How To Run A Useful Meeting

I’m on a manager’s schedule, not a maker’s schedule, so I go to, and run, a lot of meetings, and I’ve made a few rules for myself that make meetings more useful.

No Agenda, No Meeting

Meetings without agendas are likely to go nowhere and do nothing. Even recurring meetings need agendas. The agenda should be a few lines covering the specific reason(s) for the meeting, and this agenda should be emailed to the people who will be at the meeting at least 24 hours before the meeting. The reason for emailing the agenda, rather than only putting the meeting agenda in the invitation, is that people will often reply to the emailed agenda addressing the very questions you wanted to answer in the meeting. Sometimes, you’ll address all the reasons for having that meeting via email and you don’t need to have the meeting – which is always a good outcome. Emailed agendas are like the pre-interview phone screen – if the agenda can’t get past this step, no need to waste everyone’s time in person.

An agenda also serves to focus the meeting as it progresses, helping people keep the meeting on track.

Always Take Notes

You, as the organizer, should take detailed notes (except for the times when you are at the whiteboard, or other such situation). You set up the meeting, you have to take the notes. It was important enough for you to break up every attendee’s day, and to cost the company the combined salary of the people you invited, so you should make sure you record what happened in the meeting. Good notes contain:

  • A list of attendees
  • A copy of the agenda
  • Short summaries of discussions/disagreements
  • A list of what was decided, including who will do what

You don’t need to worry about grammar and spelling as you take the notes – you can clean them up later. What you do need to do is email all the attendees the notes (some of my friends check the notes into revision control as well; this is a good practice that I need to adopt). When you email out the notes you’re giving people time to correct your notes and clarify what everyone meant.

If you whiteboarded something during the meeting, take a picture of it and include the picture in the email.

Also, if you have trouble paying attention in meetings (like I do), volunteering to take notes is a great way to stay focused on the meeting.

Let People Leave The Meeting

If someone doesn’t need to be there for the whole meeting, don’t make them stay. Let them go after they’ve contributed their part.

Meetings Happen In Person….

Or do they? Scrums and other short status meetings are good candidates for meeting over IRC. A friend of mine who runs a lot of distributed groups runs many of his shorter (and longer) meetings this way, with the help of a few tricks like an IRC bot that can be told when the meeting has started and stopped: after the stop command is received the bot will make a web page from the meeting notes. Scrums are particularly amenable to this format because people can post their prepared list of updates into the chat window for all to see and comment on. Another advantage of scrums or status reporting meetings over IRC is that people don’t have to leave their desks (this seems obvious, but making meetings like scrums fit into people’s workflows is important). Meetings over IRC also let people observe a meeting by lurking in the chat room, which is something that is harder to do in person.

IRC can be a useful tool for in-person meetings as well, providing a place to paste texts, share links, record notes, and so on. I think that Google Wave (or something like SubEthaEdit) has potential for this purpose as well, but haven’t tried it.

What Works For You?

What techniques do you use to maximize the value of your meetings? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments.

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