Most meetings suck. The person running them doesn’t actually run the meeting. They’re collections of random people unfocused, collectively wasting time for little or no purpose. How do we make meetings more effective and not waste time?

Well, today’s lesson comes from my friend a therapist turned software engineer; Casey. Casey can be a goofy guy, but he’s really, super-duper serious about meetings and not wasting time. I’ll teach you the format he taught me to make meetings wildly effective.

Every raft needs a river guide

You’re on this raft called a meeting, everyone is riding along, but your river guide is clueless. He doesn’t know the water flows downstream or that the river ends in the giant waterfall that is Joe rambling for the next hour. You have an in-experienced river guide.

What is a meeting river guide you ask. A river guide is there to guide you past obstacles and send you hurtling into success. Think of a river guide as a moderator. This person defines the agenda, runs the meeting and ensures everyone’s voice is heard.

Every meeting has an agenda or purpose

Why are you meeting? Why am I sitting here staring at your head and watching to your lips move? There has to be a purpose to the meeting, the river guide sets the tone for the meeting and the agenda.

Recently we had a developer’s forum meeting to discuss our UI library, I was the river guide. People had proposed topics for the meeting on Slack the days before and I moderated the discussion.

I started by defining the agenda in a common format:

  1. Who’s our note taker? I ask up front, first ask for commitment from one person to type and post notes to Slack. If nobody volunteers, I pick somebody at random. Once we have our note taker assigned, I tell them to start typing!

  2. I’ll read off the proposed list of topics to discuss then I’ll write them on the white board.

  3. Once they’re written up, I’ll go item by item, asking how much time does the person that proposed the topic want to talk about this item. Typically its 5 to 10 minutes.

  4. We add up the numbers and make sure we have enough time to cover everything before the meeting time is up. If not, we cut topics aggressively.

The river guide steers clear of obstacles

When you’re floating down the river, you want to watch out for rocks, logs and waterfalls. If the river guide is experienced, they’ll know the spots to watch out for.

In meetings, it’s much tougher to combat the unwanted rocks and land mines even if you’re experienced. In our meetings, the river guide employs a few tactics to prevent issues from popping up.

  1. Time boxing each topic. With an agreed time box, the river guide watches the clock or runs a timer. If we need more time, we agree that we need x more time to chat and we might not finish our list.

  2. If the discussion can’t be wrapped up quickly within or shortly after exceeding the window we gave it, we will often table the discussion for the next meeting unless it’s urgent to solved TODAY.

  3. The river guide asks team members who have been quiet to ensure that no voices are missing. Some people are really shy and don’t like to share, being a gentle river guide can coax those people out of their shells. While others are in silent agreement or disagreement.

  4. The river guide often will as for a vote if a decision is to be made. Some guides like consensus, I’ll take a majority unless it’s very close, such as if there’s only 1 or 2 people making the difference.

  5. The river guide doesn’t let Bob, Joe or Johnny dominate the conversation. The guide asks people for opinions and insight. If Johnny is dominating the conversation, then he tries to get other people talking and get their input.

Who is the river guide?

The river guide can be a developer, project manager or any person really. They have a simple job: set the agenda, set time boxes and push people who abuse the time boxes. In our community forums developers sign up for a 3 week commitment to run the meetings and contribute.

What tips and tricks have you found to make your meetings more effective?