Let’s Have Better Meetings!
How to run a tighter ship and make better use of everyone’s time
We’ve all been there: Sitting around a conference table, our eyes shifting from person to person as we try to figure out exactly what we’re all together to accomplish. Frustration growing as we realize we’re working without a clear purpose, without all the relevant people or information we need, and we now have 24 minutes left until we need to adjourn so that we can do this all again in our next meeting.
Yuck. We can certainly do better. In fact, for our collective sanity, we have to do better. Otherwise we’ll waste the primes of our lives sitting around in sterile conference rooms waiting for something to happen.
So, instead, let’s bring the same thoughtfulness to our meetings that we bring to the research we conduct, the workshops we facilitate, and the “regular” work that we do all the rest of the time.
Every meeting needs a “PAL”
That’s a fancy acronym for Purpose, Agenda, Length. And we promise, if you stop reading right now and simply add a mandatory PAL to every meeting you convene and attend, your work life will improve dramatically.
Begin on time
If the plan is to come together for a 10 a.m. meeting and it’s 10 a.m., get moving. If you wait for the habitually tardy or those who replied “maybe,” you’ll likely be waiting a while and wasting everyone’s time as you do. Instead, jump in. If nothing else, it’ll add a bit of drama to the proceedings as everyone anticipates how Boss Brooke will react when they realize the world didn’t stop spinning in their absence.
Establish and assign roles
Who’s taking notes? Capturing to-do’s? Watching the clock? All of those roles could fall to you or could be delegated to those in the room with you. Whatever you decide, be specific about who’s responsible for what.
Set the ground rules
Are we time-boxing topics or letting the conversation flow? Is there an expectation that we’ll all stay off our devices during the meeting? Ground rules are all about being explicit and declarative about the norms in place. Plus, having ground rules established at the onset makes it a heck of a lot easier to call somebody out for something we all agreed we wouldn’t do.
Review the agenda
Because the agenda exists, right? At the beginning of the meeting take a quick spin through everything you’re planning to cover, solicit some input on adjustments that might need to be made and then go, go, go.
Like pretty much every other question you’ll address in your work life, the answer to “How do I run an effective meeting?” is: it depends. It depends on where you are in your project, what you’re trying to accomplish, and who you’re working with.
But, big picture, we think there are three prototypical types of meetings in the standard project life cycle (whether that “standard” duration is a two-week sprint, an eight-week immersion, or something totally different).
These meetings come early in your project. They’re focused on understanding why the problem you’re addressing is important and determining how you’ll collectively know the problem has been effectively solved.
- Understand goals
Get a specific understanding of what you need to accomplish and how you’ll measure success. A lot of the time, we let stakeholders off the hook when they provide us with goals like “it needs to be intuitive” or “this initiative is very important to leadership.” The former is an adjective and the latter is a motivation, but neither of them are goals. Dig deeper. Get to the core user, business, or technical problem that is painful enough it turned into a project.
- Ask questions
Relentlessly. Gain an understanding of the current state and the thinking that led to that state. Figure out what’s been tried in the past and how successful (or not) any of those initiatives have been. Embrace the fact that, as a designer, you’re almost certainly not a domain expert or subject-matter expert. Ask a whole bunch of seemingly basic questions to gain a more nuanced sense of things.
- Frame the problem
Get yourself, your stakeholders, and your teammates in the shoes of the people you’re designing for. Provide prompts to get people talking:
• Right now we can’t…
• Our customers complain that…
• We’re losing out to the competition because…
• A particular pain point is…
• It shouldn’t be so hard to…
- Explore possibilities
At the earliest possible time, get people sharing ideas and sketching concepts. Maybe you’ve first got to do some research or determine some aspect of technical feasibility — great, do that. Then share it with the group as context for an activity that facilitates exploration of what’s possible.
- “Yes, and…”
In exploration meetings, this is your default answer. Build on each other’s ideas and combine them to create new and better options. It’s fun!
These meetings come during the middle portion of your project. They’re focused on understanding what your proposed solution is, where it begins and ends, and the relative merits of the options you’re considering.
