Good meetings focus on problems

As you take on roles of increasing responsibility, your viewpoint on meetings tends to change: When you’re young and inexperienced, you desperately want into them, and when you’re old and experienced you desperately want to avoid them.

The reason for this is fairly simple: Both the most junior and most senior member of the team have exactly the same number of hours in their day. When you oversee a big crew and you’re being pulled in a million directions, making sure that you run efficient meetings becomes more and more critical.

This is even more important when lots of people are invited; if you hole up a half dozen folks in a room for a discussion, you’re expending an awful lot of time that could otherwise be invested elsewhere, and so you want to make that time well spent.

Good things happen in writing

In my experience, a good meeting always starts with some kind of document. This could be a paper, or maybe a series of notes taken by each participant. For our status meetings, for example, we ask each attendee to fill in a short template that outlines what they’re working on, what is challenging them, and what kind of assistance they need.

Putting things on paper is a good way to make sure that everyone is aligned on the nature of the meeting—plus, writing things down forces everyone to think through their problems more thoroughly, and creates an expectation that the meeting itself is going to be thoroughly documented rather than hand-wavy.

Figure out what you want to achieve

Next, you need a solid agenda. One thing that I have discovered here is that it is often very hard to come up with a good list of items for discussion before a meeting, because participants and organizers are often otherwise busy and tend to only complete documents right before (or, sometimes, during) the meeting, leaving no time for others to raise comments and suggest topics for conversation.

Therefore, I often set aside the first few minutes of a meeting to give everyone an opportunity to read through the written materials and point out what they believe we should discuss (another good reason for always accompanying a meeting with a document).

This may seem like a counterintuitive waste of time, but it actually helps everyone prepare for the discussion even if they didn’t have time to do so beforehand. Personally, I’m always okay with investing a little time in exchange for a more informed crowd.

Put someone in the driver’s seat

Finally, you need a good moderator. Someone must “own” the meeting and decide which topics are discussed and for how long, relegating the rest to smaller meetings or asynchronous communication mechanisms like e-mail.

I’ve found it important to give the moderator a fair amount of latitude, and everyone else must be okay with the fact that they may not get to have the discussion they want because they’re not in charge.

Focus on the negative

Perhaps the most counterintuitive lesson I have learned is that good meetings tend to focus extensively on problems. If you work on a team whose members have deep respect for each other, there is no reason to dwell on celebration and praise, because everyone knows that everyone else is doing great work. Instead, you drive right to the challenges, and focus everyone’s efforts on solving them.

It’s amazing how much more productive this can make meetings. By centring the discussion on the negatives that need rectifying, you can easily cover more ground and dig deeper into every topic. More importantly, even though the bulk of the meeting is spent dealing with problems and failures, folks will come out of it more satisfied, because you’ll also be talking about solutions, which is ultimately what everyone is after.