Table of Contents
- No.1: Start with clear agenda
- No.2: Choose attendants wisely
- No.3: Keep number of attendants low
- No.4: What if … Set aside some extra time
- Closing thoughts on productive meetings
Productive meetings are key for running effective startup. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles that may prevent you from achieving this. Don’t worry. I found seven proven ways to get your team together and improve your meetings. The good news is that all these lessons are easy to be duplicated. All methods we will discuss are also based on hard science and amount of experience from working with different startups. Use these seven ways to run more productive meetings than you though is possible. Without further ado, let’s begin.
No.5-7 are in part 2.
No.1: Start with clear agenda
There is one thing the vast majority of productive meetings have in common. All of them start with an agenda. I’ve attended a lot of meetings. I’ve also lead and managed a lot of them. My experience clearly showed that the most productive meetings always had clear agenda. I think that many people think about agenda-driven meeting in a wrong way. They usually outline the agenda at the beginning of the meeting, when all participants are present in the room. This is wrong.
My opinion is that it is much better to send the agenda to all participants upfront. In other words, everyone should know the agenda before the meeting start. Let me tell you my usual way for approaching agenda to run productive meetings. When I schedule a meeting with my team, I will send the agenda either one day before. This is usually in the afternoon or evening. This means that all participants will have a couple of hours to prepare for the meeting.
There is another benefit of sending the agenda the day before. When someone knows he will not make it, he has enough time to notify me or someone else in the team. However, the most important is that everyone knows what will be the topics of the meeting. There are only a few things worse than arriving at the meeting unprepared. When this happens, it slows down everything. If there is some close deadline, it can be also quite stressful.
Another problem with unannounced meeting is that no one has a chance to prepare for possible questions. With every question, chances are that you surprise your teammate with something unexpected. This is another way how to put your teammates under more stress than necessary.
Starts with the subject
Agenda for productive meetings should start with clear title. This title should summarize the main topic or subject of the meeting. Think about it as a book. The title of the book will probably never tell you the whole story. Yet, it will give you at least some idea about what’s inside. The title of agenda is very similar. When it comes to the title, your teammates should understand two things. Th first one is that it should be clear that they are reading an agenda.
I saw in a few situations how managers tried to wrap the agenda in a little bit less formal form. As a result, the email looked either like a joke or something unimportant. On one rare occasion, it ended up in spam folder. It was no surprise that half of the attendants never showed up. That manager had to gather them “manually”. The first result was significant delay. The second result was that almost nobody was prepared. The third result was that meeting was rescheduled on the next day.
The lesson we can learn from this bad example is simple. When you want to send meeting agenda to your team, make sure it looks like it. Don’t try to make it look less formal by using using some funny titles. Also, don’t try to reinvent the whole. Keep things simple. When you are about to send mail with agenda, include that word “meeting agenda” in the title. This way, it will be quite hard to misunderstand it.
Keep it simple
The second thing your team should understand after reading the agenda is what topic the meeting is covering. Even better, this should be clear after reading the subject of the email. Imagine that someone is in a hurry and can’t read that whole thing. She has time only to quickly scan the mailbox and read the subjects. In this situation, will she get at least some idea about the meeting? If not, you used either wrong title or made it too complicated. I can’t stress the second cause enough.
Couple of months ago, I worked with one tech startup as a front-end consultant. There was great team of developers and designer. It was a group of people who worked really well together. There was just one problem. This problem was company’s manager. Don’t get me wrong. That guys was really good at his job. He had a lot of experience and knew how to handle team of rebels. The only problem was that he liked to make some things overly complicated.
What exactly do I mean by that? For example, he would almost never describe meeting agendas in simple terms. Mail titles almost always looked like a puzzle. Well, this had one benefit. You had to read the whole mail to understand what is the meeting about. Sometimes, you had to read it twice. Okay, irony aside. After three meetings, we (the whole team) organized a small session with team manager. Here, we discussed the thing about complicated agendas.
I’m happy to tell you that after this session, everything got much better. All it took was one friendly discussion with the manager. The key was that no one was attacking or blaming the manager. It all went in friendly atmosphere. Anyway, keep the title simple. Don’t make it overly complicated. Remember that simple and direct titles are usually best.
Choose the right topics for meeting agenda
There are a number of things every agenda should have if you want to run productive meetings. When it comes to topics of the meetings, do your best to select topics that affect the entire team. The important thing here is that time of your team is expensive. It can be also quite difficult to find the best time to get everyone into one room or video call. Therefore, one of the keys of productive meetings is to use them to discuss issues that affect the whole team.
When you have to solve something or make decision about something not affecting the whole team, don’t schedule meeting. Instead, talk directly with those people you need to. You should schedule meeting with whole team only in three cases. First, when you need all of them to solve some issue. Second, when you want to get informed about current state of work. Third, when you want to announce something everyone should know.
