There are 2 types of meeting. Discuss.

Meetings. Terrible things; but like democracy they are the least-worst way of solving the problem*. They can be a terrible waste of time and they are the only way of really getting the best from those terrible, frustrating, wonderful, inspiring, brilliant people that are our co-workers. They are the best high-bandwidth, bidirectional, audio-physical media that works for our 3d simian brains. How can we get the best out of our meetings? I think that the answer lies in that excellent reasoning device: the barbell (i.e., there’s something at either end and nothing in the middle). There are 2 types of meeting:

  • The Decision meeting
  • The Discussion meeting

Once I’ve said the names, there isn’t much more to say, but let’s grind through it.

1. The Decision meeting

The Decision meeting is pointy. The ultimate example I’ve seen is the decision meeting for an investment buy/sell. There are defining characteristics of the decision meeting:

  • The point of the meeting is to make a decision, the decision makers should know who they are before the meeting
  • In order to stop debate, the decision should be laid out in a document, before the meeting
  • In order to stop groupthink, each decision maker should make and submit their decision before the meeting
  • There must be strict record-keeping; minutes and decision notes must be recorded consistently
  • In IT, we like data. Recorded decisions should be mine-able and have a confidence level. Or use the Apache voting system.
  • There must be rules of engagement; the format of the meeting should be known and every point covered.

If all this is done before the meeting, what is the point of getting together? Well, you establish the agenda, set your own opinions and then drill into those opinions and see if anyone needs to change their mind. If you’ve ever watched The Apprentice, you know what happens when you get people together to make a decision without a strong, reasoned opinion. You get a shouting match and then vicious reversals and selective memory after the fact. Don’t do this. Of course, all this is great but you must do a lot of work to get there. The hardest thing is building a decision to decide on. You have to put together an exhaustively documented plan of action/architecture/strategy to vote on. That must be close to what people want or you’ll be lost in debate. PGMs are good because the answer is always buy/no buy. The other thing is, this decision meeting doesn’t have to be a democracy: the decision maker might be one person who ignores everyone else, but if things go bad then the documentation is there to fall back on. Meeting minutes are a cleft stick; vital and yet timewasting they deserve a post of their own. One thing is certain, publishing meeting minutes is not a way to communicate what you are doing, you have to do something to make them digestible.

2. The Discussion meeting

The Discussion meeting is schmoozy, smooth and free-flowing. In order to get the best out of this you really need an agenda, if you don’t have an agenda you better all know the problem well. You might be having some early stage meetings where you don’t even know what the agenda might be, but you better have an opinion before you walk in the room. These meetings will be useful when you are hammering out what the options are, or for finding out what the problems are. I’ve found that if the meeting group is always the same and you keep talking about the same focussed subject-area, you soon develop a team spirit and a shared context and vocabulary that enables a productive sharing of ideas; if the meeting attendance changes or meetings are infrequent productivity drops drastically as we need to reset each time.

There is a special case of the discussion meeting that is, in my opinion, the best type of meeting: the one-to-one.

These are the meetings where you share ideas freely and inspire each other. This is one case where it might be OK to not have an agenda, the very act of having to talk it out will clarify things and throw up angles and aspects that you would never find alone. See also Programmer’s dog. This is where I and the core values split: I think that brainstorming without focus is a disaster, but balanced, thoughtful, egoless collaboration, where you abandon your idea when a better one comes along… for a certain type of creativity,  there is nothing like it.

And of course, finding out how people tick will only happen in this type of meeting.

Types of meeting to avoid

  • The status update: Utter fail. Send me an email. Or don’t, even better.
  • The boxing match: One person talks, someone else argues with them. Everyone else listens and checks email on blackberry.
  • Any meeting that DOESN’T START ON TIME
  • Any meeting where people check emails other than to make the point that “this meeting is pointless”. TBH, sometimes I do send myself reminders from a berry, but until we have in-office multi-user Siri in every room…

Conclusion Know your meeting, value your colleagues time. Choose one or the other and make sure they know which it is.

*  Churchill said that. Amazingly here are the Hansard minutes that say so. Meeting minutes are a wonderful thing. (see first few lines in the linked page for comments on democracy)


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