Rule 12 - “The Value of a Meeting is Inversely Proportional To The Number of People In It”

“People who enjoy meetings should not be in charge of anything.”
― Thomas Sowell

Much like death, taxes, and bad movie sequels, meetings are a fact of life in the industry.

Most developers find meetings about as enticing as slamming a car door on your thumb. Over and over. For an hour. There’s too much sitting around talking, and useful decisions are far from guaranteed. Managers like meetings as it gives them a chance to find out what’s going on and “be in charge.” That second part there isn’t necessarily bad as engineers also have a habit of getting distracted, or refusing to ask for help if they get stuck. So imparting a little discipline can often help.

If you’re invited to a meeting, look at the list of invitees. If it’s a short list, you’re pretty safe in attending. If it’s a long list, first thing you do is check if your boss is going to be there. If so, you better show up. If not, see how many people on the invitation list you neither heard of nor met before. If it’s at least a third, odds are no one will notice you missing. In these cases make sure you touch base with someone you know from the list and ask them to “let me know what happened afterwards”. Of course, this means you have to go to a meeting for them at some time down the road, but that’s a problem for another day.

Now of course, the skipping of meetings isn’t exactly something that most companies will take kindly. It’s actually kind of rude to avoid meetings you’re invited to. But the other truth is that some meetings are a colossal waste of time and pretty much everyone in the room knows it.

Pro-Active Meeting Management

There are few techniques to make meetings easier to get through and and more productive. Most of these are self-evident in hindsight, but for some reason aren’t exercised all that often out in the wild.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask ‘Are we done?’ when things start heading off into the weeds. Meetings, and especially larger ones, tend to fade out rather than decisively end. Either the discussion wanders or you get multiple discussions going on and then people just start to get up and leave when order is lost. So sitting back and being aware that the useful part of the meeting is finished and people are just hanging around gabbing allows you to punctuate the meeting. And trust that there are others in the room waiting for someone to say the meeting is over so they can leave.

If there’s still business to discuss, someone at the table will pipe up that “No, we still need to talk about something-or-other”. In which case you just got the meeting back on track.

  • Listen First - This is actually a good rule no matter how big the meeting is or what kind of meeting it is. Staying quiet, listening, and watching the people in the room for the first five or ten minutes will give you a better feel for the room’s dynamic. This is also known as “reading the room”.

You may be able to find a common ground in a decision being debated by being detached and listening to both sides impartially. The people talking may be so entrenched in their positions they can’t see where there may be common ground or compromise. Or sometimes, such as when two different teams are meeting to talk about a shared problem, they may have competing terminology. In which case, someone listening to both sides impartially may be able to realize that there’s no actual disagreement, simply a disconnect in terminology. And thus you can end the meeting sooner by getting everyone speaking the same language. Huzzah!

  • Be Concise, Be Entertaining, Be Humble - Do you like it when someone at a meaning drones on and on and never seems to get to the point? No? Then don’t be that person. Get to the point, ask if there are any questions, and then sit your butt down.

If you see people starting to get fidgety, tell a joke. Or use a colorful simile, such as: “This schedule has about as much chance of success as a porcupine selling balloons”. Injecting a little humor makes the meeting easier to handle for everyone.

If you have a better idea than what’s being proposed, be careful how you broach the subject. Saying: “Doing it this way would be better.” seems innocuous enough, except when you consider that you just told someone in the room that their approach is worse. Be Socratic. Ask the room “What if we did it this way?”. If it turns out that perhaps something you are proposing or something you did is in error, be strong and humble enough to own it. A simple “my bad” will suffice. This is infinitely better than trying to guard your ego by justifying something that you know in your heart was a mistake.

Running A Good Meeting

Sometimes there’s no choice: you have to call a meeting. And since you’ll be inviting other engineers, you know they don’t want to be there. Making the act of commission all the more difficult. So you want to make the meeting as painless as possible for all involved.

The same rule applies whether attending or calling the meeting:

The fewer people you have in the room, the better the chance of getting something decided.

If you’re calling the meeting, only call the people who you absolutely must have there. The people invited should be the people involved with the work or direct stakeholders. If there are optional folks who may be interested, you can CC: them on the invitation so they know it’s going on, but don’t feel any need to attend. Higher level managers or people in other departments (marketing, for instance) are good candidates for being CC:’d.

Next, have an agenda and send it out with the invitation. Being dragged into a meeting where you have no idea of the content other than a top-level topic starts things off on the wrong foot. A half-dozen bullet points is enough. If you want to put in some discussion of these with the invitation to “set the table” that’s good too. Just don’t write a whole book.

Be engaging, humorous, and even self-deprecating if that helps. Even though it’s your meeting, no one expects you to know everything. Everyone else is in the room because you want or need their input. If the meeting is to hand out assignments, you still need everyone’s input on the tasks they’re being given. In other words, try to frame the meeting as being for the attendees, instead of for you.

If it has to be a long meeting - like a big design session or a quarterly strategy meeting - then have some kind of catering brought in. Even if it’s just you going down to Krispy Kreme and buying a couple dozen doughnuts. This accomplishes several things. One is to keep people alert once their energy level dips after the first hour. But more important it shows all the attendees that you’re aware of the imposition the meeting is into their routines and appreciate their attendance. Little things like this are remembered - it matters.

Finally, your most important activity as a meeting facilitator is not to talk and “run things.” It’s to watch and listen. Start the conversations and then hang back and observe and take notes. This is kind of like the Socratic Method put into a group dynamic.