Good Meetings

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Like it or not, meetings are essential to a good working environment and communication. Therefore, it’s crucial that we work on making them as productive as possible. Today we’ll explore myriad ways to keep meetings coordinated, well documented, and talk about how to recognize and steer away from anti-patterns.

I’m timid to write this because I have not always hosted good meetings. I have, however, hosted thousands of them, so I’ve learned both from some mistakes and successes. In all likelihood, if you do any kind of management or lead work for a while, you’ll also see your own spectrum of meetings: meetings with different types of agendas and purposes, meetings with varying levels of awkwardness, meetings that didn’t have a formal outcome. We’ll dive into all of these in this article, as well as some tips for each.

The truth is, a meeting by its nature can almost never be perfect because it is by definition a group of people. That group of people will consist of different people: with different tastes, different opinions, different priorities, and different values. There’s a high chance that not everyone will agree on what a great meeting is. So half of the journey is aligning on that.

The Good, The Bad

One thing’s for sure: we can agree on what a bad meeting is. So let’s start by using that as a ballast:

  • There’s no clear purpose or direction
  • It feels chaotic
  • The wrong people are there
  • People are generally disrespectful of one another
  • Everyone feels it’s a waste of time

From those assertions, we can then derive what a good meeting is:

  • The purpose of the meeting is clear
  • There’s an agenda (we’ll dive in to the complexity of this in a moment)
  • There are the right people in the room. Not too many where communication is overly complicated, not too few where the people you need to move forward aren’t there.
  • There’s some order. People aren’t dropping in and out, talking over each other, or being generally inconsiderate
  • There’s a clear decision, outcome, and next steps at the end

Purpose of the Meeting and Direction

The first point and the last are connected: to have a good meeting, there is a core. You’ve all come for a unique purpose, and the end of the meeting should encapsulate what you’ve learned about that purpose and what the next steps are. Thus, the beginning and end of the meeting might sound a little similar:

We’re all here today to discuss how we’re going to support the next version of framework X. I have some new data to show you that frames the direction, Hassan and Jenna are here to talk about some of the details of the implementation, and Angela, we’d love to coordinate with you on a rollout process because it affects your team.

And at the end:

OK, so we decided we’re going in Y direction. Angela, your team seems comfortable doing Z, is that correct? And the rollout timeline we’ve agreed on is 5 weeks. The next steps are to explore the impacts of A, B, and C and reconvene in a week on our findings and process.

This is just an example—it’s not important to model this precisely. But you should be aligning at the beginning and end of the meeting to make sure that nothing major is missing and everyone is on the same page. If you haven’t come to a decision by the end of the meeting, then your next steps may be either to figure out who will make the decision and inform everyone or roll over to a new meeting.

Ideally these sentences are encapsulating information everyone needs:

  • The shared purpose
  • What you’re doing about getting to that outcome
  • Who is owning what
  • How
  • When, what are the timelines

If there are people there who do not need to know this information, they probably shouldn’t have been at the meeting in the first place.

The Agenda

Beyond deciding that a meeting should have an agenda, there are so many ways and means an agenda can be used. Strangely enough, an agenda can also be a way to not have a good meeting, so let’s explore that, too.

An agenda should ideally always state the purpose of the meeting. I personally love to then include some bullets as talking points, as well as space to take notes right in the document during the meeting.

Sometimes people use an agenda to write thoughts down before the meeting, and I would strongly suggest you steer clear of this—there’s nothing wrong with a person keeping notes for themselves for the meeting but if you come to a meeting where an agenda is locked top to bottom with material, it can sometimes shut down the collaborative aspect of the meeting—which means it shouldn’t be a meeting at all, it should just be a shared doc, to be consumed async. Part of the purpose of the meeting is the discussion itself. Again, louder:

Part of the purpose of the meeting is the discussion itself.

Not all meetings are the same

There are also different kinds of meetings. Let’s go over what type of agenda you might use for each:

Brainstorming session: perhaps you don’t want a full agenda, just the purpose and a notes section, or even a Miro board or other whiteboarding tool to use for capturing people’s thoughts, with small areas stubbed out.

Weekly discussion or daily standup: I typically have folks add whatever they like to ours, prefacing their contribution with their name and a small category, for instance, RD for rapid decision, D for discussion, and P for process. Here’s an example:

- [Sarah, RD] should we block off 4 hours to triage our iceboxed issues?

Our team uses a kanban board during the standup and people take turns talking about what they’re doing for that time period. It’s nice how it helps solidify the tasks and priorities for the week, and allows for some course correction if there’s accidental misalignment before the work is done.