This also means that meeting agenda should contain only the right topics. How do you know the topics are the right one? Every topic has to be related to everyone in the room. Your team has to be spending most of the meeting on common issues. Otherwise, your teammates will disengage. What’s worse, they may want to avoid attending the next meeting.
It is likely that there will be issues for which your people have different information and needs. Let me give you few examples. How can we allocate our resources in the best way? Or, how to make the communication as smooth and fast as we can? How can we improve our processes and make them more efficient? All these topics are a good fit for meeting. Other than that, speak with your teammates individually and let others do their work.
Open-source meeting agenda
There is another obstacle that might be holding you back from running productive meetings. You don’t know what to include in meeting agenda. Even for great team manager it can be hard to know about everything that should be discussed on the meeting. I was on the same bout for a long time. It was quite recently when one CEO gave me one great tip. This tip helped me solve the agenda issue that lead to much more productive meetings. What was this tip about?
In the simplest terms, this tip was about open-sourcing meeting agenda. The idea is very simple. All you have to do is create document on Google Drive or Microsoft’s OneNote. Then, you have to share this document with all your teammates and ask them for topic suggestions. This is all it takes. The only thing I would recommend that you do is to create this document at least two days before the meeting. This will give your teammates time to come up with ideas and also filter them.
No.2: Choose attendants wisely
We discussed that meeting should contain topics that are related to all people in your team. Still, I want to warn encourage you to choose meeting attendants wisely. You should be very exclusive about asking someone to join the meeting. Do you want to run productive meetings? Then, you have to think about all meetings like about exclusive club. There has to be reason why some person can attend it. The unfortunate thing is that the common approach is usually the opposite.
In many companies people have to have reason to be excused from meetings. Otherwise, they have to participate no matter whether they want or not. This is flawed approach. Doing this will never help you run productive meetings. Instead, you will get room full of people and half of them will be constantly looking at their watches. Many of them will be also bored to death. If you want to avoid this, remember that there has to be solid reason for every invited person.
No.3: Keep number of attendants low
Let’s stay with this topic of exclusivity for a moment. There is another way to run productive meetings. You should keep the number of attendants low. I learned this rule by reading about Jeff Bezos and how he manages meetings in Amazon. He calls this secret a “two pizza rule”. The idea is following: Never have a meeting where two pizzas couldn’t feed the entire group. There is one problem with many people on meeting. Communication usually gets worse.
There is almost direct correlation between the number of attendants and quality of communication. The same is often true for coming with innovative ideas and solutions. It may seem logical to invite more people to the meeting to get more creative ideas. According to this article that appeared on Inc, this may not be the truth. The basic idea is that people in smaller groups of people can establish closer relationships.
The result is that these people trust each other more and are willing to share their ideas. What will happen when group is too big? Then, most attendees will follow the suit and agree with each other. They will probably keep their ideas for themselves. To summarize it, the more people you have on the meeting, the less productive will your meetings probably be. Therefore, keep the number of people very low. How many people is too much?
The article on Inc. suggests keeping the number somewhere around eight or at least under 10. Please, don’t confuse this advice with Dunbar number and social dynamics.
When two pizzas are just not enough
There is one question that arise from following this rule. What if your team contains more than 10 people and you need all of them? In that case, I would suggest one thing I also like to do in brainstorming sessions. Instead of asking your teammates to share their ideas out loud, let them write them down on a piece of paper. Each piece of paper should contain only one idea. Next, tell your teammates to put these pieces on one pile.
The last step is to choose someone to stick these papers on the wall or blackboard. You can also do this by yourself if you want. The idea behind this process is to allow everyone stay in complete anonymity. You want people to be open and share even their craziest ideas. This can happen only when they will know that they will not be ridiculed. Trust me, assuring them that they can speak openly doesn’t work on 100%. Even then, some people will still keep some ideas for themselves.
Please, don’t blame them. This is not about them not trusting you or the team. The problem is that fear of being ashamed or ridiculed is stronger. You have to understand that your teammates have more to lose than to gain. When they say something, they put their current reputation is at risk. They also risk jeopardizing their social status. None of these two things is something they would want. Therefore, they will rather avoid this situation by keeping their ideas for themselves.
Anonymity and groups
There is also another reason for keeping the ideas anonymous. This will prevent some ideas to appear more interesting because they were suggested by someone more experienced. Do you remember when I mentioned that majority of people usually agrees with each other? In short, people in a group usually follow the individual with the highest status or most respect. Let’s say you invited manager on the meeting of your team. This can lead to following scenario.
