Sunday, 26 July 2015

Taming meeting invites


As I was doing the detour into various programming topics, something was nagging me a bit in the background, something that was left unsaid in the previous series on Scrum.
After a short while, I realised that many of the recommendations in those series were underpinned by the invisible hand of time management, and this is the one meta-subject that haven't got the attention it deserves yet - at least on these pages.

For me, effective time management is a preliminary condition to success. Technical leaders have their attention drawn in many directions in many different ways, and many times within each day and each hour. Moreover, the more they lead the higher the frequency. At some point, we face a non-exclusive choice:
  1. Work long hours
  2. Ignore some of the detractors pleas for help
  3. Actively decide how much time each particular subject merits
For years, I've been actively employing (3), though of course (1) is also unavoidable when the situation demands it. In a separate post, I'll bring up a few examples and guidelines on how one can quickly prioritise and allocate the right time slots, but first let's circle back: how all of this related to the subject of this post, namely "meetings"?

I can answer thus: meetings is whenever someone else decides for you how long you should spend on X. Hence, time management and meetings are deeply intertwined.

Now, before there is another step further, let me add a big disclaimer: I'm not saying that meetings are bad, and all of us should permanently sit in our rooms/cubicles/open spaces and lonely type at the keyboard. 
The art consists of organising efficient and effective meetings on stuff that matters and do not make them longer than they should be. After all, if you spent an hour in a meeting that helped neither human nor beast, you'll have either to ignore an hour-worth of something else, something that matters, or go home one hour later.

Anyhow, let's be a bit more positive: here's the list of

Three meeting types that work

The brainstorm

Few attendees: definitely less than 10, but ideally less than 5. Everyone participates, and new decisions get formulated.

Examples include a production incident war room, or interactive technical design.

The review

Also fewer than 10 attendees, with one main presenter and a preliminary material distribution. There are all kinds of reviews: deployment, design, planning, project etc. You can also add an internal product demo in the same bucket.

The update

This meetings tend to have a big number of attendees: anything from 5 up to 50000. Their purpose is to convey information, and not kick off discussions, or take new decisions.

Company-wide quarterly update, Scrum stand-up, product training, architecture overview all belong to this group.

So far, so good, so what?

Ok, so this all beyond obvious, so why even bother listing it? As with many other phenomena, the trick is not realising what works, but what doesn't. Our enemy in this particular post are inefficient meetings, and those exist in the big galactic void between those three constellations. In not so many words, they happen whenever someone does not have a clear picture of what type of meeting they are going to call in.

The organiser might go for a brainstorm with twenty people, where only two speak, and eighteen wish for earth to open underneath their feet and swallow them whole. They might call in a review where nobody knows in advance what this is about and end up spending eons discussing mundane topics. They might go as far as call in an update with 50 people who don't care about what they are going to be updated on.

Taking out a page from a diagnostician's book, let's see how we recognize an inefficient meeting once it's upon us, and how we prevent those from occurring in the first place.

How to recognize an inefficient meeting?

This section seems a bit redundant - criteria such as "am I bored out of my mind?" and "am I answering my e-mail while it's going along?" come to mind. But they are not precise: if you and the other guy are engaged and are chatting away, while the rest of the room is doing stress testing for Facebook, the meeting is still ineffective.

My criterion has been surveying the room from time to time: if 20%+ of the attendees are mentally elsewhere, then the meeting isn't going great. You can tweak the number up to derive more adjectives: for example, with 80%+ it can be safely called "waste of time and money".

This occasional visual inspection is not a meaningless exercise. It is important lesson and feedback, since some meetings are not inherently bad; it is just that the speaker needs to do a better job of engaging. One example I covered at length in the past was the status update meeting.

However some meetings cannot be made whole even with the most eloquent presenter; and it's possible to detect those in advance.

How to recognize an inefficient meeting before it starts?

Here, the meeting types come to the fore again:

The brainstorm

The most common fallacy in my book is lack previous material or preliminary discussion

I had the pleasure of receiving generic invites in the past; for example, "Design widget A", or "How do we make our customers happy?"
The cause is noble, but then what helps everyone to be productive? What if one guy might have been thinking about widget A all of his wakeful hours, and everyone else would not consider widget A until you served it with watercress on a plate?
This means that rather than having a brainstorm, we are going to have an update, while we won't really know whether there are other alternatives to design the widget, and/or whether we've got the right one.

Organiser's job is making sure that all the invitees:
  • Care about widget A
  • Have something to say about widget A
  • Know what others think about widget A
Brainstorming is much closer to playing chess than playing poker. The more we know which pieces/cards everyone else holds, the better we can choose what topics we spend time discussing, and the better we can build on each other's ideas.

In not so many words, brainstorms should not happen unless people were encouraged to think, contemplate and feed back offline first, so that we know exactly which points we are going to solve. 

Note: The one exception to that rule are war-room discussions, where there's no time for niceties, but these should be rare in a healthy organisation.

Of course, there are many other reasons why these meetings might not go well - more vocal people dominating the proceedings, political agenda etc. These are already covered to a great extent elsewhere, and are more about running rather than organising a meeting.

The review

Here, as with the brainstorm, more often than not people come to the meeting from different starting points.
For example, let's say that you're reporting on your team's progress with creating widget A. Two managers/architects in the room collaborated on said widget, two more know just what it's supposed to do, and two more got tacked on to the meeting and are vaguely aware that said widget exists.

Do you cater for the last group, and explain in minute details what this widget is for and how it came to be? Then 5.5 guys will be wasting their time (the 0.5 is you).
Do you cater for the first group and do technical update only on what happened in the last 2 weeks? Then only three people will be actually interested and get to ask meaningful questions.
Even with the best of intent, it's hard to make a great meeting out of this.

Another typical fallacy is people being undecided between review and brainstorm. I.e. they do a presentation, ask open questions, and let others have a discussion. That doesn't tend to succeed for two reasons:

  1. Too many people in the meeting: brainstorms should have a small group, while reviews spread themselves out.
  2. Lack of preparation: as per above, brainstorms need more thinking done in advance. 

In short, this kind of meeting works when all attendees know the subject, care about it to a reasonable degree, and already have a few questions in mind. The best way of getting there is pre-distributing the slides, answering basic questions offline if need be, and allowing attendants to be ready with the hard questions for the meeting itself.

The update

Updates have the most attendees, and tend to live or die by the skills of their presenter. Thus, they are a bit of a special case - it's harder to tell from a meeting invite how they are going to pan out. The only realistic warning sign are the words "discuss", "decide" or their siblings - they imply that the organiser is going for an open forum in a meeting least suited for that purpose.

What to do when an inefficient meeting lands in your calendar?

Rejecting is easy: Outlook has a convenient button for that very purpose. However, this is neither safe nor very helpful - especially if done without an accompanying note. 
Explaining why this meeting might not work is less fraught with political peril, though also requires caution.

For example, it is legitimate to ask for a crisp agenda definition in a brainstorm, but demanding slides in advance for a review might be construed as unnecessary pressure. Here, we are both feet within the minefield of office politics, and it has to be tread very carefully.

The important point though is that it's you who is going to go home extra three hours later, and it's you whose priorities were forced by the meeting invite. If you firmly believe that your presence there will not provide any value, then it's best to state that and bail out using the best political tactics at your disposal - or help the organiser do a better job.
Obviously, you'll also be spawning meetings yourself; here it's best to keep to the saying: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".

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