Hold effective meetings

Meetings are a big part of our lives and if they must happen, let them at least be purposeful, effective meetings and not a waste of time for the people involved.

Want to see more talks from LabsCon 2019? Check out our YouTube Playlist.


All right. How’s everyone doing today? Woo. All right. So today I’m going to be talking about gathering intentionally and having meetings that feel special. So for those of you who I haven’t had the chance to meet yet, I’m Chrissy. I’m a delivery lead at Labs, and in typical delivery lead fashion, I am here today to talk about effective meetings.

So what made me want to talk about meetings? So a few months ago I was participating in a workshop at The SheHive, and the facilitator was really trying to ingrain in us the importance of closings and why signifying the end of something is very important. So she started, for example, she told us about something called flash paper, which is pretty much some paper you can get off Amazon. You write down something you want to get rid of, and you burn it, and it fizzles out, and it looks really fun. So I pulled her to the side and I said, “Where’d you learn this stuff?” And she recommended that I read the book The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker.

So in this book, she covers a lot of gatherings, but they’re typically larger in size, so think of your weddings, birthday parties, things of that nature. So after finishing the book, I started to think about, how can I translate this into my everyday life? Whoops. So of course, as bad as we want meetings to go away, they probably will outlive us all, and they’ve been around forever. With that being said, I’m also learning right now, so this topic is very exploratory to me as well. I’m here today learning with you all.

So speaking of things that will likely outlive us all, here are a few of them: Cher, Betty White, and meetings. And after the world ends and the dust settles, someone’s definitely going to say, “We should have a meeting to discuss next steps.”

All right, meetings, a brief history. So Erika recommended that I come up with a pun for this one because meetings are not brief usually, but this part will be. So while I was preparing for this talk, I had the opportunity to do a lot of research, and I came across a lot of cool tidbits. For example, there was this guy, Assen Jordanoff, who back in 1945, he invented the first device that could be used for conference calls. So of course, that led to things that we know now as three-way, Skype, Google Hangouts, those types of things.

So in addition to Jordanoff, a few other topics I want to highlight that pretty much show what effective meetings could look like. Starting with the first one, the Greek assembly. So the Greek assembly, which is also known as ecclesia, they started around 462 BC. So prior to this, meetings, the council of this time, they would kind of make all the rules around legislation and how people and citizens would be doing things. So this assembly would gather a few times a month, and they would talk about things like how to declare war, military strategy, and how to elect officials.

The citizens, no matter what their class was at the time, everyone had the opportunity, and by everyone, I mean all the males there, because women were not allowed to come to these, they were allowed to speak freely without any repercussions. It was required that the [inaudible 00:04:12] or the leaders of these forums, that they provided an agenda beforehand so that citizens could decide whether or not this was something that they needed to attend. So in order to have a forum, they needed 6,000 people to show up. That’s a lot, so the agenda had to be really tight and concise so that people would actually come, and this is how democracy as we know it came to be.

So the next one, you all may be familiar with this one. This is the infamous Snowbird, Utah meeting. So back in February of 2001, 17 software developers landed at the Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah. So they weren’t there for anything in particular, just like whatever the 2001 version of self-care was. I don’t know what the hot word for it was back then. However, this quickly turned into something phenomenal. So they got together, and they started to think about, how can we make software development better?

Up until this point, software was being developed using the typical waterfall methodology, which pretty much says all the requirements up front, you have set deadline and set budget. So that wasn’t really working because by the time their products would get to the market, they were full of bugs and they were often outdated. So these 17 also males, they got together, they brainstormed, went back and forth, and by the end of the trip they came up with what we now today know as the Agile Manifesto.

What made these two meetings significant and special? So though these meetings weren’t very diverse, of course all male attendees for both of them, they all embody the four meeting principles that we are getting ready to discuss. So that would be different perspectives, sharing information, decision making, and relationship building.