We also talk about what was done or shipped in the previous week so we can celebrate a little. Especially on tasks we know took the person a long time or took a lot of effort.

We found through trial and error that twice a week check-ins suited us: once on Monday to kick the week off, and again on Wednesday to keep us aligned and the momentum going.

Cross-Functional meetings: This is one where a more formal agenda with some preparation can be really helpful, so that all parties have enough information about the purpose and what’s being discussed. If you have a lot of information, though, I would suggest creating a one-sheeter and sharing that ahead of time instead of adding everything to an agenda. Sometimes if I know everyone is too busy to read everything async, I will give the first 5 minutes to the group to read through the one-sheeter on the call so we’re all on the same page. People usually appreciate this. YMMV.

All this said, agendas are very useful, but I’ve seen strange culture arise from making strict rules around them. The point of the agenda and meeting is to collaborate on something. That point is nullified if folks are putting process ahead of that impetus.

The best cultures I’ve worked at use both meetings and agendas as tools for working together effectively- tools that everyone equally feels responsible for making useful.

All Kinds of Awkward

OK, you led a meeting! You gave people purpose, you set direction and timelines. But why was it so awkward?!

Not all forms of awkward are bad, really. There are different kinds of awkward, and some are quite natural, some are more harmful. Let’s analyze this for a moment, starting from most innocuous to something more insidious.

You all didn’t know each other well

The team I got to work with at Netlify was some of the silliest, most collaborative, and trustworthy groups I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. We actively cultivated this culture and it was great fun. Every meeting started with goofing off and chatter. Then, when we got to business.

The meeting would flow effortlessly because we were all comfortable together. One time a friend in the People department asked “what do you do to break the ice with your team”, and I jokingly responded “ice? Our team? No… we don’t need that… maybe we should be frozen?”

Not all conversations are going to be like this. We knew each other fairly well and actively worked to have vulnerability together. If your meetings with other groups you don’t know well have awkward moments, that’s actually pretty natural, and nothing to be too concerned with. You can try to make conversation and that can help, but trying to force it too much can also feel a bit stilted, so just ease up on the guilt for this one. There’s nothing wrong with you, I promise.

There were too many people

During the pandemic, my husband and I would sometimes try to replace in-person dinner parties with zoom versions of the same. What we learned was they didn’t quite work at scale. When you have an in-person party with 12 or more people, everyone doesn’t really stay in one huddle together, they break off to smaller conversations. When we started hosting the zoom parties with smaller groups, the calls became more fluid, relaxed and comfortable.

There’s a certain scale at which conversation begins to feel performative because there are so many eyes on a person when they’re speaking. Meetings are very much the same. Try not to invite too many people to a meeting. If you are worried folks might not feel included unless you invite them, you can either mark them as optional or let them know you’ll be sure to tell them the outcome.

If you’re inviting too many people because there’s a company culture that everyone should be involved in every decision, that might be a sign of a wider issue that needs some solving. Companies at a certain scale start to have issues functioning if there is no clear understanding of ownership. If you’re inviting everyone out of fear of hurt feelings often, it’s likely not a problem with your meetings, and more a sign that you need some clarity. See the DRI section at the end of this chapter for more information on how to mitigate this.

There’s something people aren’t saying

This kind of awkward is probably the most harmful. If the meeting is awkward because people don’t feel comfortable telling the truth, or there’s an elephant in the room, or there’s a smell that needs to be dealt with. Elephant smells? Ok, moving on.

We should watch out for this and try to do something about it. Personally, I’m a “walk towards the fire to put it out” kind of person, and will actually just acknowledge that it’s awkward because it doesn’t feel like we’re being transparent with one another. I’ll state what I know from my perspective and then ask if other folks are feeling the same. 

If you do this, you’ll usually have to wait a beat or two. People will likely be a bit shocked that you came right out and said it. It will take them a couple of seconds to adjust and consider what will happen if they tell the truth, too. It’s crucial that you not speak to fill the silence in these moments. It will feel very uncomfortable, but I promise, you have to let the silence hang for a bit before someone speaks up. Typically from there, people will all start speaking, and you can actually dig into the problems.

Conflicts

There’s an entire chapter devoted to conflicts because the topic is big and nuanced enough to warrant its own time and space, but let’s apply some of the principles here, because there is an intersection of good meetings and dealing with conflicts directly.

