The engineer's guide to running productive meetings | Engineering and Leadership

Imagine this…

It’s 9:57 AM. You show up to the meeting room where you’re supposed to be discussing an important project – on time – to find out that you’re the only one there. You wait around for a little bit for other people to show up, but they never do. You decide to roam the office to see where everyone is just to discover that the meeting room had changed without any warning.

It’s now 10:05 AM. You pick up your things as quickly as you can and move over to the other room. You settle in to discover there is a fierce debate is raging over design practices for automated submersible vehicles. That’s not what the meeting is supposed to be about. Your company builds HVAC units.

“Why are we talking about this?” you wonder.

It’s now 10:18 AM. The debate about submersible vehicles has ended and Ted, who’s critical to the meeting, has finally arrived. Ted is always late, so nobody is really surprised. You can begin to discuss the topic at hand – which, now that you think about it, you don’t really know what the topic at hand is. The meeting invitation said “Discussion regarding project Alpha”.

You ask the person who called the meeting what they would like to discuss today. They don’t have an agenda and have no specific topics in mind, but “just wanted to chat” about the project.

You feel your blood pressure rise exactly 12%.

It’s now 10:27 AM.

The next 45 minutes is spent explaining the project to people who were invited “just in case” who otherwise have no involvement in the project, re-discussing design issues that were closed months ago, and fighting over project responsibilities.

Nobody is in charge.

The meeting runs 15 minutes late. Nobody took minutes, and it’s unclear whether anyone has any responsibility for actually doing anything.

You go back to your desk and cry softly for 10 minutes, mourning the loss of the 75 minutes of your life.

Sound familiar?

The Reality of Meetings

Meetings are a fact of life for engineers. Unfortunately, most of them make you feel like you’re living in a Dilbert cartoon.

Quite honestly, it’s hard for me to think of something I dislike more about office culture than the way meetings are run. Beyond just being unproductive, they can be counterproductive and demoralizing. An engineer who feels like they’re living in an episode of The Office is a disengaged engineer.

This report for CBS news asserts that the average professional loses 31 hours per month in unproductive meetings. That’s nearly a full week’s worth of work each month!

Gah!

This is why I run meetings differently. There’s nothing I do that is overly innovative or groundbreaking – it’s all simple stuff. But, when you actually use all of these strategies in concert, meetings can be effective, efficient, and yes – productive.

Today, I want to share my strategies for running productive meetings with you in the hopes that you’ll adopt them. If you do, I promise that you’ll be making much more of your work week and getting more done with your meetings.

The Engineer’s Guide to Running Productive Meetings

Step 1 – Decide if you actually need a meeting – Often, meetings are called when they don’t need to be. If you can just walk to people’s desks and easily gather the information you need, then do that. Don’t go through all of the formality of arranging a conference room, sending invitations, etc. In my experience, you can get yourself and three other people in a room to chat things over fairly informally. Any more than that and you probably need to call a meeting.

Step 2 – Draft the agenda – Most people do this step after booking a meeting room and sending invitations.

That’s dumb.

You need to set the agenda first so you know a) who needs to be invited (how do you know if you haven’t decided what you’ll be discussing?) and b) what equipment/ room you need.

The draft agenda should have the following:

  • The date and time of the meeting
  • The list of people to attend the meeting and their roles
  • 5 minutes set aside to review the agenda at the front end of the meeting
  • The specific topics to be discussed and the amount of time needed for each topic
  • 5 minutes set aside for “Other topics” at the end of the regular action items
  • 10 minutes for review of minutes and action items at the very end

These items to be discussed need to be driven by the decisions that need to be made in the meeting. So, the people in attendance have to have the knowledge of what you’re discussing and the authority to make a decision on the topic at hand.

Rule of thumb: big meetings are bad. Try to keep the meeting as lean as possible. Only invite those who really need to be there.

The draft agenda will also tell you how long your meeting needs to be. If it’s over an hour, you’ll want to add in breaks to the agenda so that people don’t fall asleep, or break it into a few meetings spaced out over time. I try wherever possible to keep my meetings to a half hour. Meetings longer than an hour are very rare for me.

The date and time should be set such that there is enough time before hand for people to organize themselves and enough time afterwards to take action based on the outcomes of the meeting without causing any project delays. This is quite the balancing act, no?

Step 3 – Decide what equipment and room you need – Figure out if you need a projector, white board, internet connections, laser pointer, coffee, etc. Reserve the room and the equipment that you need. Update the agenda with this information.

