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Productive Meetings

I attend a lot of meetings. That's not a bad thing. Meetings can be very productive. They can be an opportunity to get the right people in the room and quickly make decisions or convey information. But they can also be a waste of time.

What makes a productive meeting? Everyone is engaged. A common thing I see is that people bring their laptops to meetings. If this is contributing to the meeting, no problem. For example, if they're going to share a document with the room. But, more often than not, the laptop is an escape. If they get bored, they start working on something else.

What's wrong with this? First, they're likely not being productive at either task (attending the meeting or working on their laptop). Context switches are expensive and they're probably making a lot of them. More importantly, they're detracting from the others' experience. When they need to be engaged, they will likely need to be brought up to speed on the last few minutes of conversation. Worse yet, it can be assumed that they were paying attention and are thus aware of the discussions when in reality, they have no idea what has been discussed.

So say you followed the above advice and you no longer bring your laptop if you're not sharing. Now you're bored. What good does that do? Well, now you need to make sure that you're getting value out of the meeting. Maybe no one is prepared or the meeting is going down a rathole. If the former, suggest aborting until the meeting can be productive or if the latter, suggest taking the rathole discussion off line. The point is to take ownership of your own productivity.

If you can't affect the meeting while it is happening and that meeting occurs frequently (say for example a daily stand up or iteration planning in agile environments), then bring it up at the retrospective or otherwise discuss it as a team. How do we make it better? Some times the team will come up with ideas that you might not have when you bring the problem to them.

For example, I was teaching a workshop on iteration planning and brought up the above points. One of the workshop participants brought up an example where the user interface designer was bored for most of iteration planning. They were just there for the moments that UI issues came up. In this case, several of the other workshop participants immediately chimed in with several good suggestions. Perhaps the discussions are going too deep (there is value in the designer having a broader awareness). Perhaps someone could meet with the designer before iteration planning to talk through issues. Etc.

Meetings can be valuable. If you're note fully participating or you're not getting value out of every minute, make some adjustments.

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