We Break it Down: Startup Lab’s “Meetings That Don’t Suck” Presentation

November 11, 2014

8:00 am

Are you in the habit of accepting invitations to standing meetings? Is there a list of ongoing, hourlong, status report meetings that now take up most of your week? When will your week become productive, if you have accepted the invitations to all of these standing meetings? Google Ventures saw a common complaint coming from their portfolio companies: “meetings are unenjoyable and inefficient.”

Ken Norton, Product Manager at Google Ventures, created a Startup Lab workshop entitled “Meetings That Don’t Suck” to help leaders identify how to eliminate and improve meetings. The video is an hour long and a year and a half old, but the elements found in this presentation are evergreen and crucial. Here are the main takeaways:

There are different kinds of meetings. Some meetings, by their very nature, are toxic and to be avoided. There are other types of meetings that are incredibly valuable even if they are unstructured. How do you figure out which type of meeting are you scheduling?


1. Is there a decision that needs to be made in this meeting?

If the answer is No, your first directive is clear: Consider alternatives to the meeting.

The first kind of meeting that everyone lists when they think about “meetings they hate”, is the “update meeting.” “These are horrible,” Norton says. “Kill these.” There are easy, obvious ways to replace this meeting.

  • Snippets: bulleted list of what you did last week and what you want to do this week. This goes into a searchable digest. Utilize Hackpad, Google Docs, Asana, Trello, or other formats that can be viewed by management and updated by team members.
  • Standups: A quick “what is everyone working on” update. A standup gets its name from the fact that this type of meeting should be done while standing to prove how quick it will be. “What did you accomplish yesterday? What are you going to accomplish today? What is keeping you from completing any of your tasks?” If there is anything else to answer, it goes to a different format. This daily update requires you to commit to doing what you say you’re going to do, and allows other team members to offer to take a task that another member is blocked by.


2. Is this a strategy meeting?

This may not actually be a decision-making meeting. In strategy and brainstorming meetings, the goal may not be inherently clear, and the meeting may be doomed to repeat itself again and again. Are you sure that a decision will come directly from this meeting? Review this criteria to make your planning meeting as productive as possible:

  • Be stingy about attendees. Who are the reviewers, and who is the decisionmaker?
  • Create a specific scope for the meeting. “Looking at the latest mockups” is not a specific scope. “Choosing between design A and B” is a specific decision that can be made at the meeting.
  • Provide information for the reviewers to get work done prior to the meeting. If there is a way for reviewers to provide input, they may not need to be present at the meeting.
  • The intent of a meeting is not to make reviewers happy, but to make a decision based on the input of the reviewers.


3. Have you identified a decision-maker?

What are the decisions that need to be made? Is this something that can even wait for a meeting? Are we blocking progress by scheduling this meeting out in the week? Does this really need someone else’s input on this? Can someone make a decision and simply get an approval?

The best type of decisions are specific: yes, or no. They are clear and unambiguous. A specific, actionable decision to be made looks like “select one of three product flows” or “approve $25k contract with HappyCo.” An ambiguous decision looks like: “decide on a launch strategy” or “review contracts.” Who is the decider? The decider can block execution – you need their approval. There must be one decider, and they do not have to be the most senior member. This should be established early in the project.


4. Is there an agenda?

Do not place a meeting onto a calendar without an agenda. If there is no agenda, there should be no meeting. The agenda, when the meeting is scheduled, should clearly identify the reason that these man-hours will be devoted to this block of time.

  • Clarify the decisions needed
  • Identify who the decider is
  • Provide the preparation materials: links, supporting research, items to review
  • Allow for a decision to be made prior to the meeting. If commentary is made prior to the meeting that helps clear the way to make a decision or reduce the number of decisions to be made, this is incredibly productive and helpful. Don’t hold your cards until the meeting. Show your hand.


5. What tools have been released to help eliminate or improve meetings? (This update is offered as a bonus to the recap)

  • Slack This communication tool has seen true hockey-stick growth in the last year, as more and more productivity tools integrate with Slack to improve transparency and collaboration on teams.
  • Trello and Asana There are many product management tools available to keep tasks up-to-date and note accountability in teams.
  • WorkingOn This tool seeks to replace the status meeting and keep the entire team motivated by seeing what everyone is working on.
  • SpeakUp enables progressive business leaders to uncover new ideas and solve problems faster by collecting and collaborating on employee ideas.
  • GoogleDocs, Hackpad, and Evernote are all great collaborative tools to allow team members to collaborate real-time on documents and ideas.
  • Video Conferencing products including GoodMeeting  Video conferencing is so much better when you can visually show that you would like to speak, rather than interrupting the speaker. Note when distributed team members are losing interest in the meeting and keep everyone engaged.


6. Choose the time wisely.

Start promptly. End early. Determine the format to prevent distractions. Determine whether the people at the meeting have something better to be doing. Stick to the agenda. Take non-agenda items offline.


7. What other types of meetings are important, even if a decision is not to be made?

One-on-Ones – This is a very important meeting between coworkers. Keep them sacred. One-on-ones are often the type of meeting that are most easily replaced. This should never be the case. A one-on-one is the best format for connecting with your co-worker or subordinate to understand what is driving them, and to build on your relationship. A one-on-one does not need an agenda. Do not communicate that your meeting partner needs an agenda, or that they need to justify the reason for the meeting. One-on-ones can sometimes serve to prevent other meetings, because a quick question for a superior can be brought up at that time. Arrive at the one-on-one with the answer to a question of “How can I make your life easier?”

Consider whether a walking meeting is an option. Two coworkers walking together can create focus and a bonding moment. Distributed teams might still benefit from a call that is performed while both participants are having a bit of exercise.

All-Hands – Regular and periodic meetings where the leaders of a company can provide interesting updates and demos and take questions from the team members creates an openness and promotes a culture both of transparency and of celebration.




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Previously the Managing Editor at Tech.Co, Ann Diab has a background of launching and nurturing of startups and tech companies. Empowering and educating entrepreneurs and startups to better productivity and culture is her passion. Growth Manager at WorkingOn to enable folks all over the world to enjoy work and improve communication. Follow me on Twitter.