Well Met: Ceremonies and Beyond

Originally posted on the Truss blog

We’ve all been in bad meetings. And no matter how great your crew is, bad meetings waste time and can degrade the culture you’ve worked hard to build. We’ve talked before about which meetings are worth having, now it’s time to dive into how to get the most out of those meetings. Doing so will:

  • increase the effectiveness of meetings;
  • decrease the number and duration of meetings;
  • build team cohesion;
  • cross-pollinate information across teams; and
  • do so in a way which leads to new insights otherwise left buried.

To reap these benefits, utilize the guiding principles in this three-part series for useful meetings: determining whether you need a meeting, building an agenda and facilitating, and choosing the right facilitator to ensure everything runs smoothly.  In this first part, we’ll (re)cover some of the ways to be sure the meeting you want to hold is worthwhile.

Any scheduled event is potentially disruptive to a colleague’s flow. Meetings can be a waste of time and, even in the best case scenario, often require context switching. It’s important to make sure you actually need someone to do something synchronously with you, rather than calling a meeting for something that be fit into their own flow asynchronously in a more optimal way.

When it makes sense to have a meeting

The following circumstances are worthy of a meeting:

  1. When something can’t be decided on asynchronously – A chat (like Slack) just isn’t working. Something is being lost in tone or the information being gathered and the team would benefit from more mediums of communication (visual, verbal, physical) happening all at once.
  2. When something has been decided, but there needs to be a group status update to move on to other things – Sometimes, everyone knows the status of a project, but they don’t know that everyone else is on the same page. This can lead to concerns about leaving someone behind and cause a slow the velocity of the project. A recap meeting that ensures that everyone is aware of what decisions are set allows the team to collectively move on to the next phase.
  3. Distributed self-coordination – Instead of reading documentation, sometimes it’s more efficient to have a rapid-iteration conversation about where to go to next, together. This example is similar to scenario #1 with a splash of #2.
  4. To build team cohesion – Asynchronous communication with occasional one-on-ones just doesn’t keep the whole team together. Sometimes the team needs to get together to learn from each other, and to realize just how in alignment they already are. This scenario is mostly #2 with a splash of #1.

When you shouldn’t have a meeting

Some “meetings” do more to waste time than to move a project forward, leading to a lot of frustrated team members. Here are some signs you’re not having a meaningful meeting:

  1. You’re reading together – There are some folks who just don’t read materials they are sent. Whether they don’t have the time, the material is irrelevant, or they don’t like reading doesn’t matter. What matters is that someone has just disrupted another person’s flow to insist they come and read this thing right now, in a “meeting.”
  2. You’re listening to one person speak – If you want to give a presentation, own it! But a presentation can be ingested just as easily via a video or audio recording as it can in person. Again, don’t disrupt people’s flows.
  3. You’re hearing people talking about things they already know – This isn’t a meeting, it’s a panel discussion. The same principles apply as listening to one person speak. If you’re not up to adapting to your audience or working with them to get somewhere new, just record it. The knowledge is still useful, but the disruption of other people’s flows is not.

On the other hand, question and answer sessions after reading, presenting, or paneling do make sense to do interactively, so it’s worth it to call a meeting after the above non-meetings to share ideas.

Useful gatherings that are not meetings

There are times when it makes sense to meet with someone or a group that don’t fit the parameters above. They include:

  • Conversations – These are great, but trying to facilitate them with the meeting-level rigor suggested in this series will not make you popular amongst your peers.
  • Celebrations – While some programming is useful, celebrations are organic things that don’t need any more structure than they already have.
  • Skill shares – Vital to upping skills and building relationships, these also should be a bit more organic than what is described in this post.

Some of the same principles will apply, but these gatherings are not what this series focuses on.

Why are we doing all this?

Bad meetings, like bad policies and negative environments, are tractable problems. By following the techniques highlighted here around determining when to have meetings, your meetings can be worth the context switching they require by being impactful and more effective, building team cohesion, and leading to new insights that would otherwise be left buried.

OK, let’s say you definitely need this meeting. The next step is to be sure those meetings matter through agenda building and facilitation. Discover how to utilize these strategies in part two of our series, Well Met: The Meeting Itself.

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