Effective Managing Meetings

A few years ago, I did something weird. I fell in love with a concept. I was studying Business Process Management, and one of the key aspects is defining processes. If I had to describe this concept in three bullet points, it would be:

  1. You cannot improve a process that you cannot control
  2. You cannot control a process that you cannot map
  3. You cannot map a process that you cannot describe

W. Edwards Deming stated, “If you cannot define what you are doing as a process, you do not understand what you are doing.” I typically take it a step further, as I believe that if you cannot define what you are doing, you should probably stop doing it. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in a lot of meetings where I didn’t know what I was doing there.

Meetings are the reason that I hated Monday mornings for most of my 20’s. Well, one of the reasons. After working for a few people that enjoyed the manufactured self-importance that comes with mandating attendance and occupying 90 minutes of my life, I developed a deep disdain for meetings. I reasoned that wasting 90 minutes, almost 4% of the time most people spend at work for an entire week, was quite counterproductive.

This rationale led me to, for years, avoid calling meetings unless absolutely necessary. However, in the years since, I think that I have come up with a pretty good system for managing meetings. It blends the PMBoK view of three basic meeting types with how Scrum ceremonies are conducted.

Information Exchange

We have all spent time in this type of meeting. The danger increases as more people are invited, because the number of participants seems to unfortunately have no negative correlation with individual desire to “contribute” to the discussion. More people, more to say, longer meetings. A few ideas on how to more effective run these meetings:

  • First order of business is to establish a time box, such as a 30 minute maximum for the meeting. The meeting may take less time than allotted, but it will not take more. Set a timer, or state a time out loud (e.g., “This meeting will end at 9:45 am”). This creates a sense of urgency, and allows people to recommend taking off-topic items to be continued afterwards or placed ‘in the parking lot‘.
  • If you are running a meeting and you’re not sure why someone is in there, ask them if there is a reason for their attendance. If all they need is an update, they can get a copy of the meeting’s notes e-mailed to them afterwards – and not waste a half hour in a conference room.
  • Have a specific agenda, and stick to it. It is impossible to adhere to a time box if you allow topic drift. It isn’t necessary to use Robert’s Rules for every meeting, but order should be maintained.
  • Have someone take notes for dissemination after the meeting, and be sure to follow up on any items that were left open.

Decision Making

Meetings that result in a decision can often be difficult to manage, because people should disagree. Be wary of meetings where everyone agrees. Following the Bay of Pigs debacle, JFK stated that “Most of us thought it would work. I know there are some men now saying they were opposed from the start. I wasn’t aware of any great opposition.” While disagreement should be allowed, chaos can take over if these meetings are not well-controlled.

  • Clearly state the following at the beginning of the meeting:
    • what decision must be made
    • how the decision will be made (hand vote, private ballot, panel, etc.)
    • how much time is available for deliberation
  • If possible, assign someone as a facilitator to aid the flow of the meeting
  • Have someone document all of the points made for and against the decision, as they should be recorded as the basis of the decision
  • Remind everyone to make the effort to maintain decorum and professionalism

Brain Storming

Depending on the participants and the topic being discussed, this can be the most fun type of meeting or the most stressful. Trying to do a retrospective on a successful sprint? Sounds like a good time for some pizza and light music in the background. Trying to come up with alternatives because the scheduled slipped after MLR was hung up for a whole day on two paragraphs? It may be a more somber meeting. Cleverism has some great Brainstorming tips. Some of my favorite considerations:

  • Describe the purpose of the meeting – what are we brainstorming, exactly? I like to write this at the top of a white board so we can just point to it if someone gets off topic.
  • Make the exit criteria clear, are we here for a finite period, or will we stay until we have captured every conceivable thought?
  • Quantity over quality. Someone’s bad idea may trigger someone else’s good idea. Yes, even if it’s tongue-in-cheek. Just because we record an idea doesn’t mean we have to act on it. You have to foster a safe place that is conducive to people stating ideas without fear of ridicule.
  • Make it fun, variations of hot potato are great ways of getting people to interact.
  • Allow people to write their ideas if they don’t want to state them aloud.


Meetings are necessary, but wasted time is not. Get more done with less by thinking lean. What is the least amount of time and the fewest number of participants that we need in order to fulfill whatever need for which the meeting is called? Let’s take back our Monday mornings.

Karl Cheney
Castlebar Solutions

8 Lessons from an Army Instructor

Three big things happened for me in 2005. I finished my second tour in Iraq, I turned 21, and I was assigned as an instructor at Fort Dix, NJ. In all, I spent almost ten years as an instructor at Fort Dix. Learning to instruct was truly an experience I appreciate.

I was very lucky to be surrounded by some of the smartest people the Army had in its ranks, and I got to learn from all of their mistakes. There are a few of those lessons that I still use when I teach college courses or in professional settings. I still think about those lessons even as I write on topics in this blog.

