Lesson Learned: How to Organize a Productive Developer Meeting
Have you ever found yourself in a tech meeting, looking off into space, wondering why you are there, wondering what's going on, hoping that the meeting will end soon and never happen again? I have, many times. In fact, early on, way early on, I ran meeting like that: a room full of high-priced developers, rambling on, wasting the time of all and the money of the company. Fortunately, I was able to turn the corner, not because of anything I thought up on my own, but because I had the privilege to work with some people who knew how to run meetings to a productive end. It all boils down to three rules. Here they are
Whenever you have a meeting:
- Always Have an Objective
- Always Have a Format
- Always Have a Reward
Allow me to elaborate.
1. Always Have an Objective
A meeting without an objective ain't. Anytime you go to the effort and expense of putting a bunch of people together for any amount of time, you need to have a stated objective. The objective of the meeting needs to be stated clearly and prominently in the meeting invitation, at the top, first thing.
The objective statement needs to simple and concise. Here is an example of a concise objective statement:
The objective of the weekly Engineer's Meeting is to share information from management that is relevant to our work and to have each engineer share the status of the work he or she is doing.
An objective stated clearly and concisely sets an expectation for the group. Also, it provides a contract for the use of time. If you find that you are in a meeting that is veering off the stated objective, it is perfectly acceptable to say, "I need some help. Please tell me how this current discussion is in line with the stated objective of this meeting." Usually, if you can't get an answer, the parties perpetrating the distraction from the objective will correct themselves. However, a clearly stated objective well advertised beforehand curtails potential trips into the weeds.
As stated above, well planned meetings have a stated objective. All attendees are entitled to know the objective. All attendees are expected to focus on the objective.
2. Always Have a Format
Good meetings start on time, end on time, and have a predictable structure throughout. Let me repeat that again: Good meetings start on time, end on time, and have a predictable structure throughout. It's an important idea to remember.
There is nothing worse than being held hostage in a meeting in which there is no end in sight and no sense of accomplishment at hand. Structure provides the roadmap and means by which people can operate effectively in a meeting, whether the meeting is an hour long session or a full day get together. There's a reason why your first grade teacher put the schedule of the day's activities up on the wall of the classroom. Little kids need to know the structure of the day to get through the day. The same can be said of adults. All that's really different is the activities in play.
Publishing an agenda is typical way to format a meeting. My style for organizing a meeting is to publish the meeting's agenda at least 48 hour before the meeting. Also, I time box each item on the agenda. Listing 1 is an example of a typical agenda I use for developers meetings:
Listing 1: A sample meeting agenda
Meeting: Weekly Developers Meeting
Length: 47 Minutes
Objective: To share information from management that is relevant to our work and to have each engineer share the status of the work he or she is doing
● Agenda Review (1 Minutes)
● Jokes (5 Minutes)
● Administrative News (4 minutes)
● Developers Update (15 minutes)
○ Mary (3 minutes)
○ Jerry (3 minutes)
○ Danish (3 minutes)
○ Heidi (3 minutes)
○ Ashton (3 minutes)
● Issues (20 minutes)
● Fortune Cookies (2 minutes)
I request agenda items from attendees before a given meeting, at least 24 hours prior, if possible. It's been my experience that people respond well to requests for agenda items. Remember, people really do like structure. Providing an opportunity to help create that structure by soliciting agenda items beforehand creates investment among the attendees. Meeting in which attendees are invested tend to be efficient and productive. When attendees have skin in the game, the level of involvement increases.
What's With the Joke Stuff?
A consistent format sets the expectation and the tone of the meeting. When organizing a recurring Developer Meeting, I usually start the meeting with each developer telling a joke before getting down to business. I've been in other meetings when people go around the table and share a piece of news about their weekend. I've found that "ice breakers" can be useful part of a meeting's format. An ice breaking ritual that requires a small piece of personal revelation gives a developer a way to "enter" himself or herself into the meeting.
If you decide to go with ice breakers, once you start the ritual, do not stop. Predictability is key. It usually takes a few meetings for the technique to take hold. When ice breakers do take hold, attendees will start to look forward to them. The way you can tell that you've been successful is that, if you are not at the meeting, the ritual continues without you.
I always ask people to report how much time they will require for their agenda items. Usually, I ask an attendee to volunteer to be timekeeper during the meeting. The timekeeper notifies the group when one minute remains on an agenda item. If it seems we are going to run overtime, I will ask the group's permission to run over. Letting a meeting wander into the land of When Will This Meeting Be Over? is a sign of a poorly managed meeting. As meeting leader, it's my job to make sure that we stay on schedule, even if that schedule needs to be renegotiated during meeting time. Remember, good meetings start on time and end on time. They are predictable. If you find yourself about to attend a meeting that does not have a published agenda, ask for one. It's rare that an agenda will be withheld when requested. And, if one is not in play, your request might be just the thing needed to have an agenda published.
3. Always Have a Reward
People like to be rewarded for their efforts; just ask B. F. Skinner. If you have a group that is going to sit through a meeting, there is little harm to be done rewarding them for their participation. And, it can be fun. People like being in a meeting that is fun. One way I attempt to make meetings fun is to create a rewarding experience at the end. For example, I'll have a big box of fortune cookies that I bought from Amazon. It cost $13 for 100 cookies. I give out a cookie to each attendee at the beginning of the meeting. At the end of the meeting, we go around the room and everybody at the meeting reads his or her fortune to the group. It's fun and it provides a predictable, anticipated ritual for beginning the meeting as well as a rewarding experience at the end. Other times, I'll have a big roll of raffle tickets on hand, about 10 bucks for 2000 tickets. I'll pass out the raffle tickets at the beginning of the meeting and hold the raffle for the prize at the end. The value of the prize varies according to the importance and frequency of the meeting. For a weekly meeting, I might raffle off a $1.50 pack of baseball cards, or a Starbuck's gift card. For larger, quarterly meetings, I might raffle of a radio controlled vehicle that costs about $10. Yet, I've found that price of the raffle prize really does not matter that much. One time, I purchased a box of Fruit Loops and raffled that off. It was a hit. The importance is not so much the prize, but the ritual of the raffle itself. It provides a fun, rewarding way to provide structure in a meeting. As I've said many times in this article, people respond well to structure. The structure does not have to be overbearing. It just has to be predictable.
Putting It All Together
Good meetings are predictable, productive, and fun. Predictability is fostered by having a consistent structure for a meeting and executing that structure continuously. Meetings become productive when clear expectations are set by way of an agenda that is published beforehand and agreed to by all. The time contracts explicit in the agenda must be honored. Fun comes from having people partake in meeting rituals that allow personal revelation and reward. While predictability, productivity, and fun are good features to have in any meeting, they are essential in tech meetings because the of their high expense. Developers tend to be well compensated employees. Their time must be used wisely and effectively. Thus, you'll find that following the Three Rules for Having a Good Tech Meeting will not only increase productivity overall, but you'll get more fun out of the meeting too, in a cost effective manner.