When this manager propose some idea, chances are that the rest of the group will agree with him. In psychology, this effect is known as authority bias. It states that we usually value the opinion of the authority. It also states that we are more likely to follow orders when requested by someone with authority. This is why people are sometimes to do things they would not do otherwise. Imagine that you let your teammates share their ideas anonymously.
If you do this, you remove any possibility that some idea will be preferable only because it came from someone with authority. Remember that not even this method is completely bulletproof. Some people may be able to recognize handwriting. Well, you could use monitor and let people share their ideas electronically, but … We will talk about this in part two.
No.4: What if … Set aside some extra time
Let me give you the last tip for running productive meetings related to time for part. This tip is all about setting aside some extra time. Before you rush into expanding the meeting’s timeframe, hang on for a moment. This extra time has a bit different purpose than you may think. It is not dedicated to give you more space in case that someone will talk longer than necessary. The purpose of this small window is to give your teammates time to get to the meeting.
How it usually looks like
We all probably know these situations. You notify your team that it is time for a meeting and guess what happens. A couple of people will suddenly need to go on toilet. Other people will decide to get new cup of coffee or tea. There will also be some people in the middle of some important task and they will need to finish it. The result? It may take more than ten minutes than your whole team arrives at the meeting. Let’s also not forget that some people might not be present in the office. So, you will have to wait some extra time for these latecomers.
Again, the result is that your meeting will start much later than you initially wanted. Everything will get even worse if your schedule contains some other activities after this meeting. In that case, half of you calendar is no longer relevant. You will have to reschedule all your following activities. There is also another possible scenario. Imagine that some of these activities are non-negotiable. Then, you will have to shorten the meeting in order to stick to your schedule.
This might mean that you and your team will not have enough time to discuss all important topics. If this is true, you will have to schedule another extra meeting. You may also ask your teammates to write those things you had to skip down and send them to you. Whatever your choice is, productive meeting will not be what will you get.
Size of the team and the right time
I have one tip you can use to avoid these project management nightmares. First, decide on the exact time when you want to start the meeting. Second, give your people somewhere around 10 minutes to arrive. This may seem like too much time. I experienced at least two situations when extra 10 minutes was still not enough. In one sporadic case, it took around 18 minutes to get the whole team together. When finally the last stragglers arrived, half of the team was checking the clocks. They were bored and annoyed. There is no question that it was not productive meeting.
For this reason, I would recommend using 10 minutes as the absolute minimum. Remember that if you use this number, it can still happen that someone will arrive late. There is at least one thing you can do to increase your chance for estimating the right amount of extra time. Consider the number of people you have in your team. The more people you have in your team, the more extra time you should use. It is also useful to know more or less where your people are.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not advice to start spying on your people. What I want to suggest to run productive meetings is this. Schedule meetings on times when you know that majority of your people are in the office. Don’t schedule meetings just before the lunch or just after it. Also, if some of your teammates has to go out to enjoy cigarette, schedule the meeting after it. Don’t try to schedule meeting before it. Otherwise, you will get bunch of nervous people and productive meeting will not be achievable. Again, know and avoid these “hot times”.
What’s the worst-case scenario?
Another option is to consider the worst-case scenario and use it as your guide. Meaning, base your estimate on this scenario. Think about the worst thing that can happen and then act like it is sure to happen. If you want to run the meeting at noon, imagine that one of your teammate will be stuck in traffic. Or, imagine that one of your teammates will get stuck in the elevator due to energy outage. I know that the last scenario may seem ridiculous, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
Sometimes, it is also helpful to add a minute or two even to this estimate. You know, just to make sure. What if everyone arrives on time? Then, you have no reason to wait. Just cut off the extra time and start your productive meeting. The same thing applies if some of your teammates will call and tell you that he can’t make it. If you know that someone will not make it, no problem. There is no reason to wait any longer. Start the meeting with people who made it and arrived.
To summarize this, make sure to include some extra time before the meeting. Remember that people in your team may need some time to arrive at the meeting. Give them just 10 minutes before and after other engagements. This will help your people prepare what’s necessary and you will be able to start really productive meeting.
Closing thoughts on productive meetings
The is all I have for you in this first part. We discussed the first four ways to run productive meetings. In a recap, productive meetings always start with clear agenda. This agenda has to be clear, simple and contain the topics relevant to whole team. It is a very good idea to open-source the agenda and let everyone contribute with her topic. Otherwise, you may forget to address some issue. The second tip was to choose attendants wisely.
Meetings should be attended only by people who have to be there. If there is no solid reason for specific person to attend it, don’t invite her. Also, keep number of attendants low, below ten is good. You can remember this as he “two pizzas rule”. Lastly, always set aside some extra time so everyone can arrive before the meeting begin. Remember that there are many things that can go wrong and cause delays. Count with them and always make sure to consider the size of your team.
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