Running a successful meeting

For the better part of the last three years, I have spent the majority of my time working on-site at various financial institutions. These types of organizations are known for promoting large, cast of thousands meetings that sometimes last for hours. While it is easy for us to thumb our noses at the inefficiencies of these types of meetings, I’m more interested in looking at what we commonly practice and to question if the results are truly better.

Many of the meetings we have at Intelliware are much shorter in nature. Indeed, the most common meeting to developers in the standup meeting, which typically last less than 15 minutes. There are times when I feel we are getting more value out of our standup meetings than others. Why? What makes a successful meeting?

This week I came across an article outlining several techniques for running more productive meetings. A few of these really struck home with me; having an agenda passed out BEFORE the meeting takes place, keeping the meetings on time and on target, ending the meeting with actionable items, and keeping the distractions down (no laptops, cellphones or blackberries). I am especially fond of the last one and might devote an entirely separate rant to the etiquette of using a blackberry. In the project rooms, we used to enforce this rule by turning off our monitors at the beginning of a standup meeting. Is this still happening?

What is the point of a standup meeting? It’s short enough and routine enough that we don’t need an agenda each time, but we should have a common understanding of the meeting’s goals. I believe it’s our chance to tell the rest of the team what we’ve worked on, what problems we’ve tackled or will be tackling, and whether or not we are on track to finish our current task. This allows for other members facing similar problems to ask for ideas or to let us know how they have handled problems similar to the ones we are encountering. It also allows for steering at a story level if a task is going over the estimate. Why is the task getting so big, does it impact the rest of the story, is there something the customer can do to remove any of the complexity the development team is facing.

I am using the standup as a very specific example here, but the techniques to running a successful meeting are similar for all meetings, whether they are 10 minutes or 2 hours. Meetings are sometimes a necessity in coming to consensus, making the right decisions, and getting our points across. If we focus on having successful and productive meetings, we reduce confusion and increase the amount of time spent building software.

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