I'm weird. I love meetings.
Let's be clear - I hate bad meetings - perhaps more than I love good meetings. But I do love good meetings. They can alter trajectories, bring clarity, and energize a team.
So, how do we have good meetings?
The first thing I think people get wrong about meetings is their mindset.
Meetings are often seen as a place for "discussion" or knowledge sharing - but that's too dull for my liking.
I like to think of meetings as a team sport, where the objective is to agree upon a direction that gets the team fired up and to pair that direction with crystal clear next steps. We want to leave the room energized and ready to execute.
Let's draw an analogy between basketball and meetings:
|One basketball||One speaker|
|Scoring||Making decisions or Identifying action items|
|Setting screens||Mentioning overlooked facts/details|
I could probably stretch this analogy a little bit more, but I think we're pretty close to its breaking point already.
But the idea here is that if you view meetings as a team sport, you're going to stay engaged and get the most out of everyone. When that happens, we accomplish more than if we didn't work together, which is the entire freaking point of meetings.
Mindset shift - meetings are a team sport.
At Amazon, Jeff Bezos has implemented the "weirdest meeting culture" for his executive team. I think it's brilliant. See the video below (starting at the 18:04 mark)
It starts with someone writing a six page memo:
What we do is, somebody for the meeting has prepared a six page memo - a narratively structured memo - that has got real sentences, and topic sentences, and verbs and nouns. It's not just bullet points. And it lays out and it's supposed to create the context for what will then be a good discussion
Then the entire team reads the memo, in silence:
And then we read those memos silently in the meeting. So it's like a study hall. And we do that, everybody sits around the table. And we read silently for usually about half an hour or however long it takes us to read the document. And then we discuss it.
This is done to ensure the execs have read the memo:
The reason we read them in the room by the way, is because just like high school kids, executives will bluff their way through the meeting as if they've read the memo... [This way] everyone's actually read the memo, as opposed to pretending.
Most bad meetings that I've been a part of are bad because people aren't sufficiently prepared. Engineers haven't done enough work to understand what's feasible (not enough reading documentation and prototyping). Product managers haven't thought deeply about the ideal customer experience and the top customer pain points.
But when everyone is prepared and has done the "homework" (or is it workwork 🤔), then you have a chance of having a great meeting.
Let me use another example to see if I can drive this home (taken from John Cook). It's about Thomas Jefferson and the first meeting regarding the founding of the University of Virginia
When they gathered at that first meeting to hash things out, Jefferson made sure to show up with meticulously prepared architectural drawings, detailed budgets for construction and operation, a proposed curriculum, and the names of specific faculty he wanted to import from Europe. No one else in the room was even remotely as prepared...
His purpose was strategic: to show up at the meeting with something so substantive that everyone else would have to fall back into simply proposing modifications to it
So by being extremely prepared, Jefferson was able to make tremendous progress. When someone has already done the work of preparing a proposal, it's so much easier to discuss "diffs" from the proposal, as opposed to starting from scratch. And maybe that's why Amazon's memo strategy is so effective.
Ok, so you already know this, but important things need to be repeated: prepare an agenda.
That said, you should leave room for creativity and some wiggle room for tangents. It's frustrating when a meeting organizer is too militant about following an agenda, but that's a million times better than not having an agenda at all.
It only takes a few minutes. Just prepare an agenda.
At least one person should be taking notes. If no one is taking notes, the meeting's value will have a half life of 30 minutes - no matter how good the meeting was, people will forget.
A recording is ok, but nothing beats notes.
I like processing my raw meeting notes before sending them out. I whittle down points such that they are concise, and bold every decision and action item for a quick eye scan. It only takes about 5-10 minutes to do and makes sure a great meeting doesn't go to waste.
If you're using meetings to socialize, then your culture is broken. Basketball players don't play games to hang out. NBA players don't discuss their favorite TV shows and books during games.
Chit chatting with your coworkers is essential for team chemistry, but it needs to be happening outside of meetings (or in the gaps before and after the meeting). Try to eat lunch together. Spend time in 1-1s to get to know each other better. Host happy hours.
But when it's time for meetings, it's time to focus. Socializing will happen later.
These are my thoughts on meetings as of October 2020, but I bet they'll evolve over time.