Balancing Focused Work and Meetings

My colleague Rose Tan recently published an excellent article on How to Run Effective Meetings (she is one of the most disciplined person I know when it comes time to cancel unneeded meetings, you should subscribe to her newsletter!) and dared me to publish an old internal article I had on the topic. So here we are!

Long periods of uninterrupted work are needed to solve complex problems and meetings can be in the way. In this article, we will go over some best practices to minimize interruptions caused by meetings, both as a meeting organizer and as a meeting attendee.

Responsibilities as a meeting organizer

Don't do it

Don't create meetings unless they are necessary. Here are situations for which you shouldn't create a meeting:

  1. Sharing the status of a project. Send an email, a slack, or update tickets instead.

  2. Running a daily standup. Do it on slack using a template like the following:

    Y: What I did yesterday (or since the last update)

    T: What I plan on doing today.

    B: What are my blockers.

    You can set a daily reminder to remind the team to enter their updates. This will only stick if you are disciplined enough to lead by example and nudge your colleagues for updates. If there is no traction after some time, you should re-evaluate if these updates provide value.

  3. Can this meeting be replaced by an email? If yes, do it.

If you do it, have a clear goal

In your meeting invite, include at least an agenda, a goal, and a success criteria.

Here are some example of goals and how to think about them:

Alignment meeting
Define the problem, identify the critical stakeholders, and identify points of agreements and points of disagreements. Make sure to write down the resolutions, otherwise I guarantee you that you will need to have the same conversations again.
Getting things done
Have a list of decisions that need to be made, and assign action items. Each action item should have a delivery date associated to it, and exactly one owner. When the delivery date is unknown, the action item should be for the owner to provide the delivery date by a deadline.
Relationship building
No agenda are needed for these. The goal is to connect and share what is top of mind. You can change the cadence of these meetings to meet more often with your close stakeholders, and less often with colleagues you only want to keep in touch with.

You can follow the agenda in your meeting invite with the following formula:

This meeting will be a success if …

When wrapping up the meeting, it can be used to assess whether you met your meeting goals. If it is not the case, make sure to create an action item that will keep the ball rolling.

Invite the right people in the room

When you know your goal, think about who is mandatory and who is optional. You will usually have two types of audiences for a meeting:

  1. The stakeholders who take part in the discussion.
  2. The spectators who passively collect information.

Mark the stakeholders as required and mark the spectators as optional. Make it clear that it is up to them to join or not, they are not mandatory to your success.

Optimize your uninterrupted time

Try to put your meetings back to back ito create bigger blocks of focus time instead of random 30-minutes blocks. For example, I like to organize meetings on Tuesday and Thursday. Don't hesitate to push meetings to the week after to make this happen. It will allow you to preserve large block of times for uninterrupted work.

Finish early as much as you can

Even if you schedule a 30-minutes meeting, it doesn't mean that you have to use the whole 30 minutes. Never hesitate to end a meeting early and reclaim time. Everyone will be grateful and will look forward to your next meetings.

Once it is over, share notes

Unless explicitly stated otherwise, it is your responsibility to take and share notes. Your notes will serve three purposes:

  1. Make sure the spectators can get the information without attending.
  2. Make sure everyone is on the same page, particularly regarding action items.
  3. Have a paper trail to help new people get up to speed.

These notes must be sent at least to the people that attended the meeting and optionally to any other stakeholders that will get value from it.

While notes in email are fine, I got a lot of value by making my notes available in wikis. Old notes can provide context to new stakeholders and make rationale for different decisions searchable for your future colleagues.

Schedule meetings with yourself

It is easy to decide when to schedule your meetings, but it is hard to control when your colleagues will. Blocking your calendar with recurring three-hours blocks of focus time is a good strategy to help your colleague schedule meetings in the time you are available for them.

Responsibilities as a meeting attendee

If your team has no stakes in it, decline

If your input is not needed and staying at your desk would be more productive than joining the meeting, don't go. Ask for notes instead.

When many members of your team are invited, only send one

If your team has stakes in a meeting, only one representative is usually enough. Pick someone in your team to bite the bullet and let the others reclaim their time. If you are the one attending, make sure to share the notes when relevant.

Ask for the agenda and success criteria of the meeting

If the meeting has neither an agenda nor a clear success criteria, kindly ask for these. You should know why you are investing time in a meeting.

Ask for help if needed

If you feel overwhelmed, go over your calendar with your manager in your next 1 on 1. Your manager can help you do two things:

  1. Identify meetings that you don't have to attend.
  2. Take some meetings off your plate and represent the team for you.

Wrapping it up

You are investing one of your most precious assets in meetings: your time. Make sure that the return on investment is worth it.

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