Web App Masters: Managing Meetings

by Luke Wroblewski March 22, 2011

At the Web App Masters Tour in Philadelphia, Kevin Hoffman outlined how to get the most of meetings (especially kick-off meetings) by taking the time to apply the design process to meetings themselves. Here’s my notes from his talk: Meeting Design for the Design Process.

Meeting Design

  • People assume avoiding meetings will increase productivity but it’s a bit more complex than that.
  • The argument against meetings goes: we’ll never make up the time they take; they are too abstract; drift off subject; have personality issues; and are scheduled in the wrong time blocks (30min, 1hour).
  • But meetings help us to: share awareness, make human connections, read body language, learn, analyze opportunities, fix a simple problem, and clarify problems.
  • Kevin’s company, Happy Cog, has had lots of meetings to sell design ideas. They have learned what works through trial and error.
  • Meeting design is the art of facilitating or instigating a single interaction between humans to a strategic and mutually beneficial end. Single interaction, strategic, and mutually beneficial.

Learn Your Roles

  • Different roles are required to make meetings run smooth. These roles need to be filled by people who know what they are doing.
  • Facilitator: is neutral and keeps moving the meeting along; should not add or evaluate ideas doing the meeting.
  • Recorder: should be taking notes in a public way –this gives people a way to respond to what is being documented.
  • Everyone else is a group member: they contribute content & engage in conversation/ideas
  • Leader is the person who should be designing the meeting, selecting attendees, and defining the outcome.
  • Distributing facilitator role across people and meetings allows more people to participate and also grows skills in meeting management.

Learn How to Facilitate

  • The facilitator is a process guide, provider of tools, and a neutral third party. Part of this is learning new skills and part is making the role possible.
  • Facilitation requires: full participation of the group, mutual understanding, inclusive solutions, shared responsibility
  • If you don’t have original ideas to add to the meeting, you can leave.
  • Visual facilitation can help further communicate ideas.

Find your Place in the Process

  • Where are you in the process? In an individual meeting and in the larger process.
  • Divergent thinking and convergent thinking or opening & closing. Divergent thinking is about brainstorming –goal is quantity of ideas requires suspending belief. Convergent thinking is about sorting, summarizing, and coming to agreement.
  • Different meeting types: closed, open, meeting series. Steps in the process like approval, deliverables, etc. You can map these out as a process diagram to develop a repeatable approach.

Obtain the Right Tools

  • Keep the meeting room stocked with the right materials. Match activities to the problem at hand. Consider the culture of the group you are working with.
  • Have a playbook of activities to get you to your intended goals.
  • Have sharpies, stickies, sketch pads, etc.

Kick Offs

  • Kickoff meetings are important. If you have a bad kickoff, you can have longer term issues because: first impressions are powerful & lasting, roles are hidden and unclear, time & money ad wasted.
  • Trust: by improving the design of kickoff meetings you are trying to improve trust.
  • Kickoff meetings: all are open attendance. Learn other people’s names, good ideas are everyone’s job, actionable outcomes.
  • Before the kickoff meeting do stakeholder research and user research. Not the full amount of research but enough to understand objectives, ideas. Landscape research: look at competition and inspirational sources.
  • We’re having meetings so we can make something real. If a meeting is not the right tool, do something else. But if you are having a meeting, take the time to design it.
  • If a meeting is going the wrong way you may need to step in and facilitate for a bit to get things on track.
  • To say you're anti-meeting is like saying you're anti-hammer. A meeting is a tool.