How to have effective meetings

As I mentioned in my post on standard work for leadership, meetings at most companies are a mess.  There are too many, they don't accomplish enough, and people dread going to them.  And if they are not productive, they are a giant money pit.  Run Payscale's Meeting Miser for a few meetings and ask yourself if you got your money's worth (or if you are really brave, ask the team).

It doesn't have to be that way.  Here are six tips to improve meetings, and thereby improve your life.

1. Don't have a meeting

Meetings should always involve making decisions or doing genuine work that cannot be done individually.  Ask yourself "why am I having this meeting?"  If the answer contains the words "informational" or "get everyone on the same page" chances are you don't need a meeting.  Other forms of communication (email, phone calls, or conversation) will work much better and take less time.

Before you schedule a meeting make sure that you know what decisions need to be made or work needs to get done, and that a meeting is the best venue for doing that.

2. Send a simple agenda

I know.  Everybody says this, but nobody does it.  Most people have opened up MS Word's Agenda Wizard at least once , filled in all of the blanks, picked a template, saved it to their hard drive, and sent it as an attachment to the team, only to find out that most people didn't read it.  I think this is the main reason most people don't write agendas: its too complicated and nobody reads it anyway.

Keep it simple.  Write the agenda in the body of the email so that folks don't have to open up an attachment to read it, and make it short.  Many of the things normally on an agenda (attendees, time, place, etc) are already included in appointments sent with Outlook or Groupwise.  You don't need to repeat those. So just get to the point of the meeting: 
"we are meeting to finalize the 2009 budget.  We need to decide on X, Y, and Z.  Nancy will email the latest TPS report, John is bringing the bagels"  
3. Start on time

If you are missing people at the start time, start anyway.  They'll be on time to the next meeting.  Skip ahead in the agenda if you need to.  

4. Keep the meeting to 50 Minutes or less

I am amazed at the number people who schedule back to back meetings that last sixty minutes. After the first meeting they run late for the rest of the day.  This is nuts.  By high school most people have figured out that you need five to ten minutes to get to the next class.  This rule also applies to meetings.  

For some reason the default meeting length in Outlook is thirty minutes and Groupwise is sixty minutes.  Have your IT department change this to 50 minutes for the whole organization.  If they refuse, at least change it for yourself. Actually this might be difficult in Outlook, but to do it in Groupwise go to Tools > Options > Date & Time > Default appointment length.  If you are using Outlook you may have to just set each appointment to fifty minutes when you make them.  

5. The HIPPO should keep his mouth shut

Bob Sutton has a great article about the leadership problems at GM.  They have a culture where the top guy at any given meeting talks the most.  Instead of the team actually doing their job, they end up echoing the highest paid person's opinion (HIPPO).  Read Bob's article to find out why this is so poisonous.  The HIPPO in the room should spend most of their time listening and moderating the conversation.  If you are the HIPPO and you need to do all the talking, just send a memo.  You don't need a meeting for that.
6. Send out minutes the same day

If your organization requires that you take detailed minutes of everything said at the meeting, make sure you have somebody there that can do that.  But most of the time all you really need is a record of what decisions were made, what activities need to get done, and who is responsible for them.  Spend the last minute of the meeting reviewing these and making sure everyone commits getting there part done (one minute minutes).  Then email these minutes to the team the same day.  If you don't do this somebody will drop the ball, guaranteed.

The good news is that all of this advice makes scheduling and having meetings simpler (and more effective).  If you are in a leadership position make this the standard by which your organization conducts meetings.  If you are not in a leadership position then lead by example.  Plan and run your own meetings well and forward this article to anybody that needs to read it.

Photo: indexed

The most loaded word in the english language.

Accountability. Never has there been a word uttered so often by so many with so little idea of what it really means.

I've worked with many managers to improve their processes. In the early stages of these projects, when we've identified the extent of how bad the problem is, the manager will often turn to me and say, "Isn't this really just a matter of holding people accountable?" or "they need to be more accountable." This is just finger pointing, not accountability. Accountability should always be about yourself not somebody else. Miki Saxon writes about this in the context of the current political environment, but it applies in all organizations.

In QBQ John Miller writes that accountability is the ability to ask the right questions. Examples of wrong questions are:
  • Who dropped the ball?
  • Who's going to solve this problem?
  • When is somebody going to train me?
  • Who made them king?

Better questions focus on personal accountability:
  • How can I help?
  • How can I become a part of the solution?
  • What can I do to develop myself?
  • What can I do to lead.

Instead of focusing on why something happened or who is at fault, ask questions with these qualities:
  • Start with how or what. Why and who are usually counter-productive
  • Contain an "I". In the end that is the only person you can actually control
  • Focus on action.

These are questions that you can actually answer yourself, and they bring about a mindset and action that will improve things. This is how leaders approach personal accountability.

Photo by a2gemma

What I learned from my root canal.

I hate dentists. I hate making the appointments, taking work off to see them, paying them, laying in the chair, the bright light, the pokes, the prods, the paper bib, the drool, trying to answer questions with fingers in my mouth, and flossing (because it reminds me of some dentist telling me to floss more). This is completely irrational because my loathing actually stems from my experience with an orthodontist (not a dentist), but imagine my annoyance at needing a root canal.

