On meetings

The carefully branded introduction slide disappears, and is replaced by a long list of bullets. The stump speech voice begins. “This bullet point, which I’m now reading verbatim to you, is to give you context for the remaining bullet points. As I proceed to read each…” The speaker’s arms move continually, as if pumping a bellows providing wind for words. The battle for the audience’s attention has been lost.

It’s a start. Next, let’s add some interaction to the meeting.

“You’re dumb,” the senior developer across the table tells me. “And now I have proof.” The tension is palpable, amplified by the accompanying grimace on the other side. Has my ignorance caused physical pain? As a junior developer, new to the team, I probably have offered a dumb idea. But I press on. “Here’s what I’m trying to say.” At this early point in my career, my ideas are cloudy and convoluted. My lack of clarity fuels the contentious nature of the discussion. I’m interrupted by the smack of a hand against the table: the opening of a counterpoint.

Will the meeting improve if the ideas are better?

To my right, a booming voice. “We aren’t going to finish either of these by launch.” In answer, a project plan is projected as an image on a slide. The tiny dates and numbers on the screen are barely legible. Hard copies are distributed to compensate. The voice continues. “I’ve seen these before and I still don’t agree,” it booms. “I have a different idea.” Once the alternative is shared, the room fragments into pockets of discussion. At the top of the hour the group disbands without a resolution.

Improving, but maybe we need more facilitation.

It’s a packed room, and the screen shows a picture of Cookie Monster and a plate of fruit. A thought bubble appears above Cookie Monster’s head. It reads, “WTF is this?” The joke has the group laughing and fully engaged. The resulting discussion is chaotic, but lively and helpful. Everyone is learning and having a great time. At the end, someone speaks up and says, “From now on, whenever I think of product-market fit, the image of Cookie Monster staring at a fruit plate will spring to mind. Thank you for that.” 

Awesome, what could be better?

I’m allergic to day-long meetings and yet, at the urging of my team, we now have one marked on the calendar. My team is one of the best and brightest in the industry. I’ve asked them to put together the agenda, figuring that since they asked for the day, they are in the best position to define success.

It’s now the morning of, and technical difficulties have made us nearly a half-hour late. This late start has caused my meeting allergies to flare up, so as we start the first two-hour block I restate my expectations.

Two team members stand at the board, leading the session. They look at me, calmly and patiently, and say, “You’re messing up our agenda. We’ve got this. Hang on and we’ll explain how we want this section to run.” I hang on.

The problem statement is reiterated, and they reveal that the brainstorming technique we’re going to use is called STRIDE, an acronym for Situation, Target, Resistors, Ideas, Decisions, and Evidence. This is written in big letters across the whiteboard. For each letter, everyone writes down (on Post-it notes) their contribution (e.g. three symptoms of the problem; this is a time-boxed activity). When the time expires, Post-its are stuck on the board, grouped by thematic similarity or overlap. This spurs discussion and forces some consensus before we move to the next step.

At the end of the two-hour block, we look at our progress on the board. Within this time we had tackled a really tough problem, and identified a clear set of decisions, and now we’re energized and ready for the next section. We all agree this has been a terrific success.

The end of the day sees a tired, but happy group filled with a sense of accomplishment and of future purpose. “This was really valuable,” someone says. “We’ll have to do this again soon.” 

You can’t ask for much more than that.

Have your own story?

Participated in a really awesome meeting? Or been in an awful meeting? What made it work - or not? Share your story in the comments.