(by Hoffman, ISBN 1-933820-38-1)


Meetings are a Design Problem. Meetings should add value to your life by providing a sense of progress--problems being defined, decisions getting made, priorities being prioritized, and solutions being built upon the benefit of multiple perspectives.

Two kinds of people: makers (software, documents, code, or other products and outcomes) and managers (responsibility of overseeing other people who make the things you used to make). (NOTE: Presumption is that makers don't own meetings, managers do. Not sure that holds.)

Part 1: The Theory and Practice of Meeting Design

Frame, build, optimize, facilitate, and measure meetings that do a job.

Meetings can create great outcomes if you want them to. They come from being intentional with the time you spend together; meeting design is the practice of expressing that intention.

Chapter 1: How to Design a Meeting

Think like a designer about the gatherings already taking place.

What is a Well-Designed Meeting?: Well-designed things make our lives simpler or more pleasing. Design is an intangible currency that separates things that matter from junk.

Meetings are usually not designed. Lack of a clearly defined agenda is a symptom of the problem, but designing a meeting means more than just having an agenda--that meetings aren't considered in the same way that designers consider problems they are trying to solve. Thinking like a designer means taking an iterative, cyclical approach, mixing in research and testing of concepts.

This design process approach:
1. Clearly define the problem that a design should solve through observation and good old-fashioned research.
2. Create and consider multiple options, as opposed to sticking to a single solution.
3. Selet the option assumed to be the best and begin an interative effort to refine it from a minimum viable concept. This contrasts with spending excessive time visualizing he finished product in every detail.
4. Execute/"ship" at an agreed-upon fidelity so that you have an opportunity to see how the design fares in the real world with real people. After that, goto step 1 as needed.

Apply Design Thinking to Existing Meetings

Your calendar is littered with recurring team meetings (standing meetings, check-ins, (NOTE: standups?) ); for each one of these always have two questions in the back of your mind:

If you can't answer the first, or the second answer is "yes", delete/decline the meeting. Continuing to expect a productive outcome out of the same get-together when the goals have already been achieved (or new goals haven't been clearly articulated) is a special kind of insanity. To combat that insanity:

  1. Identify the problem the meeting is intended to solve. Understand that problem sufficiently with research or a clear understanding of constraints.
  2. Revisit and experiment with format, including length of time and method of facilitation. Consider skipping a few meetings, just to see what happens.
  3. Make changes to the meeting semi-permanent after observing successes. Eliminate changes that don't produce successes.
  4. Walk away from meetings that no longer do the job intended.

Identify the problem

People often throw meetings at problems w/o sufficiently examining the problem itself. When the problem feels under-/un-defined, identify and agree on the problem the meeting is intended to solve, then diagnose.

Working from a primary problem, you can identify secondary problems.

A meeting is a synchronous approach to communication.

Consider Multiple Formats

A conversation is only one of several ways to structure time--collaboratively visualizing the process (sticky notes on a wall, for example). Exclusively relying on conversation and human memory is a single pattern for executing a meeting--there are other patterns.

Make Small Changes and Assess Improvements

With iterative changes over time, a regularly scheduled standing meeting can be tweaked to balance contributions and use structured collaboration to reclaim precious time.

One option to introduce is a time limit for individual speakers. Writing before speaking with a target length (such as a single sentence) also encourages people to consider what they say before they say it.

Know When the Job is Done

Walking away from something that has done its job feels great. Agreement about how long a meeting is going to be in place can be reached by following the design thinking process to its natural conclusion.

A Better Definition of "Meeting"

Habits are the result of behaviors becoming separated from an awareness of the intentions behind those behaviors. When habits form as parts of the process of working together, such as standing meetings, those meetings start to be labeled with descriptions, rather than ascribed with purpose. When you apply design process to meetings, you reconnect getting together with having a reason to do it.

A meeting is something that enables us to achieve an outcome that we can't otherwise achieve without it, measured in an agreed-upon fashion. If you've got the money for gas and maintenance, a car is the freedom to relocate yourself; a meeting is a mechanism for creating meaningful change in your work.

Chapter 2: The Design Constraint of All Meetings

Design conversations to work effectrively within limits posed by the human brain.

Better Meetings Make Better Memories

There is one design constraint that all huans bring: their capacity to remember the discussion. Brain's job in meetings is to accept inputs (things we see/hear/touch) and store it as memory, then to apply those absorbed ideas in discussion (things we say and make). Best way to design for this constraint is by creating ways to support more effective creation of memories.