Some people have not had the pleasure of having a root canal, like my friend Jessica. Our conversation on the subject went something like this:

Jessica: What's a root canal?
Me: You know how you and most normal people go to the dentist every six months.
Me: And every once in a while you have a cavity, but it never really hurt and the dentist fills it, and its no big deal.
J: Yeah
Me: Well if you don't see the dentist often enough the cavity goes all the way to the root, where the nerves and blood supply to the tooth get infected and it hurts like hell.
J: Oh.
Me: so they have to drill out the center of the tooth and pull out all of the nerves and blood supply in the root of the tooth, fill it all back in, and put a crown on it. It's a big pain in the butt and really expensive.
J: So let me get this straight. You have to have all of this work done mainly because you didn't see the dentist every six months?
Me: Right.
J: And its dentists you hate?


So here is what I learned from my root canal:
  • My problems are my own fault.
  • Seeing the dentist every six months is not a scam
  • My dentist has every right to talk to me like I'm an idiot.
  • When the dentist says "don't chew on the right side," don't chew on the right side.
This is just one of many occasions where I suffered great pain to learn a simple lesson. What have you learned the hard way? (tell me in the comments.)

By the way, If you need a Dentist in Kalamazoo, Dr. Allen and Dr. Wilson are both terrific.

Photo: Betsssssy

What to say when you screw up.

Everybody screws up occasionally. When it happens the apology is important. There is only one right way to say I'm sorry and it should go something like this: "I'm sorry for what I did. I know it caused you pain. I promise it will never happen again." Notice that there is no "but." Anything that begins, "I'm sorry, but..." is not an apology.

Earlier this week one of the web services we use was performing horribly. Nobody from our company complained immediately, some of us even assumed the problem was on our end. Today, however we got the following note form the vendor (the name of the service has been changed.)

The last two days have been rough. HAL9000's performance was terrible. I would like to explain what happened, what we did to fix the problem, and how we are making sure that it doesn't happen again. Your time is valuable, and spending minutes waiting for every HAL9000 operation (or getting kicked out after entering data) is plain not good.

First, the slowdown was a performance issue not a security one. Our database was stuck in a logic loop. The root of the problem was the monthly snapshot that HAL9000 makes of each clients data for use in comparative reporting. The December 1st snapshot was the first one to include the new 2009 regulatory
standards. We made a mistake in the computer code, so that the database made a full snapshot with EACH new standard. Needless to say, that's a lot of snapshots. The size of that request (measured in Terabytes, not megabytes or gigabytes) caused a cascade of safety features to kick-in. Our tech team has spent the past two days resetting those safety features and modifying the snapshot code. Short-term problem resolved.

To make sure this does not happen again, we have done two things: first we have upgrade the diagnostic systems that monitor our data base from industry standard to cutting edge, and second we have engaged a consulting company to analyze and optimize our database structure. While this performance issue was the first for HAL9000 in 2.5 years, we agree that even once is too much.

Thank you for your understanding, and we are sorry for the inconvenience this has caused. If we can help enter data that has accumulated over the past days, please forward them to your account manager. As always, contact me directly if you would like more gory tech details.


That is how you write an apology. It begins with an acknowledgment that they screwed up, it goes on to acknowledge the pain it causes, and it assures us that they have put in procedures to prevent this from happening again. While it does go into some technical detail, it does so only to provide context for the assurances that it won't happen again. The technical stuff doesn't become an excuse. That's important. And they never use the word "but".

So the next time you screw up, remember these three things:
  • I'm sorry
  • I know it caused you pain
  • It won't happen again

Try it at work and at home.

Photo: Half Chinese

Malcolm Gladwell on why we squander talent

Poptech has a video of Malcolm Gladwell discussing some of the ideas in his new book Outliers. (Thanks, Garr !) He discusses how we are very poor at capitalizing on human potential, and what the barriers are to getting all people to achieve their best.

There are barriers to human capitalization common to most business.

Lack of Diversity

There is a lot of research showing that diverse organizations outperform non-diverse ones (thanks, Penelope ). Why is this? Think about it from the negative. The opposite of diversity is promoting and hiring people who are just like ourselves: similar background, experience, and ways of thinking about things. Non-diverse businesses miss out on a wider range of perspective and creativity. It is natural to gravitate to people who our like us, but if we don't keep that tendency in check we squander the potential of many or our employees, and the organization suffers as a result.


The best ideas often come from the people doing the work. It makes sense that folks who actually interact with the customer or assemble the product might have some good ideas about improving the customer experience or the manufacturing process. But organizations with rigid hierarchies only listen to the engineers and MBAs, completely squandering the intelligence and creativity of the folks closest to the customer. The best business listen to emplyees at all levels of the org chart.

What are some of the barriers to human capitalization in your organization?

Best time management advice ever.

Everyone has seen Randy Pausch's inspirational Last Lecture. Shortly after that he gave a much more practical (and just as inspirational) lecture on time management. Watch the video and implement at least one of his recommendations. See more of Randy's videos here.

I don't do everything he suggests, but I can personally attest to:

  • Multiple monitors. Don't be a scrooge, they're cheap and they really do improve productivity.
  • Batching email. It takes much more time to respond to dozens of emails as they come in than it does to go through them all at once. Bonus Tip: Apply GTD workflow to you email processing, and empty your inbox every day.
  • Covey's four quadrants: Prioritize your to-do list according to Covey's four quadrants. Make time for those things that are important but not urgent (quadrant 2).

The power of the last two items becomes apparent when I don't do them for a while: my stress level goes way up. If you are a software developer, make your first million by building a productivity suite that incorporates email batching and covey's four quadrants. I know I'd buy it.

Do you practice any of these techniques? Leave a comment and let me know how it works for you.