How to have productive meetings, part 1

By devin, 17 January, 2018

At some point in my life, I started going to meetings, and slowly started gathering good and bad experiences. Also, for some reason, during university I actually studied how to have productive meetings, and I’ve kept a few tidbits of wisdom from that course.

I hold this truth to be self evident: most meetings are a waste of time.

But there’s a corollary: it’s also hard to identify which of your meetings are a waste of time, and why. It’s hard to predict in advance whether a meeting will be productive.

So, based on my experience and study, I offer a humble contribution to the field of making meetings more productive. I think two tasks are in order:

  1. Define the different types of meetings - how do they differ in structure, goals, and criteria for success?
  2. Identify the strategies that increase success in each different type of meeting (which I’ll save for a followup post).

So step one is defining a list of types of meetings. I did a bit of brainstorming on this topic, and I realized that the concept of a team is crucial to my categorization of meetings. What defines your team versus someone else’s team?

This is going to get a bit pedantic, but I want to make sure I haven’t missed a dimension of the teams that meet. My experience is limited and I’m sure there are types of meetings, productive and unproductive, that I’ve never been to. Please let me know in comments what I’ve missed.

I’ve worked in undergraduate group projects, various non-profit activities (i.e. volunteering, but also at charities), as well as in one small and one large for-profit corporation. In all cases, my “team” was typically a group of no more than 15 people that I interacted with regularly. My role at The Working Centre was slightly different, in that I worked as a member of about three different teams of 5 people each; I was a member (i.e. worked closely with) all three teams, but the members of those teams didn’t necessarily work closely with one another.

I have a few more observations. My teams have universally had shared vocabularies: jargon, acronyms, and tribal knowledge that members outside the team didn’t have (stemming generally from our shared experiences working together on the same problems). My teams typically liked each other, which meant we joked together, shared common goals, and followed the same leadership.

So, based on my experience, I’d define a team as follows: the small (i.e. less than 15 people) group of people with whom you:

 - work regularly (i.e. at least every week, probably every day)

 - share jargon/vocabulary

 - share goals

 - self-identify as a member of the same team

Given that definition of team, I’m finally able to come up with a list of the types of meetings:

1. A one-on-one meeting of two people

2. A small meeting between people working on the same project and already using the same language.

3. A one-off team-wide meeting.

4. A recurring, team-wide meeting.

5. A one off meeting between select members of two or more teams.

6. A recurring meeting between select members of two or more teams.

7. A meeting between people who aren't members of the same "team" ideologically, but need to fulfill that role.

I hope to dig in to each type in a followup post, and dissect a) the structure, goals, and success criteria of each and b) strategies to be more successful as a participant.

I also plan to add to this list as I come up with more; at time of writing I only have seven. See the "revisions" tab above if there are currently more than 7 in the list.

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