The most important piece here is that conflicts are not something to be avoided. It’s not bad that people feel passionate about their work, it’s great. Not all conflicts are negative- the point of the meeting may be to bring to light where folks aren’t aligned. There probably is some base premise or problem they are all trying to solve, but they see the solution differently. It can help to find the alignment there so the ideas can be fleshed out without being attached to a particular person’s identity.

 The identity thing can be a pitfall, because if you have two people discussing their idea instead of an idea, it can feel to them like someone is rejecting them rather than a concept

We want to try to guide towards an approach where it doesn’t feel like anyone is attacking one another, and also manage actively against people being disrespectful to one another. It’s the job of a manager to disambiguate healthy conflict from attack so that respectful discourse is encouraged. If folks are putting out ad hominem attacks, it’s on you to reel that in and move the conversation towards the work instead. Otherwise, it really is hard for the conversation to stay productive.

Typically I’d say it’s good to hear people out, and then reign things back in by discussing what you think you’re hearing and tying it back to a shared purpose. Then we find where we have common ground. Here’s an example:

“What I’m hearing is that Rashida feels that team X is migrating a system that affects her team while they are trying to release a big feature. Is that correct? And that Jerome feels that it’s crucial that team X be able to migrate the system soon for stability purposes. Is that correct?

“OK, well, it sounds like we have a shared goal of making sure the company can ship features with some stability. Perhaps we can talk through what timelines are immovable and which are not so that we can stay coordinated?

“I’m sure we all want to be able to ship said feature without any hiccups and also get the new system up and going”

Here, we stated what we thought we were hearing, which allows for the person to either feel heard or correct us if we’re mistaken and there’s a miscommunication. (Sometimes there is!)

Then we stated the shared goal from both parties, as well as risks and constraints that may play a part in some of the conflicts that need to be ironed out.

You’ll note in the last sentence, we try to tie a knot for a vision of stability that addresses both of their understandable needs.

A couple of things to note: I’m giving an example here and you absolutely don’t have to do it like me. The most important thing is that folks feel heard and that you all agree on what the conflict is. And that you remain open to that discussion, while finding the base premise of why you’re even talking about it.

It’s also way easier said than done. If you have a conversation that goes off the rails, I’d suggest spending a bit of time after you’re off the call to write down what you think happened.

I tend to give myself a section to just talk through the facts of what happened, and then another to talk through my feelings of what went poorly and what could have been better. It helps to check in with the facts separately because our human brains can sometimes try to protect us and see a particular version of an event. Hard to do, but checking in with just the facts helps ground that a bit.

There can be times where a strong conflict happens during a meeting and you’re at an impasse, and you need to give folks time to regroup. I’d suggest calling another meeting in a week as a follow up, and try to hear people out individually in the meantime. Sometimes people need a little distance from a matter, or they’re having a hard day, and that’s totally ok.

The DRI

The DRI stands for “Directly Responsible Individual” and is one of the most important pieces that we haven’t covered yet. A good meeting must have a DRI, and it is not necessarily the person who called the meeting. It might not be you. But you must designate who owns the project and ultimately makes decisions when there’s one to be made.

Why do you need a DRI? Well, as much as you do want to hear input from everyone, eventually you have to make a decision, and there are plenty of things in software development that don’t necessarily have one true answer.

Note that the phrasing is not PWMD (Person Who Makes Decisions) though that acronym looks pretty hardcore. Instead, we use Directly Responsible Individual because that’s also core to deciding who this person is. They are the person who is going to own the outcome.

That’s part of why not everyone can get equal say- if it’s your project and you are on the line for the outcome of whatever decisions are made, you can see how you would also need to own decision making. And likewise, if people who have no skin in the game decide things, they might not understand all the moving parts or invest as much in the gravity of the matter.

The appointment of the DRI not only unlocks the groups to make final decisions and move forward, but also places the responsibility on the party that will carry the weight.

There are several systems of ownership you can explore, such as DACI, which separates out Driver, Approver, Contributors, and Informed so that everyone knows their roles, and several others such as RACI and RAPID. Use whichever system makes the most sense for your organization.

I find it best to identify this person early on in a project and make sure it is restated at the start of a meeting (it can be included on the agenda as well), as it helps greatly if you find yourself at a crossroads. This person can unblock you and help the group move forward.

Moving Forward

It may at times feel like meetings are a drag on a software engineering process, but it doesn’t always have to feel this way. There’s something special about collaborating with a group of people who are respectful and working towards a common purpose. Good meetings can provide clarity and save people hours and days of work when they’re headed in the wrong direction. Having clear ownership, documentation, and only the right people in the room can keep many teams in lockstep, even when problems are complex.

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