All right. You have time. All right, hold on. Take a water break. All right. All right, so why do effective meetings even matter? The first principle or pillar, whatever you would like to call it, would be to get different perspectives. So we use meetings as a vehicle to gain perspectives outside of our own, because oftentimes when left to our own devices, we come up with the same modes of thinking and the same ideas over and over again.

So an example of a way we do this at Labs, I’m going to use a lot of Labs examples, an example of getting different perspectives would be our all team retros, where we come together and we kind of discuss things that went well, things that we didn’t think were so cool, and what we can do to change those things in the future. We want to get everyone’s input and perspectives on what’s going on at Labs.

So the second pillar would be to share information. When we share information or educate others on something, we have these type of meetings so that we can do this all in a single setting. So specifically, these meetings are about sharing information that would lead to questions. Another example would be our weekly biz update or biweekly biz update meetings. We come together, we find out about the project status, what’s in the pipeline, and this is the forum for people to ask questions about what’s going on at Labs.

The third one would be to make decisions. So, we gather a lot to make decisions. This could be in groups as small as two, or at most around 15 people. This is a time for discussions and how to solve a problem that may affect others, other parties that are involved in this conversation. So think team huddles, post stand up conversations, things of that nature.

And the fourth and final one is to build relationships. I like to think of these as our fun meetings. These effective meetings can center around team building, getting to know one another, or just rallying the troops. We do a lot of this, like I think we have a good handle on this one.

All right. And a great quote I found from some senior executive in pharma, “Meetings are the cultural tax we pay for the inclusive learning environment that we want to foster.” So these are just the four primary reasons why people gather or meet, and they can easily be broken down into other subcategories like meeting to share inspiration, meeting for negotiations and things of that nature. Effective meetings matter because, as the Avengers say, “One is better than one.” So ultimately, one team is better than one person with one way of doing things.

Yes. Another one. I got to use Park and Rec’s gifs. All right. I got to get the water. So now, how do we gather intentionally? So now we have an understanding of why meetings matter, but that’s still pretty surface level, and in order to have meetings that feel like a special occasion, we need to focus on how to gather intentionally.

So a few numbers on meetings, specifically in America. We typically have 11 million meetings per day throughout the country. Yeah, that’s a lot. That is a lot. We spend five hours per week in meetings, and then we spend four hours per week preparing for these meetings that we’re going to. Each of these meetings typically lasts between 31 and 60 minutes. Oops. There’s a concept that’s known as ichi-go ichi-e, which originates from the Japanese tea ceremonies. So the idea is pretty much that the same tea ceremony will never be held again, so one must put one’s whole heart into looking after one’s guest on every occasion. So in this context today, we can think of it as one meeting, one moment in time that will never happen again, so you should put your all into organizing a meeting that doesn’t waste time and leads to the outcomes you’re hoping for.

All right. All right, so the first one is to have a clear purpose. By a show of hands, how many of us have been summoned to meetings where the purpose was extremely vague? Okay. Yup. That’s a lot of us. Cool, so we can all relate to that. So I think it’s reasonable to assume that the person that was inviting you to this gathering wasn’t just trying to waste your time, they just didn’t have the systems in place to know that there was a better way to do this. So if you’re someone that’s getting ready to schedule a meeting or put something up on Eventbrite or anything like that, you need to stop and define your purpose first.

Think about these things before heading over to Google Calendar: what do you hope to get out of this meeting? So circling back to our four principles from a little earlier, are you hoping to get a different perspective? Are you hoping to share information? Are you hoping to make a decision, or do you want to try to build relationships? So figuring out your desired outcome first brings focus to a meeting and allows people to make better decisions about whether they need to be there or not.

So your purpose should always be as specific as possible, but if it’s disputable, that’s still a good thing because you can kind of poke holes in it to see, oh, I should probably tighten this up a little bit more, and look at it from all different angles before you send out an invite.

