"You may joke about how committee meetings make you feel brain dead, but our findings suggest that they may make you act brain dead as well," according to Read Montague, a senior researcher at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. Their neuroscientific research showed that people drop a few IQ points when they’re asked to perform in “social” settings like meetings. Not only are meetings a drain on your time, they could be a drain on your performance as well.
For startups where the aim is to iterate early and iterate often, as Jason Goldberg, founder and CEO of Fab.com suggests, then smarter meetings might be the key to success. The Agile software development methodology stresses an iterative, incremental approach to building a product and the “scrum” style of meeting is at the heart of the methodology.
Learn from scrum
While there are variations to the approach, in general the “daily scrum” or “daily stand up meeting” is a short (no longer than 15 minutes) reporting-only meeting where the participants stay on their feet. This keeps people alert and prevents the meeting from dragging on. A ScrumMaster keeps the meeting focused while someone speaks for each division and reports what they did yesterday, what they plan to do today and where they anticipate any stumbling blocks. These impediments might be as simple as “I need someone to sign a purchase order” or as open ended as “I need help debugging this module.” The idea is not to solve problems in the meeting, rather it’s to monitor progress and highlight any problems that need solving outside the meeting. The ScrumMaster solves whichever problems they can, and designates people to assist where they can’t.
On an iteration level, there is even more variation according to what fits your team and your product. Again as a general example, at the beginning of each new iteration period (usually lasting between a week and a month) a “sprint planning meeting” is held. These are limited to a maximum of eight hours and are split into two four-hour sessions. In the first four-hour session the product owner and the groups work together to prioritise the products that will be the focus of the next sprint cycle. In the second half of the day the groups and draw up a list of work to be accomplished in the next sprint cycle and decide how the sprint cycle will proceed.
6 rules for all meetings
Daily scrum meetings are lean and focused and help you to stay flexible as you iterate your business model and your products. But not every meeting can be run like scrum. Traditional meetings will always be a necessary evil, but a few simple rules can make them more effective.
- Avoid agendaless meetings. If it doesn’t have an agenda then it’s a social call. Make the agenda focused: meetings should have high cohesion and loose coupling!
- Keep meetings to less than one hour. People start to lose focus after 45 minutes or so. If you have more than one hour’s worth of material on your agenda then you need to split the meeting. Often an hour is too much of a calendaring convenience, but what if you set the meeting to be, say 32 minutes, instead, if that’s all that is really needed?
- Avoid “courtesy invites.” Don’t invite people because you think you should “touch base” – that’s what networking and social events are for. Only invite participants who will make a meaningful contribution. If you suspect that you’re the recipient of a courtesy invitation, contact the meeting convener and ask what they are hoping you’ll contribute. If they just want to touch base, suggest another way of doing it.
- Cull your regular meetings. Why are you letting the calendar tell you when you should meet? Is a regular meeting really necessary or has it become a habit? Consider whether you could use a system of regular report drops instead.
- Avoid the travel. If you need synchronous discussions consider whether a teleconference, a conference call, or an online meeting might be the answer. Tools like Campfire let you meet remotely. According to the developers, 37 Signals, tools like Campfire are much better than traditional instant messaging tools. “Instant messaging is great for one-on-one chats, but it’s not ideal for groups of three or more. Further, if you are on AIM and your co-worker is on MSN you can’t chat. Campfire is network-agnostic and optimised for teams and groups.” For lightweight meetings, maybe just go ahead and fire up a Google Hangout (like the HackFwd team does).
- Set some ground rules. If your meeting is to be as focused and productive as it could be then people need to be prepared, pay attention and arrive on time. If you can, lay out your expectations beforehand or suggest a few rules for best practice. If you are chairing the meeting, enforce good behaviour: people will be grateful when they see how much more effective meetings can be when everyone has read the briefing material and is fully committed to the discussion.
Change your thinking about meetings: as an entrepreneur your time is too precious to spend in unproductive discussions. For more startup productivity tips, read the blog post on effective time management skills.