Why We Meet—Meetings Need Parens

tl;dr Useful meetings have a purpose. I believe you can give meetings a structure to help ensure they stay true to that purpose, and constantly improve.

Would you like a scare for starters? How about this one:


Did you get goose bumps? Did your hair stand on end? Well, that's no surprise. More often than not, the word is a curse.

Yes, I'm looking at you, retrospective. And you, TGIF. And don't try to slip away, all-hands meeting! You repetitive meetings, occurring again and again, every Monday 10pm, and again, and does anybody remember why we started this again, wasn't there the idea … no? Oh well, let's get on with it, first item on the agenda is …

Meeting—grown up men wet their pants at its utterance. And that is a pity.

Because meetings are a tool, and serve their particular job well: Synchronizing information or a decision among a bunch of people in a short time. Maybe we're using them wrong?

What is a meeting, anyway? According to Merriam-Webster:

An assembly for a common purpose.

The assembly part, yeah, everybody manages this one. But then: Helllllo purpose! That one usually gets dropped under the table.

This is especially true for repetitive meetings. They end up with a certain structure and as time goes by the structure stays but the purpose retreats into the realm of legend. It's like a ship without a set course, going with the current and the wind, no different from a piece of driftwood.

Yet for this ship you are the captain. You lead the meeting. You invite your colleagues. You set the agenda. And that means that you are responsible that it's lean, nobody wastes their time. Because everybody has something else, something important to do. If you're gonna pull everyone into a meeting, it better be worth it.

In this article I focus on how to retain the purpose of repetitive meetings. Even if you're not there. First, I'll explain the idea. Then, because examples work best, I'll attach the agenda of a repetitive meeting at engageSPARK. At the end, you'll find our current working procedure [1] for meetings. Feel free to plagiarize it for your own needs.

The opening parenthesis

I think, meetings are like functions, they need parens. And the opening parenthesis needs to be:

Why do we meet?

Or, to make this tractable:

Which goals do we want to achieve by this meeting?

At the beginning of the meeting you ask this question. That's the purpose part. The first time, you need to explain the goals yourself. The next times, other people should answer it. If they're not able to, how is this going to be an effective meeting?

Agreeing on the goals implies that it's a good idea to reach these goals in the first place. (That's the “common” part of the above definition of meeting.) If that's not the case, you're wasting everybody's time and now is a good time to abort the meeting and do something worthwhile instead. Admit failure. Move on. Time not wasted, is time saved. Well done on recognizing this issue and acting on it.

Having taken this hurdle, you also need to believe that this meeting is the best way to reach these goals. Ask this question, every time:

Can we get there without this meeting
or is this meeting still the best way to reach our goals?

Here's a nice follow-up: The agenda. Ideally, it has something to do with the goals. Ideally, it directly shows the path towards reaching the goals. Ideally, that's all that the agenda contains.

With the agenda set, you hunt for the goals, presenting, proposing, discussing, weighing. It's the job of the moderator to make sure the meeting stays on course. At some point, either time's up or you reached your goals. Now, you've got to have some time left for closing the meeting parens.

The closing parenthesis

With the content of the meeting over, it's time for a short reflection, so you ask:

Here are our goals again—did we reach them?

If the unilateral answer is yes, the question becomes:

Could we have reached our goals faster without this meeting?

If you find a faster, less resource-intensive way, great! If you agree the meeting is still the best way going forward, quickly get some spontaneous thoughts:

What part of the agenda can we change next time to reach the goals faster?
What part of the agenda can we safely omit?

The answers are immediately poured into the agenda, so the next meeting will be more efficient. When in doubt, change—experimenting is learning is good, and you can always change the agenda back.

If there are doubts about whether you reached the goals, figure out if it's a time problem. If so, optimize the agenda as above. If not, it's time to alter the agenda significantly or drop the meeting altogether, in favor of a more suitable tool.

Yes, Murat, but …

Now you're gonna say: Murat—I love the idea, but this takes so much time!

And you're right. It's like maintaining a house. It takes time. And you can either mow the lawn and replace the broken toilet paper holder now, or you find yourself in a ruin a few years down the road.

It's an investment.

If the weekly meeting is wasteful, remember that repetition multiplies waste, too. Crap times ten is simply a boatload of crap. (Have a look at the Lean methodology.) At engageSPARK, we just cancelled an entire meeting series and replaced it by inexpensive, asynchronous notifications. That felt good.

On the upside, both the initial discussion of the goals and the final evaluation will be much swifter once this has become common practice. Your colleagues will know what the goals are.

Finally, the really hard thing is to take the questions seriously every time. They are an opportunity, a dedicated moment to look up from the steering wheel and notice you're drifting off course.

Let me know your thoughts and how it goes!

Appendix: Agenda of Backend Team Strategy

The following is the agenda of the recurring strategy meeting of the backend team at engageSPARK. I edited it for clarity and emphasized the meeting parens. The agenda is constantly being improved, so by the time you're reading this, it'll be better already. :)

  1. What are our goals for this meeting?
    1. Discuss the agenda
  2. Look at last time / action items.
    1. Discuss if done, why or why not? If not done, should we still do it?
  3. Update goals and discuss proposals to reach them.
  4. Adjust to meet long-term goals.
    1. Look into long term goals and figure out how to get there.
  5. Who moderates the next strategic meeting and when?
  6. Were the goals of this meeting reached?
  7. Reminders:
    1. Create/Update Physical Board for Action Items.
    2. Send email to development team with the meeting protocol.

Appendix: Working Procedure for purposeful meetings

The following is our working procedure for meetings. While it currently only focusses on the purpose of the meeting, we will extend it to give guidelines on how to write an agenda, etc.

Meetings have a bad reputation. That's unnecessary: They can be efficient and effective. For that, we agree on a few rules and a common structure for all meetings.

The waste:

  • The discussions trails off course, wasting time.
  • We don't reach the meeting's goal, because we spend time off course.
  • Recurring meetings become meaningless because nobody remembers why, or makes sure that they are useful.

Meeting basics

Our meetings …

  • have one moderator that guides and facilitates the meeting. The moderator's responsibility is that the meeting is effective and efficient.
  • start on time. The moderator is responsible that they do.
  • are timeboxed & end on time. If the content is not finished, it still ends. The moderator is responsible that the meeting is effective within the time box.
  • have a clear, linear agenda of what's going to happen.

Meeting structure

This is the process for a meeting:

  1. The moderator starts by asking the question: What are our goals for this meeting?. This is not a rethorical question: The why must be clear, otherwise the purpose will be lost.
    • If it's the first meeting, the moderator explains the goals of this meeting.
    • If it's another recurring meeting, then the moderator asks the other participants. This is to make sure that everyone understands why.
  2. The moderator discusses the agenda with the participants. The agenda is the way to reach the goals.
  3. >>>> The content <<<<
  4. If it's a recurring meeting: The moderator gets an opinion from everyone, if the meeting should be held again.
    • If not, the moderator cancels the other meetings in this series.
  5. The moderator gets an opinion from everyone, if the goals have been reached.
    • If somebody disagrees, the moderator discusses with the participants how this meeting can be improved.
    • The moderator updates the agenda immediately.
[1]Working procedure is a term from the book Work the System. It sounds scary, but a working procedure is simply a bunch of written-down instructions on how to do something. They are written so that anyone can follow them. Working procedures help us do same things in the same way, constantly improving that way as we go. For example: Meetings! :)