Now that we are working virtually, it feels like we spend more time than ever in meetings. Unfortunately, meetings can be awful wastes of time, but I've got some encouraging news: they don't have to be.
It may start like this—an ineffective organization today looking to solve a problem might feel compelled to get 'the right people in the room and let them figure it out.' That doesn't mean there is a plan or anything that resembles a goal involved. A lot of people just...wing it.
And unless you're working in a consultancy or agency that bills hourly and doesn't tolerate inefficiency, "winging it" might feel like a non-issue. Because of this, bad meetings often go unrecognized. But why, when they are prone to taking up so much of our time?
This aimless approach can lead to the tell-tale signs that you're in a bad meeting: we don't know why we are there, who is leading the discussion, what we are talking about, what the goal might be, or what we are expected to do afterward. If this feels familiar, it's time to help your team correct on past mistakes.
So here are a few things that you can do to set yourself up for success if you 'own' the meeting in question.
Not another meeting
Here's a scenario for you: Let's assume you have a design goal that addresses a business problem, but you need some clarifications. Maybe a whole lot of clarifications (ever get that specifically vague or vaguely specific brief?). A meeting might be better than a bunch of emails or one-off phone calls.
Before you even make that attendees list (slow down—that's the next next section), I want you to stop and think about what success looks like. What do you need to accomplish? Are you going to benefit from others' input? Do you need a thought partner on something, or are you doing more showing than telling?
Where to start:
Identify whether or not a meeting is the best approach to the problem.
IF a meeting is a good idea, clarify the goal in the invitation.
Add a schedule or list of topics in the meeting description.
Picking your poison
Generally speaking, there are three types of meetings:Input-Gathering, Problem-Solving, or Communication-Driven. All of which can be Collaborative, which I will address in my next post in this series. Stay Tuned. Let's define the mission of these three meeting-types.
The "Input-Gathering" Meeting
It does mean that I value the input of others and know when I can use another perspective. Sometimes I get too close to a problem and lose a broader context. Other times I think it's been too long since I have shared anything out and I don't want collaborators to think I'm intentionally leaving them out of the process. Herein lies the effectiveness of the input-gathering meeting.
It has been my experience that if I share designs while I am working on them, I get a better end result. That doesn't mean I will change my mind about all the pixels and throw away all my work.
Creative confidence isn't just the belief that you have the answer. It's also the humility to ask for guidance or the opinion of others. Gathering input can take place in a formal setting, like a critique, but it doesn't have to. What is essential is to take the opportunity to ask for help when you feel stuck.
The "Problem Solving" Meeting
Typically early in a project, I need the most amount of help. Plus the more I partner with other disciplines, the more my idea becomes our idea. Concepts that have indirect, shared ownership tend to go further.
If you have shipped something that you are proud to have in your portfolio, it's likely because someone else fell in love with it. Or better yet, they feel like it was also their baby. In the end it doesn't matter.
At some point, you likely had a discussion or working session or workshop where you and others discussed or worked through the solution—this is what's known as the problem-solving meeting. It's best that you set up a dedicated meeting for these efforts. When you do, it's easier to get people to close their laptops and/or the 14 browser tabs to focus on the task at hand. People tend to remember these meetings.
The "Communication-Driven" Meeting
Of course, communication at times can be a one-way street. It is important to recognize when people are talking past one another. It happens all the time because it can be embarrassing to ask questions.
Shed this mindset and lead a meeting with a priority on communication. There is nothing wrong with asking people to clarify what they have said, ask someone to repeat something or unpack an acronym. Semantics are everything, and asking clarifying questions prevents assumptions from being made.
It has been my experience that making an unhealthy assumption results in a far worse outcome than not asking a question. One word of advice I have is: Listen. Listen more than you talk. Rather than focus on what is said, we can be guilty of waiting for our turn to speak.
What to do:
Identify the goal of the meeting.
Decide what type of meeting is going to best support that goal.
Avoid assumptions, clarify the goal in the Subject of the meeting.
Post-2020 meeting goals?
The Soylent Problem
Once you know the Goal and the meeting type, you need to make sure you have the right people. You want the right tools for the right job, so to speak.
If you invite the wrong people and don't provide guidance or perspective, it's a confusing gathering of people who earn a paycheck from the same company.
It's best to keep the number of people invited small. Try to do this as much as possible. You can always bring more people into the conversation later since you didn't want to waste anyone's time.
And you don't want to waste anyone's time. Think about who is absolutely necessary—usually a subset of a broader team. Afterward, you can host a follow-up to communicate the outcome to a broader audience. It has been my experience that it often takes too long to coordinate schedules, so why wait?
Set expectations. Tell everyone invited what you want to accomplish and give them a sense of what you need from them. You can do this in the meeting description of the invitation if you find it useful. Aside from identifying a goal, curating the guest list, and setting expectations, there's still one crucial item remaining that ought to be discussed.
Be selective and only invite a small number of people.
Identify the who/what/how to attendees in advance.
Clarify the purpose of any meeting you host.
Be transparent, not invisible
Setting an Agenda is important. Mapping out how you want to spend the time sets expectations. You don't need to strictly adhere to a schedule, and more often than not, an outline is enough. I rarely provide timing because I find it easier to work in modules or sections--this way if you need to extend the conversation on a topic its no big deal.
All I am advocating for is some basic preparation. Having structure sets expectations and prevents you from having another meeting that feels like it could have been an email or Slack thread.
I have a way to make that Agenda work harder than you do when you aren't in meetings. It is a simple approach to follow. Every good meeting I run (or attend) involves a simple construct—Open, Engage, and Close. It looks something like this:
Open by clarifying what you want to accomplish.
Engage in the topic or topics that address the common goal.
Close with a Summary of the meeting and Identification of Next Steps.
Allow me to elaborate further.
A Strong Opener
Start by revisiting your agenda. What you want to cover, what problems you are trying to solve, what you are interested in getting input or providing feedback on. Then stop talking and listen to find out if there is anything additional to address or scope to reduce. This way, you can drive mutual focus.
Terms of Engagement
Work through the topics you wanted to discuss. Get that feedback. Provide that input. Be open to being wrong. Most importantly, take the opportunity to listen and to ask for clarification. Avoid making assumptions, as they lead to wasted time. If you think you heard something that leads you on the wrong path, you can run the risk of solving the wrong problem.
Left Foot, Right Foot
Identify the next steps. As designers, we can be guilty of falling in love with the process. I am most definitely guilty of that, and the risk of being too process-focused is you can lose sight of the goal.
Without identifying the Next Steps, the due date for a project looms and we can act like freshman cramming for an exam—unnecessary late nights in rapid succession. As you listen during the meeting, jot down some items you need to address and what you expect the next time you talk. It's a simple enough habit to get into.
Ending a meeting on Next Steps is vital to ensure you are focused on driving toward an outcome. Everyone who attended either has something to do or not to do to move the effort forward.
Open with topics to address to drive direction.
Engage with focus, taking notes that you can summarize.
Conclude with clarity--who is going to do what by when.
Manifesting your Destiny
Be the person that hosts meetings people don't mind attending. Maybe even discussions that people actually want to go to. Start with a goal, identify what type of meeting to run, invite the right people, and be clear about what you want to accomplish. Give it a try, and remember that you would look forward to most meetings if this were easy.
This article is part of a series for Core77 by Design Director Joe Meersman about tips and tactics for working, networking, career path, and driving concepts into production through the lens of unforeseen circumstances. Check out other articles in the series to get your work life more in order, including "Here's How to Make Long-Term 'Work From Home' Work".