Meetings have two purposes, disseminate information (knowledge leveling so that we get everyone on the same page) and make a decision (with all of the stakeholders present). Before people say meetings are pointless, if a meeting doesn't fulfill one or both of those purposes, you don't need to have it. Often things can happen one on one to keep the organization running, but sometimes you need a larger group of people.
In my current role most of the meetings I run are typically to share information, but we do make some decisions in the meetings. Last year for eight months I led a daily standup meeting for 5-10 minutes each day to talk about the shop priorities. I thought it went well, we made a lot of progress completing the high priority items. Now my meetings are milestone based for individual products, kind of like a pre-flight checklist for a pilot. In all of these cases, 98% of my meetings are with engineers and technicians so I can't speak to how business, sales, and marketing people do meetings.
Before the meeting even begins when I am planning it, I aim for 30 minutes or less. The first meeting I ever led in industry was in 2011 to present FEA results and it took only 8 minutes, including questions. I have always seen that first meeting as the benchmark. Don't plan for an hour or 90 minutes unless you really have a lot to cover. And if it's over two hours, you definitely need to plan breaks every 60-90 minutes.
For starters, since every meeting now involves logging into a computer and setting up a video call, I like to log in ahead of time so that we're ready to go on time. Since people often filter into the meeting early I like to then have a few minutes of small talk, such as what people did on the weekend or any life events that people are having, like a coworker is buying a house and it's always fun to ask how it's going. I do this to build trust. When we talk about our personal lives, as simple as saying "I skied at Winter Park on Saturday." We show our coworkers that we are humans. Probably 5-10% of the time small talk at the start of a meeting has prompted someone to say something like, "Hey I didn't know you live in Longmont too, we should get dinner sometime." Every day you're either building relationships, or letting them wither, and spending 1-2 minutes once or twice a day purposefully on small talk helps build relationships. For example, typically I ask person A a question, and then persons B, C and D now knows more about person A, and potentially have something in common, like loving or hating a new movie.
Possible small talk questions and items to use at the start of a meeting:
- What did you do this weekend?
- Did you see that new (insert franchise here) movie?
- Did you see that (sporting event)?
- Do you have any vacations planned in the next few months?
- You can always poke fun at yourself, like saying how much your back hurts after shoveling snow.
- You can ask about people's commutes when there is bad weather.
- If people have plants, gardens, pets, or kids those are typically something to ask about.
- You can talk about how tired you are of Covid, because we all are.
- You can ask about music, from new albums to recent or upcoming concerts.
I usually start the actual technical content 1-2 minutes late, and the reason is people, for a wide variety of reasons, show up late. Maybe the notification popped up on their computer right at the start of the meeting and it takes 1-2 minutes to log in. Maybe they were coming from another meeting. If you plan to give the most important information in the first minute of the meeting, starting exactly to the second on time is a recipe to have to repeat yourself. And if people aren't very comfortable with you (because for example you're three layers above them in the hierarchy), they won't ask you what they missed, they will ask someone else what happened in the first two minutes. That's another reason, instead of sitting there in silence a minute past the start of the meeting, having small talk is a good way to ease people into the conversation and get at least one person ready to talk. The one disclaimer to this is when the number of people in the meeting gets above 20, most people that aren't the presenter don't want a room of 20+ people to know all about their personal life.
During the meeting the goal is to be clear. That doesn't always happen. And often what is clear to one group of people (like manufacturing) is not clear to another (like testing). It's okay to repeat things in a meeting. In fact, I kind of like it. If the information is very important, you better say it twice. Of course saying everything twice will sound patronizing, and I'm not a fan of trying to rehash ten minutes of a meeting if someone showed up late. You can always bring that person up to speed later one on one instead of wasting everyone else's time.
In decision making meetings I try to get everyone to add at least one question or comment in the meeting. Often that means redirecting a question targeted at me for someone who hasn't said anything. For example, "Interesting question John, Sara, what do you think about that?" In engineering there can definitely be people afraid to speak up, in particular women get talked over, and shy engineers often won't speak unless spoken to. So one goal as a meeting leader is to be inclusive and get everyone's perspective.
When the meeting is over it's good to ask if there are any major questions, and the pause will often feel awkward, especially with a large number of people calling into a meeting and needing to unmute themselves to ask a question. Just wait to make sure it's awkward, it only takes about six seconds. I've only waited three seconds before and hung up as someone was asking a question... and then I had to call back in to answer it.
Try to end early. Everyone has individual work to do, and giving them even one minute back will help. Some of them most likely have another meeting scheduled back to back.
Finally, for meetings where a decision was made, it's good to send out notes to the attendees after the meeting confirming the decision. The same can go for meetings where information was shared, but often in those cases that information can actually be sent out ahead of time, so that people can bring questions to the information sharing meeting. A great example is a design review, the presentation and assembly number can be shared ahead of time so that people can prepare and ask better questions.
That's about it. I hope it helps in your meetings, and if you've ever felt like my meetings were a little different this might have explained why.
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