before the meeting:

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014 at 10AMAgenda Item DescriptionNotes
Culture reviewHave we documented our culture standards?
New app ideasAnybody got any? Boss wants some.

Awesome. Send that out the previous day. Everybody can see this, add more agenda items, or even comment on the existing ones (possibly negating the need to discuss them). Here's what the meeting minutes/notes might look like after the damn meeting:

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014 at 10AMAgenda Item DescriptionNotes
Culture reviewHave we documented our culture standards?Cyle has written down a few; Joe will write down meeting policies; we'll publish them internally by next week.
New app ideasAnybody got any? Boss wants some.No new ideas. Jen will poll the teams.

Notes should include the highlights of what was discussed, anything that's actionable (as in somebody is gonna actually do work!), and deadlines that were agreed upon. Note what to bring up at future meetings, if there needs to be any.

Somebody Maintain the Agenda and Notes

Cannot stress this enough. Somebody, and it doesn't have to be the meeting's "leader", needs to make sure there's an agenda that's sent out at least 24 hours beforehand, and that there are notes available as soon as possible (within 24 hours after the meeting, if not immediately).

The value of a meeting lives and dies by the documentation of its proceedings. At least when you email someone, there's a record of it. In a meeting, it's very possible you could all leave the room, nobody having taken notes, and have everyone forget what was agreed upon or even discussed at all. Congrats, you probably just wasted hundreds or thousands of dollars of salary.

The questions "what was discussed?" and "what work came from that meeting?" should be trivial to answer.

Use Centralized Calendar Services

If you're not using some kind of centralized calendar-ing software/service like Google Calendar, Microsoft Exchange via Outlook, or iCloud, then you should stop right now and go sign up for one. You're not a professional person until you have a calendar you can write down appointments in. Furthermore, you're not a professional person until you have a calendar that other people can query. Somebody should be able to see when you are and are not available.

Most meeting "time" is wasted just trying to set up the meeting because nobody has their availability easily accessible. Have you availability ready and easily accessible so somebody else can make the damn meeting happen, if it must happen.

Meeting Frequency for Recurring Meetings

Sometimes a recurring meeting actually has merits — let's say you're working with a client and they want a weekly check-in implementation catch-up. Or let's say your department has a Change Management team that should meet bi-weekly to discuss new and ongoing department-wide projects. These meetings are acceptable because they streamline or improve existing processes. They create workflows that are worth more than the time they consume, which is the goal of all meetings.

At some interval, whether it's every six months or every twelve meetings, re-assess the need for the meeting and its frequency. Poll the people in the meeting: is it still useful? Should you meet less often? Look at your agenda: is it consistently full, or are there repeating lulls?

Be honest with yourselves if the meeting becomes useless. Better yet, look at it this way: the meeting has accomplished its purpose and can be put on a shelf with other successes. It's a project of process that's done well and lasted as long as it needed to. There's nothing sadder than a group that keeps meeting but doesn't have anything to talk about.

Processes to Negate Meetings

There are a lot of ways to cut down on meetings, most of them involve improving communication. Real-time collaboration tools like Slack (or just a good old fashioned IRC or Jabber server) can cut down on the need for meetings because people will get used to just being able to talk to each other in real time. Project management suites like Basecamp can offset the need for meetings.

Try out these tools and processes when you look at your calendar and see most of your day devoted to meetings. Nobody should have to live that way. It's a testament to our propensity for bureaucracy that we have people whose jobs seem solely dedicated to meetings.

Go on back to Cylesoft now.