Step 4 – Send invitations – Use descriptive subjects and add all relevant details to the invite. For example “Meeting about Project Alpha” is bad. “Meeting to Select Compressor Supplier for Project Alpha” is good.

Attach the agenda to the invitation. Again, send this only to people who really need to be invited.

Be sure to give people at least 48 hours notice before a meeting. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been invited to meetings 20 minutes before their start time, resulting in my either needing to turn my schedule upside down to accommodate or miss the meeting altogether. Neither is particularly pleasant.

Step 5 – Recruit a time keeper and minute taker – I can’t stress this enough. Your job as the person who called the meeting is to chair the meeting. Most people who call meetings will also try and take minutes. This is a mistake, because it distracts you from actually participating in the meeting. What I do is recruit someone from the office to sit in on my meetings and take minutes which frees me up to participate. I normally ask one of the attendees to keep an eye on the clock for me to make sure we’re staying on track.

Step 6 – Send a reminder in the morning on the day of the meeting – This will help improve attendance for the meeting.

Step 7 – Get the room ready – Depending on how much technology there is to set up, I’ll go to the meeting room about 20 minutes before the meeting to get set up, clean up the room, and make sure there aren’t any squatters in the room. If I have a presentation for the meeting, I’ll have it up and ready to go on the screen before the meeting even starts.

Step 8 – Start the meeting on time – This is critical. If I have a meeting that starts at 10, it will start at 10. People’s time is stretched as it is. I consider it rude to start late make the people who did bother to show up on time wait around.

The first thing I do when I start a meeting is introduce the topic, review the agenda, and set some ground rules. I explain that I will be making every effort to stick to the agenda and the timelines. As a result, I may have to cut discussion off if it is either off-topic or running over time. I introduce the time keeper and the minute taker and explain their roles.

Make sure the minute taker takes note of who was in attendance.

Step 9 – Go through the agenda – Your job through the meeting is to keep conversation going and on-topic. This can be difficult. You have to be brave enough to cut people off when they need to be cut off. We’ve all worked with people who love to talk, and they’ll talk about anything and everything. Shut them down if need be.

One strategy that I’ve found useful in the past when someone is grandstanding is to say something like “Ted, that’s a great point you’re making. I’m glad you brought it up. What I’d like to do is take note of it and if we have more time at the end of the meeting once we’ve discussed all the agenda items, we can circle back to that.” Then, I’ll actually write down Ted’s topic of discussion on a white board or flip chart to show that I’m serious about this.

As the meeting progresses, you, as the chair, should be working to verbally summarize the discussion as it goes and pulling out action items that people are committing to. This will help you confirm you understand 100% what people are saying and will help the minute taker to take down what’s really important.

Step 10 – Take 5 minutes for “Other Items” – Here’s where you can address the random topic that Ted brought up earlier, or anything else that may have come up. These 5 minutes should be built into your agenda at the end of the regular agenda items.

Step 11 – Take 10 minutes to review the minutes and action items – This is where the minute taker gets the floor at the very end. Let them review the minutes and highlight any actions that came out of the discussions. Don’t move past an action without agreeing who the action belongs to and when it must be done by. Never give an action item to someone who wasn’t in the room.

You’d be amazed how often we get to this point in the meeting and there is disagreement about what was discussed. It’s critical to get that all out on the table then and there, because sorting it out by email a week later is almost impossible to do efficiently and is bound to make people want to hurt themselves with office equipment, which is bad for morale.

Step 12 – Finish on time – Just like starting on time, you need to finish on time. This is a matter of basic respect for the fact that your attendees have packed schedules and mile-long to do lists.

Before you leave, make sure the room is clean and ready for the next group to come in. Return equipment to their rightful owners.

Step 13 – Clean up the meeting minutes and distribute them – I like to try and do this immediately after the meeting, which is why I avoid having meetings immediately after one that I’ve hosted. This is the best time to do this because the content is fresh both for you and the attendees. If your team uses some kind of task management system like SharePoint or Asana, transfer action items to that system right away so they don’t get lost in the ether.

Step 14 – Set reminders for yourself – Given that you called the meeting, it’s probably you who is most interested in ensuring that action items get completed. What I like to do is set up reminders in my calendar to check in with action item owners before the deadline to make sure they’re on track to complete their tasks. Often, they’ve forgotten that they had anything to do, so this can be a very valuable exercise.

Step 15 – Go get a coffee – You’re done! Woohoo!

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