The Story

by Nick

A blanched "Hello?" echoed into Jake’s headphones. You could feel the weight of this call and response exercise in the voice on the other end.

"Hey, can y'all hear me?", Jake chained back.

This was a common "tight loop" that generally absorbed the first 15 minutes of every meeting. AV (Audio\Video) issues we're more common than the meetings themselves given the new "policy" some developers used when meetings had false starts. It was the old college professor shows up late policy.

"Fifteen minutes and the meeting hasn't started, I'm out!" some would claim. Jake didn't blame them, having to schedule meetings for 45 minutes instead of 30 minutes or an hour and 15 minutes instead of an even hour seemed backwards and broken. It was like blowing into an NES (Nintendo Entertainment System) cartridge - wholly unnecessary but somehow reassuring.

For years now the animosity had been growing between those who were distributed and those who worked "in office". The foundations of this tension was weak at best, but some engineers and managers would hold positions so strongly on the effectiveness of remote work that you'd think it was as certain as RFC 2616 (the HTTP 1.0 specification). Meeting false starts did not help this at all.

No one would engage in direct combat. No, this team chose backhanded and pointed remarks; that was the noble game for this group. Jake always thought this was odd and unhealthy behavior.

"This is so odd, a-and unhealthy." Jake thought. "Why don't we stop pretending that the way we do meetings is productive and simply address our issues head on?"

Being part of distributed employee group meant that he had to work harder at communication, connecting, and clarity. He went all out the year he decided to work from home when the company green-lit it as an option. He got a mirrorless camera with a 50mm lens and the latest Elgato branded streaming device. He combined that with a condenser mic and audio interface. The audio and video quality were incredible - when it worked.

The in-office solution was not as high-tech. Sometimes Jake would picture his audio and video being stitched together by network gnomes located at the office. The gnomes would think it was funny to edit out the important words and images to make him sound and look like Max Headroom.

"This feels like it should be a solved problem in the 21st century!", Jake belted at the condenser mic tilted in front of him.

"Uhhh, yeah we heard you that time; can we get started?"

As the hour and fifteen minute meeting droned on, Jake looked at the faces in the room and on the video call. One of the super powers of being on the remote video call was that you could zoom in and out on the feed. He saw and labeled all sorts of inappropriate meeting behaviors such as:

  • Lap Phone Gamer. This individual would somehow decide that they were effectively invisible and no one could see that they were playing a mobile game from their lap.
  • The Head Bobber. (one of the best and self explanatory)
  • The Keyboard Cowboy. These people would bring a laptop, keyboard (usually mechanical), and mouse. They would be actively slamming the keyboard throughout the entire meeting. No one would call these folks out because they were often envied by the engineers as people who were "getting things done" during the meeting and cherished by management because they would drop a link after the meeting with the meeting minutes. Yes, your keyboard hammering is incredibly loud when sitting next to the microphone.
  • The Intense Gaze Giver. This one is a classic ploy by someone who wants to learn and be engaged but is really thinking about...
    • a: (Developer) The MMORPG raid they are going to go on with the other developers in the room that night after work (or during another meeting if they are Lap phone gamers)
    • b: (Management) Driving home in their new Tesla.
  • The Lip Smacker. Chewing and smacking is never glorious over any microphone to ear experience. It's like the person is taking a bite and leaning over to chew in your ear.
  • The Filibusterer. The signal that someone has taken the floor is that anyone with a laptop in front of them opens a browser and hits twitter or something like it. You should also listen for the slowed tempo of the Keyboard Cowboy as they have surely abandoned note taking. Taking for the sake of talking is sure to put the death nail into any productivity the meeting might've actually had.
  • The Late Comer. These folks typically saunter in well after the meeting has begun and make more noise than 10 kids in a cooper mini.
  • The Obviator. This individual has the ability to nullify the existence of the entire meeting in their mind and alternatively focus on things like studying human behavior and labeling those behaviors. While these people have active imaginations this behavior can be dangerous especially if they are called on during the meeting to provide thoughts are feedback.
  • and many more...

Just then he heard his name. "So Jake what do you think? No one else seems to be talking." This was coming from Sam, who was easily the best and most brilliant engineer in the room. Jake knew that if she was pressing him for a response then the meeting was deadlocked.

Jake himself had carried a few of these labels, in fact he was carrying one right now. He was still locked into why meetings didn't seem to work. Yes there was tension but that didn't seem like the major source of consternation for the team. It almost seemed like no one cared. Meetings just seemed to be a stage for the team to act out their disengaged thoughts and feelings.

Jake, humbling himself, said, "I have to apologize. Honestly, I wasn't listening. I'm stuck on why our meetings don't seem to be productive or work well."

He continued, "What I mean is, we have normal communication tension but this is something different. I realize the rich irony of what I am about to say given that I was not paying attention but our team seems disengaged."

There weren't as many vertical head nods as Jake was hoping for but then Sam interjected, almost as if she was waiting for this very moment, "You know Jake I have to agree. I think it has to do with lack of interest."