Science has identified four theoretical stages of memory:

Brain Input Modes

During a meeting, each attendee's brain is either in a state of input or output. By choosing to assemble in a group, the assumption is implicit that information needs to be moved out of one place/brain into another (or several others). An energetic, collaborative meeting has a synchronous input/output dynamic, with movement between the input and output states happening more frequently in smaller, faster bursts. Each brain in a fast-paced meeting is working to absorb the information from surrounding brains while also outputting information for the cumulative benefit of the group. That should increase clarity about a problem/solution and culminate in a shared understanding that wouldn't exist without everyone.

More Effective Listening

Groups regularly fall back on conversation as the MO for meetings; similarly to classrooms. But the effectiveness of listening at creating good memories in lectures has been studied--students in a lecture audience have a heart rate that is in constant decline, decreasing energy and focus. After about 20-30 minutes, people begin to have difficulty absorbing information via listening. Thus, try to break the meeting content into 20- to 30-minute durations. Within each 20- to 30-minute session, include time to reflect on what participants have heard. That reflection can take the form of conversation with the presenter, conversation with each other, or applying the knowledge in an exercise.

Time constraints

With too much time to focus on a single issue in a discussion, you might start to believe your have nothing to say because you aren't qualified to contribute, despite evidence to the contrary. (Imposter syndrome.) This can be discouraged in discussions by simply preventing people from having too much time to spend in a single thought space. Aggressive time constraints encourage people to act more quickly and use the limited brain energy they have in powerful bursts.


(Carbs, bad. More details in the chapter.)

Visual Listening

Visualization is an effective method of getting memories into your brain. Creating and reinforcing memories with visuals can manage and even reduce the constraint of memory unreliability and exhaustion.

Meeting scribes/secretaries take notes at a nearly-impossible level of detail, distribute them, and they are promptly never visisted again. Stop taking notes in meetings this way, now and forever. Give the scribe a different job: get those notes in front of everyone's eyes at the same time, in real-time, while the discussion is taking place. While people are engaged in talking, the scribe creates a visual record of only the main ideas, the conflicts, and the decisions on the wall. It needs to be large enough that anyone in the room can read it from wherever they are sitting--that way, when the scribe captures something incorrectly, someone in the meeting can speak up and provide a correction. (Visual facilitation is a little beyond just note taking, and probably should be done by people trained in it.)

Getting in touch with your ideas

Physically manipulating objects during a discussion is a great idea. Moving yourself and moving tools that you can hold in your hands provides a platform for interaction between people and ideas. Example: the sticky note.

Chapter 3: Build Agendas Out of Ideas, People, and Time

How much content can be covered? How many people can you invite? How much time will this agenda take?

You can design an agenda to scale well and be flexible, even if it doesn't go as expected. Make a flexible agenda based on the number of ideas, people, and minutes you have in mind.

Start with the content. Establish a target cadence for the topics being introduced. Take the number of just-complex-enough topics or concepts you hope to cover and divide that number by five. The resulting number is the amount of 20-minute "content sections" of time you should allot.

Each section provides 10 minutes to present each set of five ideas, followed by some breathing room for an application of the ideas for another 10 minutes. In an hour, you can explore about 15 ideas, but you're probably better off doing a little less than that to allow time for tangents and some creative exploration.

For seven people or fewer:

Adjust the agenda for the desired number of people or the constraint of time. Do you need to add more content or more people into the discussion? Are the topics you meant to cover giving birth to unexpected, but legit, additional topics?

Improve your use of time by breaking into groups to scale into smaller, parallel discussions. Include time at the end for each smaller group to "share out" to the larger group to consolidate the original goals.

For larger groups (let's say 15):

Chapter 4: Manage Conflict with Facilitation

Build from a classic definition of facilitation that works in any organization, and find productive conflict that moves things forward.

Chapter 5: Facilitation Strategy and Style

Sometimes, great facilitation can be as simple as asking the right question. But other times, a facilitator may need to adapt.

Chapter 6: Better Mettings Lead to Better Organizations

A meeting is a window into a group's culture. Assess that culture, build a new one, and introduce changes through better get-togethers.

Part 2: Designed Meetings

A collection of meetings design to produce outcomes and decisions.

Chapter 7: Get Started with Beginning Meetings

Start a project or process with gatherings that reduce ambiguity and create direction.

Chapter 8: Chart the Course Using Middle Meetings

Stuck in the middle of a project? Need to course correct? Use a well-designed conversation to map the terrain.

Chapter 9: Find Closure with End Meetings

Wrap up your work with meetings that lead to continued growth and evolution.

Tags: reading   management   meetings  

Last modified 30 December 2022