- Clarify goals
If you left your “explore” meetings with an understanding of the target, use “decide” meetings to weigh the relative importance of competing goals or to quantify exactly how large or small an impact will be meaningful.
- Offer suggestions
The things you’ve learned and the concepts you’ve generated have equipped you with the knowledge to offer up ideas. These suggestions might not be spot-on, and that’s just fine. You’ll learn more each time an idea you float is recalibrated by the folks who know more.
- Frame the solution
Take the concepts you generated in earlier meetings and turn them into user stories or requirements. Get feedback on the size and shape of what you’re proposing and be thoughtful about folding new ideas into the mix.
- Evaluate options
These could be concept statements, sketches, wireframes, or full-on mock-ups. Fidelity level matters a whole lot less than putting a set of distinctly different potential solutions in front of your stakeholders and facilitating an evaluation of pros, cons, and trade-offs.
- “Maybe, if…”
You’ve got a new default answer. With each new revision you produce, identify what’s been downplayed or removed as a result. With each new addition you contemplate, explain the impact to the project timeline and/or budget.
These meetings come toward the latter end of your project. They’re focused on understanding the specifics of how your solution works, minimizing the number of late-stage additions and curveballs, and getting something shipped.
- Restate goals
Since you have clear goals and a firm sense of how you’ll measure your progress toward those goals, repeat them often. It’s a nice way to continually ground your stakeholders in why you’re doing this project (their area of expertise) and a good reminder to keep them from getting too focused on how you’ll get there (your area of expertise).
- Make recommendations
You’re the expert now. You’ve done the research, explored the options, and made the tough decisions, so this is the part of the project where you need to thoughtfully explain how the thing you’re proposing is the best path forward.
- Frame the evolution
If you ever want to ship something, at some point you need to stop designing. In later-stage “review” meetings, explain that some of the feedback you’re getting is accurate, valuable, and not going to be incorporated right away. Defer the nonessential stuff to your next sprint, next release, or next phase. You can’t fit everything into this project, but you can keep a running list of the stuff to address next.
- Defend decisions
If you’ve effectively brought your stakeholders through the process, there shouldn’t be too many surprises late in the game. But it’s always useful to have a few bits of rationale to cite (user quotes, design principles, technical constraints, business drivers, etc.) if and when you’re asked to justify a choice you made to include or exclude some thing or another.
- “No, but…”
In “review” meetings, you’ve got to get comfortable saying no. Not as a knee-jerk reaction to each suggestion you hear but as a way of maintaining the integrity of the thing you’ve collectively made. Politely decline to change up the color scheme and/or explain that the go-live date can’t change to adjust that new request. But… offer up alternatives, whether they’re smaller concessions you can make in this project or ways to account for a new request in a later project.
As you wrap up each of your meetings, take a moment to briefly, but clearly, restate the decisions that were made. It’s one last chance to ensure everybody’s on the same page about what’s been decided.
Review next steps
Ask the person who was capturing to-do’s to provide a rundown of who’s responsible for what. This also serves as a chance to ensure individual accountabilities are clear and that the group understands what’s next.
If you’re able to cover your agenda faster than planned, end the meeting.
Avoid group reading; refuse group writing
If you’ve convened a group of people to read a document together, you’re doing it wrong. Make the reading part of the homework so that you can focus your together time on discussion. And please, please, please don’t ever convene a group of people to write a document. For many of us, a group of eight smart people dickering with the phrasing of a sentence is the literal definition of hell.
Adapt as you see fit
Specifically when it comes to meetings, but in general as well, take our advice as far as it’ll get you and then abandon it for your own (probably better) way of doing things. You’ll probably come up with things we haven’t, and we’d love to see them put into practice.
Say thank you
Everyone has way too many demands made on their time and attention. So say thanks to the people who carved out a bit of their time, donated their attention, and provided their expertise. A brief expression of sincere gratitude can go a long way.
And with that…
Thanks for reading! We really appreciate you and your support!
(See what we did there?)
— Laurel and Patrick