Thursday, 2 April 2009

Keeping meetings effective

Image representing Seth Godin as depicted in C...Image by
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This summary of Seth Godin's principles is quite useful, and lines up nicely with the principles of effective meetings I've learnt from past mentors. One personal goal of mine has been to get the folks I work with to try some of this framework, or at least adopt some of the habits and see their benefit, but sadly, old dogs and new tricks and all....still, I continue trying. I attach the draft of an article I wrote once on effective meeting formats for software development environments

Well planned meetings
Every well planned meeting should have a Meeting Owner, usually the same person who calls the meeting and is also expected to lead the meeting. The meeting owner is definitely the guy in charge of determining a meeting's Purpose, Objectives, Deliverables and Agenda (or what I've learnt to call the PODA).

If you think you need a meeting but cannot define this critieria, a meeting should not be called as it would be unstructured, unfocused, probably run over time and in general waste alot of time you could spend doing more defined things like building the code that drives some already well defined stories from your storyboard so it meets your acceptance criteria.
If you're still feeling a need to call a meeting because you really feel there is something that needs discussing, try polling the individuals you think you need to have there on a one-on-one basis at first until you have enough clarity to generate the PODA. In this manner you risk wasting only one person's time instead of many if indeed you're trying to call a meeting unnecessarily.

Tip: If you want to avoid becoming infamous as the 'the boy who cried wolf' of meetings it is a good idea to seek the
The Boy Who Cried Wolf, illustrated by Milo Wi...Image via Wikipedia
one-on-ones with in the order of whose presence would be needed most at that meeting: I like to do a mental weighting of each person I want at a meeting, and if I score more than 75% in my feedback seeking on whether or not to have a meeting, I call it.

Bigger Tip: CEO polling is an automatic 50-75% on its own in my book, because his time is the most valuable because it's probably the one most asked for from people, so if a CEO feels the need to be at a meeting, it isn't because of a need for a coffee break and chat. The counter is also true, in that if you need the CEO at a meeting and have gotten pings from everyone except him on what they think about potential PODAs for that meeting, it might still not be worth calling.

The PODA should always be sent as well beforehand as possible to all participants of the meeting. This from my experience allows several things to happen. First it allows people to give feedback on the PODA, and if they do not understand it they will make me, as the Meeting Owner, aware of this so that I can clarify it in a one-on-one meeting or conversation rather than waste several other people's time at the beginning of a meeting.
It also allows every participant to schedule in not just the time for a meeting, but to schedule dedicated time of their own before the meeting itself to properly prepare for the meeting. This is where recruiting the right people comes into play, since I'm essentially depending on another person having the discipline already in place to know to schedule time to prepare for a meeting and review the PODA beforehand, rather than walk into it unprepared and essentially take time away from acheiving the meeting PODA by needing to ask questions to help them 'catch up', questions that could have otherwise been asked beforehand. That being said, as Meeting Owner, it is also my responsibility to identify such potential participants beforehand, and take appropriate action. If this means rescheduling the meeting, then that's a better problem to have than folks I work with and/or answer to in uproar because they felt I wasted their time by calling them into an unproductive meeting.
MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA - OCTOBER 27:  U.S. Speaker ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife
However, because scheduling people to meet at a common time is so hard for ad-hoc meetings, especially busy folks like a CEO,what works better then is for me to bite the bullet and intervene more personally with that individual(s) to ensure they're properly prepped for the meeting, especially if I've realised from past experience this is their nature, despite constructive feedback to them on it. Needless to say, that's never been the CEO of a company I've worked with, and if I can help it, not someone I'd rank higher than 5% on my internal weighting scale when going through my listing of potential meeting participants.

A group of youth interactingImage via Wikipedia
War Story: A perfect example of an ineffective meeting happened while working recently. The new graphics developer for the website broke my just established 'zone-time' and started a conversation about our blogging strategy which resulted in about twenty minutes of heavy discussion and debate without the CEO, who had on his headphones and was oblivious to the talk. The debate ensued between him, our marketing guy, my technical architect and sadly myself, since I was now out of the zone and desperately trying to explain what I'm writing here to them so that I could return there and make my personal deliverable coding goal for the day. This story sticks out in my mind because I remember I didn't make my objective.

Now if you ignore my personal plight of not meeting goals and just do the math on time listed above, that's over an hour of lost productivity time because the person who would have key input and ultimately a voting say in what was the final outcome of discussions, wasn't there, even though all the other senior executive members of the team were. In addition to this, when they do have the meeting, they probably won't have this PODA strategy in place so will spend another 40-60 minutes of combined, wasted time, trying to establish what they're actually trying to discuss...why do I feel the need to call out a Vorgon analogy from this suddenly?