What makes your meeting different from all the other ones? So yeah, you need to have a meeting to come to a decision, but how will you ensure that you’re simply not gathering folks just to sit around and brainstorm and not leaving the meeting without any actionable items to take with them? So really think about what you want to be different, how your outcome can be different. Think back to the ichi-go ichi-e concept.

Oops. All right, so you saw on the previous slide, you saw a bunch of different things like celebrating, network, things of that nature. A category can easily masquerade as a purpose. It’s easy to say, “I want to gather all these people to educate them on something,” but without knowing why you want to educate them, you don’t have a fleshed-out purpose yet that will lead to the outcome that you are hoping for. So once you’ve got your purpose worked out, it’ll be easier to work back from there, and it will make these next few steps a lot easier.

So step two, gather the right people. So now you have your purpose in hand, and let’s say that the meeting, the purpose behind your meeting is to build an internal roadmap for your project team and to reach some type of agreement around it. So that’s a solid purpose. Now the question is, who should be involved in this meeting? So typically you would think, “Hmm, this is a roadmap type of thing, so I should probably reach out to biz dev,” but did you think about, what could biz dev offer to this conversation? What can they, since this is a team level agreement, what makes their presence there different? So really think about this, and this leads to my next point, which is size.

So the size of a gathering shapes what you would get out of people when you bring them together. So a few years ago I thought it was a good idea to have a girl’s trip, and I wanted to get all of my friend groups together for the first time. I was like, “This is going to go great.” So I didn’t have a purpose for that, aside from I want us all to go out and party and have fun. So ultimately, this failed. A lot of these people had never met before, and things got awkward real fast. I know that’s something that a lot of people try to plan, is all-friend trips and stuff like that, so think about a purpose beforehand because then you can kind of arrange activities around what your intended purpose is for that gathering.

Okay, so there are a few optimal sizes for effective meetings or any type of gathering. The first one would be seven plus or minus two. So groups of this size are conducive to intimacy and high levels of sharing and decision making, so this is considered the magical number for scrum teams. That’s usually the number you want to shoot for in those situations, and this is why.

The next group would be 12 to 15 people. This is the optimal group size to offer a diversity of opinion, and people still feel connected and comfortable asking questions, and discussions can easily be tailored to their goals. The final one would be anything 30 and over. So this is ideal for rallying the troops, generating buzz, and announcing big news.

And our third and final one is figuring out your when and your where. Oops. So the when. Sometimes you don’t have time to completely work out a purpose like your client just came out of nowhere with some new requirements and you are in the middle of a sprint, so you need to obviously have a discussion with your team as soon as possible. So in this case, you need to think about whether this conversation absolutely needs to be face to face with everyone around the table. Can this be accomplished through Slack, email, or just simply walking up to the other person’s desk?

So there’s this nifty thing called a decision tree. This is just one example of it. I’m not going to go through the whole thing, but essentially there are different prompts, and pretty much, have you thought through this situation? You would answer yes or no. Does it need to be face to face, yes or no, and go from there. Kind of like choose your own adventure. Depending on how you answer, you’ll know whether a sit around meeting is absolutely necessary.

All right. Whoops. All right. So next, figuring out the where. “People are affected by their environment and you should host your gathering in a place and context that serves your purpose.” This is from the author of The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker. So thinking back to your purpose, where’s the best place to gather that will facilitate the discussions that you’re hoping to have?

If your intention is to create a space where people can be vulnerable and intimacy can be had, the smaller the better, so think of coffee shop meetings, a gathering in a small conference room, or just huddling at your desk. If your intention is to have folks come up with fresh new ideas, think about the idea of displacement, so getting people out of an environment that they’re comfortable in. This helps people come up with fresh new ideas, and it expands their mind. In our case, this would be just as simple as going over to WeWork for a team meeting. And finally, if your intention is to rally the troops or share some big news, you likely need a bigger space to get all the people you can into one room, like the bleachers on the fifth floor.

