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The day we met

 Quit wasting my time. Would you, could you, PLEASE quit wasting my time? Maybe if I jump across the table and duct tape your mouth shut, I could take action instead of sitting here incredulously while you incinerate 60 minutes of my life. How does calling a meeting give people license to act like you’re worthless? If time is money, most meetings are a market collapse. I am so tired of people who could sooner drive a bus off a cliff than run a decent meeting.

Well I’m not going to take it anymore. If you force me into a meeting room, be prepared for me to call you on any stunts you try to pull. You waste my time, and I’ll ensure yours gets torched with it. Don’t like it? Don’t test me. What am I going to call you on? Listen up, ’cause here it comes….

Why are we here?

The first question I’ll interrupt your self-serving soirée with is, “Why are we here?” What was the point of us getting together? Was there a reason? If you haven’t made that reason clear to everyone, we all probably think it’s something different and will chase our tails for the allotted time, accomplishing nothing. I don’t know—maybe send an agenda and the documents that we’re going to discuss in advance? Thanks.

If you did make the point of the meeting clear, I’m probably reminding you to stick to the point! I don’t care if there are 50 other meetings with 50 other decisions to make, topics to cover, or bits of information to share. I’m in this meeting now, and I darn well want to at least bury this one. If someone wants to talk about something else, let him put on his own show after we’re done.

Eric AsideHow do you politely cut off someone trying to switch topics? My favorite approach is to say, “Let’s get closure on this topic first, then we’ll focus on your topic.” Typically, after you close on the first topic everyone will want to leave. The interrupter will have to schedule a separate meeting with the right people (much better). Should the interrupter insist that closure on his topic is necessary first, discuss why that is the case (which actually focuses on the original topic). If the interrupter is right, your meeting is premature and should be rescheduled. No one will mind leaving.

What are we trying to do?

My next question will be, “What are we trying to do?”

  • Are we trying to reach a decision? Great, let’s decide and skip the idea generation, status checks, and rumor mill.
  • Are we trying to share information (like a status meeting)? Great, then get through the information list and stop trying to make decisions or solve problems.
  • Are we trying to generate ideas? Great, then capture everyone’s ideas and stop critiquing or judging what’s possible. At the end, pick the best idea and be done with it.

The point is that combination meetings are ineffective and wasteful. Know why you are all there and what you are trying to accomplish. If you need to switch contexts, be deliberate about it, and let everyone know that the rules have changed. Otherwise, you’ll waste everyone’s time, spin endlessly, and eventually have to meet again. When you do, don’t bother inviting me; I’m not coming.

Eric AsideA common special case of this issue is bringing up design issues at Scrum meetings. Scrum meetings are about sharing information, not generating ideas or making decisions. Nothing derails a Scrum meeting like a design discussion. However, because design discussions are worthwhile, we keep a list of discussion topics on the whiteboard during Scrum. When the Scrum meeting is complete, whoever wants to can stay and participate in the design meeting.

Why are they here?

Okay, so we’ve got a reason for meeting and we know what we’re doing. Now why are they here? You know—the people who don’t belong here. The people who are asking the unnecessary questions, who are repeating other people’s points, who have to speak up just to say they agree. Why are those people here?

The length of a meeting is directly proportional to the number attending, and I doubt that the relationship is linear. You should invite only those who NEED to be there.

  • Trying to reach a decision? Invite the decision makers. Everyone else can find out later via e-mail. All the necessary decision makers can’t attend? Cancel the meeting. NOW! Otherwise, you’ll have to recap the whole meeting again when everyone can attend.
  • Status meeting? Invite the people who will share their status. Everyone else can find out later via e-mail. Some status people can’t make it? I guess they’re slackers.
  • Brainstorming meeting? Invite a few creative, open-minded people who’ll make the meeting successful. Everyone else can find out later via e-mail.

Sometimes you must invite a few others who are key to the meeting’s success: facilitators, mediators, cheerleaders. But that’s it. If too many others are signed up to attend, cancel the meeting. (You can tell how many people plan to attend because when folks accept a forwarded meeting, you receive the confirmation.)

Try booking a small room; it dissuades uninvited guests. Try scheduling the meeting for just 30 minutes—it makes folks show up on time and keeps the meeting moving. You can say it’s a “working meeting” and even use information rights management (IRM) to prevent forwarding the appointment if necessary.

Why am I hearing this now?

For important topics, you don’t want to surprise key players. No one likes to be rushed in making critical decisions, and no one wants to be uninformed about critical areas. If you need the meeting to go smoothly, talk to the key players beforehand. You can discover the issues, negotiate a compromise, and get everyone on the same page in advance. Then the meeting becomes a mere formality. This is a good practice for every decision meeting, but it is time-consuming. For critical decisions, it is a critical step.

What are the next steps?

So the meeting is done, finished, kaput, right? Wrong! Meetings are like Hollywood horror show zombies. They come back to life and eat those who remain. Determine the next steps, and document them in e-mail. That is the way to make dead meetings stay dead.

Address the e-mail to all attendees and cc: everyone affected by the outcome. Include a short meeting summary of the decisions made, information shared, or ideas generated. Then list the next steps specifying who does what, when. Now, finally you can move on in safety.

See, it’s not so hard to respect people’s time. Meetings are costly in so many ways. Of course, they are necessary for strong group communications. But if you run them, run them well. Everyone will appreciate it, and you’ll get more done.

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