Why proper planning is the key to running effective meetings
Meeting culture like all aspects of a company's culture should be carefully created and reinforced for effectiveness. Our VP Engineering, James shares gems on how we reframe meetings to ensure maximum return on the time invested.
Meetings. No one likes them, everyone thinks they have too many of them, and the commonly received wisdom is that they are a waste of time.
It’s a pity that meetings have such a bad reputation. Good meetings can be an invaluable tool for hashing out complex problems, aligning understanding, making decisions, and collaborating on plans and designs. And meetings - both virtual and in-person - are important for building human connections (an under-recognised resource that no team or company can run without).
Most meetings are not good meetings. Most meetings are poorly-led and underprepared, and so end up being an enormous drain on the attendees’ time, motivation, and concentration. We’ve all had those days where we’ve been in back-to-back meetings and come out the other end feeling both completely exhausted and like we got no actual work done.
The least productive people are usually the ones who are most in favour of holding meetings. — Thomas Sowell, author and economist
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Reframing meetings: wasteful vs expensive
Instead of thinking of meetings as a waste of time (which means there’s nothing we can do to make them better), we can reframe them as an expensive use of time. Expensive doesn’t mean inherently wasteful - but expensive things can become wasteful very quickly if we invest in them carelessly.
Meetings are expensive because they:
- interrupt multiple people’s ability to concentrate on deep work
- force multiple people to context-switch from their current primary task
- are sequential rather than parallel, because only one person can speak at a time
Those are high costs - especially in an early-stage company where most people’s core roles involve mission-critical tasks.
So how do we make sure those expensive meetings are a worthwhile use of people’s time? At Griffin, we’ve developed a framework for effective meetings to make sure we’re getting maximum return on those high costs.
Create blocks of meeting-free time
Expensive things should be infrequent. One simple way to make meetings more valuable and effective is for everyone to have less of them.
At Griffin, we have “no-meetings Wednesday” - a day when we encourage everyone to get in some uninterrupted focus time. The Engineering and Product guilds also try to schedule all their meetings in the mornings, which leaves the afternoons free for deep work.
We also encourage everyone to liberally fill their calendar with blocks of focus time - and to treat other peoples’ scheduled focus time with respect. This creates a culture where meetings are not our default mode of problem-solving or sharing information, and people think twice before peppering each other’s calendars with them.
Fewer meetings means people are more likely to be prepared, engaged, and focused in the ones they do attend.
Prepare, prepare, prepare
A great meeting has three key elements: the desired outcome of the meeting is clear ahead of time; the various options are clear, ideally ahead of time; and the roles of the participants are clear at the time. — Daniel Ek, Founder of Spotify
Meetings are expensive, so preparation should scale with the cost of the meeting. The cost of the meeting is measured by the number of attendees, its length, and its frequency.
At Griffin, we use the following guidelines to help us lead and prepare for meetings and make them as effective as possible.
Meetings should have a driver
If you’re setting up a meeting, you are the meeting driver - that means you decide the meeting type, goal, and agenda (see below). You’re also responsible for making sure all the attendees know what prep they need to do, for steering discussion, and for taking notes (or making sure that someone else does).
Invites should include a meeting type
Deciding what type of meeting you’re running makes it easier to plan and facilitate, and sets clear expectations for the attendees.
The four main meeting types we use at Griffin are:
- Decide: for decisions that need input or consensus from multiple people
- Design: for brainstorming, group problem solving, and collaborative design
- Plan: for syncing, prioritising, and planning upcoming work
- Reflect: for retrospectives, post-mortems, and pre-mortems
Including the meeting type in the invite title (e.g. [Design] Individual onboarding workflows) also makes it easy for people to glance in their calendar and see which types of meetings are taking up most of their time, and reprioritise if they need to.
Invites should include a goal
This step seems so obvious that many people don’t bother with it. “The goal is obvious, it’s in the title!” they think. But articulating (and reiterating) a clear goal makes it obvious to all participants what the intended outcome of the meeting is. The driver can start the meeting by making sure everyone is aligned on the outcome, and return to it if the discussion starts to get off track.
The goal should align with the meeting type, e.g. a [Decide] meeting could have the goal "Decide on the font for the website".
Invites should include an agenda
Agendas set expectations for the content and flow of the meeting, and improve everyone's ability to effectively prepare. When designing the structure of a meeting, start with the goal and work backwards to build the agenda.
Each agenda item should include an owner, a description, and an expected time, to help the “driver” to keep the meeting on track, and to help the item owner to prepare for their input for the meeting.
Invites should be declinable
Part of the value of including a type, goal and agenda is that it gives the meeting invitees context. Instead of mindlessly accepting every meeting that pops up, they can read and reflect on the invite and decide if they actually need to be there.
This is important because every person who attends a meeting is a person who is potentially being distracted from deep work, and paying the price of context switching. The only people in the meeting should be the people who are needed to achieve the stated goal.
Make space for slow thinkers
Meetings tend to be comfortable places for fast thinkers, who quickly form opinions and can convey them to others with ease. Meetings tend to be uncomfortable places for slow thinkers, who take more time to form opinions and can struggle to convey what they're thinking when put on the spot.
When you're driving a meeting, it's important to create time and space for the both types of thinkers to contribute. Preparing a meeting well, using the steps above, gives slow thinkers the opportunity to form their opinions and arguments prior to the start of the meeting.
Fast thinkers aren’t smarter than slow. Collaborating in real time and over time leverages our collective value and limits pitfalls of both kinds of thinkers. Discuss options both face-to-face and virtually to enable fast and slow thinkers to optimise value for the team. — Kare Anderson, (Mutuality Matters: How You Can Create More Opportunity)
Notes or it didn’t happen
People often end up wondering why they’re sitting in meetings where they have nothing to contribute. Usually, it’s because someone wanted to “loop them in”, i.e. make sure they are informed about the content of the meeting.
But people shouldn’t need to spend all their time in meetings just to have the context they need to perform their core role.
Meeting notes solve this problem. Every meeting should have a written output - whether that’s detailed minutes or a few bullets with action points - that is stored in an obvious place, and written in a way that everyone in the company (not just your team) can understand. Meeting notes can also be shared via relevant internal communication channels. (At Griffin, we all receive the minutes of Executive Committee meetings in our inboxes every week.)
Taking time after a meeting to organise your notes into a coherent document can feel like unnecessary admin. But the brilliant thing about writing things down is that writing scales. Meetings happen at set times and can only transmit information to the people who attend them. But your notes can be read by anyone, at any time, many times over if needed. In any company - but especially in a remote-first, asynchronous work environment like Griffin - good meeting notes are an efficient way to make sure important decisions and insights are shared as widely as possible.
Meetings are not an inherent waste of time - but poorly-led and underprepared meetings are. A culture of endless, circular, unfocused meetings is poison in the bloodstream of an organisation. If left unchecked, bad meetings will gradually cripple your people’s ability to focus and the momentum of your business as a whole.
But the good news is that you can easily improve the meeting hygiene at your company. At Griffin, our framework boils down to:
- limiting meetings to certain times of the day/week and encouraging people to schedule their own non-negotiable focus time
- giving people simple, repeatable steps for preparing a meeting so anyone can be an effective driver
- making room in meetings for people who find it difficult to contribute when put on the spot
- being disciplined about taking notes and circulating important outcomes