All right. Oops. I think that’s the next one. Okay. Another quick history detour, circling back to the story of the assembly, would be the agora of Athens. So this is where our Greek assembly would gather, this is where they would fit the 6,000 people there. Agora literally translates into the gathering place.

So the Greeks understood that you needed to have a large open space where people could easily find it. It was right in the center of everything, so everyone knew exactly where to go. It was easy for them to get there for these discussions, and plus they needed 6,000 people, so had to make it as easy as possible. I also think that the agora crosses displacement off the list because, from the pictures I found on Google, I saw a lot of stone seating, and no one wants to sit on a slab of stone for more extended periods than necessary.

All right, so at this point you should feel a little more equipped to send out that meeting invite. So let’s just go over a few tips for your next meeting. All right. Tip number one, attach a detailed agenda that summarizes your purpose in your invites. This allows people receiving your invite to know exactly why they’ve been handpicked, and they can start thinking about what they can offer the conversation beforehand.

Tip number two, try to send out questions before your gatherings. So if possible, try to send out these questions with the agenda so that folks aren’t caught off guard and they have time to prepare and no one’s time is getting wasted. Keep in mind that some people think better in the moment, and others need time to think before trying to offer any type of solution. This also allows you as a facilitator to kind of get the conversation back on track if necessary. You can see where you’re veering off and loop it back to the intended questions that you sent out.

Oops. Tip number three, read up on the Makers versus Managers schedule. So I left it as Makers versus Managers because this is how you would Google it when you do research after this, but in our situation, we don’t have managers, so I’m going to change it up a little bit. So our makers would be our creative team, so devs, design, QA team, and they often require more uninterrupted time to focus on their work, and leaders, managers, so delivery leads, leadership team, people of that sort, tend to have more sporadic openings throughout their day. So what we do when we schedule meetings is we try to fit a meeting with our creatives in where we can fit it in into our schedule, so it’ll be like, “Oh, here’s a random 30 minutes I have open. Let’s just plop that there.” So something to investigate is trying to have your developers or your creative team block off time when they would get deep focus done, so that you’re not breaking up their day with manager meetings that pull focus.

Tip … I forgot what number. Always think about accessibility. So this is not something that you should only think about for development work. This should be an everyday life thing. So think about when you’re having a meetup, have you sent out details on where people can park, where a bus route is? Do you have closed captions for your slide deck or can people hear what you’re saying over the Hangout? So this is also important for our remote workers as well.

Find small rituals or hacks that you can start or end your meeting with. So some cool things that I’ve seen done at Labs is the whole thing of, if you’re working remote, then you need to show us your animals. That’s a cool way to build a relationship with your team, and who doesn’t want to see cute cats and dogs and stuff?

Another cool thing is thumb balls. So thumb balls are pretty much soccer balls where each spot has a prompt on it. So for a team fun activity, you can go buy a soccer ball from Dick’s Sporting Goods or something and let everyone write in a prompt, and so basically, at the beginning or end of a meeting you would toss around the ball, and wherever your thumb lands, that’s the prompt that you answer. So it takes like 10 minutes to go around a small group and it’s pretty fun.

The last tip is to pull out those adult coloring books or crossword puzzles or anything like that. This sounds weird, but this can help people decompress, and it promotes active listening in a group setting. So there are loads of tips and tricks out there. I didn’t want to do too much of a deep dive, so I would encourage you all to discover some more of your own and kind of test things out and see what works for you. See what doesn’t.

So that’s the end. We’ve learned a lot about effective meetings, and probably more than we thought we’d ever need to know. So going back to something from earlier, meetings will likely outlive us all, so let’s at least make them as enjoyable and productive as humanly possible. Remember to have a clear purpose, gather the right people, nail down your when and your where, and you should be all right. I look forward to seeing what you all come up with and the cool things you do and how you put your own spin on this, and I would say invite me, but that kind of defeats the purpose of all of this. With that, good night and good luck. Thank you.