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Lean Meetings

Meetings. Hate ’em or love ’em, but they are often a necessary aspect of any project that involves more than one person. However, the bigger the company, the more a time-waster they become. Who doesn’t recognize the person who seems to aim for the Guiness Book of Records in holding meetings?

Pre-meetings Dilbert comic

Although meetings can definitely be useful, they often debouch into needless chit-chat because “we’re in a meeting”. The most common culprits: the absence of an agenda, the false assumption that the entire time-slot needs to be used, the inclusion of people who have no reason to attend and the lack of actionable outcomes.

At dotBlue we kicked 2014 off with approval signatures on some really cool projects. That’s absolutely fantastic, but I immediately felt that my 2014 resolution to leave the office at 18:00h three times a week was in danger. On a more important note: we had to improve our meetings if we wanted to scale up for the extra workload. So, I wanted to improve the efficiency of our meetings. And the solution was actually very simple.

Drifting Away

Being a company with people spread across various places in Europe, our meetings often take place via video calls on Skype. Virtual meetings aren’t that different from physical meetings: you mostly get the same things, both good and bad. However, there’s one exception: the risk of drifting away in remote meetings.

In the physical world it would be highly unprofessional — not to mention unfriendly — to start talking to people who are not attending during a meeting. But with remote meetings it’s really easy to do exactly this, and get away with it. As soon as you feel that a topic is uninteresting to you, it’s tempting to just take a quick look at your unread e-mail or to ask someone for a status update in a chat. It’s incredibly easy to lose attention, because you’ve got the distractions literally at your fingertips.

Meetings Done Right

I created a simple Trello board that contained four lists: To Discuss, Discussing, Discussed and Archive. For every meeting everyone puts his topics in the “To Discuss” list. When the meeting starts, we progress through the list, every time moving a topic a list to the right. The great thing about this is that everybody dynamically builds the agenda for the meeting.

Lean Meetings example board on Trello.com

Topic Discussion

Before the meeting starts everyone has already had ample time to think about the topics which are to be discussed. What’s more: due to the interactive nature of Trello everyone is able to leave his comments on the topic’s card. You can share your point of view on the topics in advance, and by the time the meeting starts there’s already a common understanding of each other’s perspective, which greatly enhances the speed and quality of the discussion.

15 Minute Time Limit

To further prevent the risk of drifting away, we put a strict time limit on meetings: 15 minutes. This seemed daunting at first (previously our meetings would take at least 30 minutes), but this limit forces you to stay on track and be well-prepared when the meeting starts.

So far, we’ve had great results with this approach. Our meetings are efficient and focused and don’t feel like time-wasters anymore. On top of that: I found out that meetings, when done right, can be great energy boosters.

Rules of Engagement

For this method to work, you need a set of rules that you adhere to strictly. After a couple of test rounds, we came up with the following set:

  • If a topic is not on the “To Discuss” list, it won’t get discussed. There’s no place for “Oh, one more thing, …”-moments in Lean Meetings.
  • All topics need to be prepared, you’re not allowed to search for missing information while the meeting is in progress. If a topic is unprepared it stays in the “To Discuss”-bucket for the next meeting.
  • If there’s nothing on “To Discuss” list, there is no meeting.
  • The meeting takes no longer than 15 minutes. If there are still topics left to discuss, they stay there for the next meeting.
  • As soon as all cards are moved to “Discussed” the meeting ends. High-five if you still have time left!

Maintaining Structure

To keep structure in the board, you should set the following additional rules:

  • Steer clear of overzealously making notes: the board is meant for organizing meetings, not for collecting notes or minutes.
  • After a meeting is finished all topics in “Discussed” move to “Archive”.
  • Every morning the cards in the “Archive”-list are moved to the Trello Archive (to clear the board for today).

Liquid Planning

The cool thing about this method is that it forces meetings to be focused and efficient. No big agenda and planning going around the company’s inboxes, just a “Be there, or be square”-notification. You’ll soon find out that this transforms the way you organize meetings.

You can agree on a set of rules for actually holding a meeting, such as that there must be at least five topics to discuss. This leads to organizing meetings when they are actually needed, instead of planning them in a ‘regular timeframe’ (e.g., after everybody has fetched his morning coffee).

Conclusion

Until telepathy becomes real, meetings are a necessary evil. So ’till then it’s our duty to make sure that we make the most of them. Give this method a shot. I’m convinced it will make your meetings more efficient and useful. You might even start to like meetings. And please share your results with me, I would love to hear how it worked for you.

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  1. These virtual meetings can actually be compared to the ‘stand up’ meetings you have in real life. They work well, as long as they are kept short :)

  2. Yes, but remote meetings are seldom done in a stand-up setting: most people use the speakers, microphone and webcam in their laptop which limits the freedom of movement considerably.