There were even fewer vertical head nods at this statement. Despite the lack of support, she continued, "For instance, Kendal over there is knee deep in a mobile raid, James is literally tallying up the 'cost' of this meeting on his notepad, and you're labeling behaviors".

At this people squirmed a bit and sat a little more upright. Calculations stopped and the raid was over (it actually ended 10 minutes ago, but Kendal was picking through the left over loot). She winked and nodded at Jake. He had a tremendous amount of respect for her and knew that she was speaking absolute truth.

Jake reached up and pulled the metal meshed mic closer to his face. With a clam and collected voice he said, "Sam you're 100% right; so now what are we going to do about it?"

The Application

by Kirby

Meetings are oft-written about and yet disturbingly few teams do them well. Interestingly, many of the traits that lead to positive meeting outcomes can potentially lead to negative ones. For example, consider a time in your life where you had a good idea for a solution to a hard problem and you grabbed a friend or a colleague to talk about it. At the end of your discussion, you walked away with an even better solution to the problem. This can be a frequent occurrence in a collaborative working environment.

So getting more people together to come up with solutions will be even better, right? Wrong! We’ve all been in terrible meetings with lots of people covering lots of semi-relevant or irrelevant topics that don’t lead to solutions. Once a meeting goes beyond a simple problem-solving exercise covering a single topic with two participants, it becomes much more important to understand where meetings can go wrong and how to run them well.

For example, in a meeting with a small number of people, everyone is 100% focused and engaged on the problem at hand. When it’s two people discussing a problem, it’s impossible for one of them to check out (assuming they’re a good teammate). However, when a meeting grows too big you get a few people dominating the conversation leading others to be disengaged. You also increase the likelihood of politics playing a role, particularly if the attendees span job titles. Too many opinions or dominant opinions don’t lead to the best outcomes.

Therefore, the first best practice for productive meetings is to limit the number of attendees.

The number of attendees isn’t the only factor leading to unproductive meetings. The breadth of topics also plays a big role. Covering a wide range of topics isn’t necessarily bad, but it certainly increases the risk because any single topic may take you off course. Multiply that by a large number of topics and your risk grows by an order of magnitude. How many times have you been in meetings where the leader says, “well, we ran out of time so we’ll continue this conversation next time.”

So, the second best practice for productive meetings it to keep the agenda focused.

Closely related to a focused agenda is a relevant agenda. Every topic must be relevant to every participant. Otherwise you get many of the same bad outcomes as large meetings. As soon as you start discussing a topic that isn’t relevant to an attendee — note I’m intentionally using the term attendee instead of participant — they will check out. Once they check out, they are unlikely to check back in. When determining who should be invited to a meeting, as yourself whether every person will be involved in all the topics. If not, get people together separately to discuss independent topics. Just because it’s convenient for you to get everyone together at once doesn’t mean you’re not wasting their valuable time.

Thus, the third best practice for productive meetings is to ensure that every minute must be relevant for every participant.

Getting to a focused and relevant agenda is a great first step. To optimize this even further, prepare the agenda ahead of time and send it out to all attendees while asking them to prepare for the meeting. One of the biggest meeting time-wasters is spending precious minutes bringing people up-to-speed. Asking them to prepare by pre-reading relevant content ahead of the meeting will ensure you’re only talking about the important details during the meeting.

Now you know that the fourth best practice for productive meetings is to require adequate preparation.

At this point, you have a focused and relevant agenda with the right, fully-prepared people invited to your meeting. You’re almost there! The next step is to make sure you’re actually running a productive meeting. Good meetings start on time. This ensures you will have enough time to cover all the important topics in sufficient detail. Also, meetings should NEVER run over time. Not only is this a sign of bad meeting facilitation, it is disrespectful to the participants and the people who need your meeting room after you.

You’re now ready to employ the fifth best practice for productive meetings, which is to start and finish on time.

Finally, it’s your job as the meeting facilitator to ensure the meeting is done well. Meeting Conductor is a good name for the person running a meeting since it’s their job to ensure the meeting is well orchestrated. As the conductor, you shouldn’t be a jerk but you should set the tone for the meeting. Call on people who aren’t participating to get them participating. Call people out for creating distractions. Keep people engaged in the specific item from the agenda rather than letting them wander. Most importantly, ensure that the meeting is conducted using all five of the previously mentioned best practices.

The sixth and final best practice for productive meetings is to be the grand conductor of your well-orchestrated meeting.

Meetings can be a huge productivity boost for your team because talking through important topics as a team is often the fastest way to get to great solutions. However, it’s very easy for them to instead become a major productivity drain. Follow these simple best practices to ensure every meeting is a valuable use of time:

  1. Limit the number of attendees
  2. Keep the agenda focused
  3. Every minute must be relevant for every participant
  4. Require adequate preparation
  5. Start and end on time
  6. Be the grand conductor of your well-orchestrated meeting