I’m definitely not saying that I have the best presentation style you would ever see. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as a quantifiable ‘best’ style. The lessons below may offer you some insight as to why I write the way that I do. I will most likely link people to this page when they accuse me of gross oversimplification. If that’s why you’re here: I apologize and I promise that offending you was unintentional, but the simplification was totally on purpose. It’s true, I am often guilty of being a crude reductionist.

1. Start by making a deal.

For presentations that last more than an hour, I always start with a proposition. I offer them a ten-minute break. Every hour, on the hour. I tell them that this is my promise to them, that they will never have to wait more than fifty minutes to check their Instagram or update their Twitter so all their friends know how awesome the presentation is. But I ask them to please save those updates, and any other business on electronic devices, until designated break times. Approaching this as a deal rather than dictated terms has led to people being far more likely to display proper etiquette.

2. Lying is the quickest way to lose credibility.

Admit that you have gaps in your knowledge. Admit if you have a forgetful moment. Admit it if you are stumped, but you’ll check on a break. Heck, you can even admit that you are a human being. You can feel the temperature in the room change when a presenter makes up an answer and people know it. Disengagement follows. Conversely, if you acknowledge the difficulty of a question and ask if anyone knows an answer or if they’d be willing to help you find it, you create a collaborative environment. Oh, and see #1 again – they didn’t forget that promise about the break.

3. It is literally impossible to win a fight during a presentation.

If you are presenting and someone is disruptive or makes a joke at your expense, the best response is to laugh along with them and move right along. Maybe even making a quip such ‘okay, more about how lousy my [ presentation / hair / height / etc. ] is later, but let’s get through this presentation right now.’ William Irvine wrote a book on Stoicism and how to effectively handle situations exactly like this. I’m a big fan of redirection. It works great with my kids and works great during a presentation. You determine your level of control, don’t cede it through a lack of self-control.

4. People learn best with stories.

If you bore adults in a classroom, it’s amazing how fast etiquette goes out the window and cell phones come out of pockets. Paul Smith wrote an awesome book called Lead with a Story. His book is more about stories and their use in sales, but I believe that there are a lot of areas of crossover. People often disregard sales and negotiation skills, but if you’re conducting a presentation you want it to be interesting so as to captivate their attention and then transfer your knowledge. This is best done with a mix of hot and cold cognitions, with one example being where I’d start telling a great story and right before the climax send everyone on a break – it’s amazing how everyone comes back on time!

5. They can read, too.

PowerPoint Presentation. Everyone has strong opinions about PowerPoint. Mine? I love it. It guides the presentation. It gives everyone something to look at other than staring into my eyes as I scan the room. But PowerPoint doesn’t actually present – that’s my job. When I use a PowerPoint presentation, I will occasionally reference it, maybe point to a word or two on there, and maybe even look at it on occasion. I have never met anyone who appreciates having slides read to them, verbatim, by a presenter.

6. The most powerful communication is powerless.

Adam Grant wrote about powerless communication in his book Give and Take, but it turns out I had been doing it unintentionally for years. I often found myself surrounded by people with vastly more experience and a far greater depth of subject matter expertise. By approaching topics in a deferential manner and often soliciting examples from their experience, I was almost always able to maintain an environment conducive to learning.

7. Anyone can have the knowledge, you need to be able to convey it.

Noone cares how many books you have read or how many articles you have written. I stopped being impressed with big words when I realized that most people using them had a word calendar on their desk or a thesaurus close by. Can you take the thoughts in your mind, put them into words, turn those words into sentences, speak them aloud and have them interpreted by someone else, as you had originally intended? Did you successfully convey a thought? Often this means breaking down a topic to a sometimes gross oversimplification. That’s okay though! Being understandable makes you more important than verbosity could.

8. You should not teach to the smartest person in the room, you should teach to the most inexperienced.

How perfect a presentation is when everyone comes in already possessing a depth of knowledge on every topic that we’ll be discussing. This, of course, would never happen. Typically there are multiple levels of knowledge in the room, and while it is tempting to teach to the highest skill level, you run the risk of losing the lowest. This is why I swear by deliberate reductionism. People would swear I’m obsessed with Mashed Potatoes.

The planned work is contained within the lowest level of WBS components, which are called work packages. A work package can be used to group the acitivites where work is scheduled and estimated, monitored, and controlled. In the context of the WBS, work refers to work products or deliverables that are the result of activity and not to the activity itself.

This definition is from the PMBOK® Guide, 5th Edition. This is a great definition if you already know what the WBS and work packages are and how we arrive at them. When I discuss these concepts with someone who has never seen them before, I ask them to picture a nice Thanksgiving dinner and start categorizing the food on the table. We may have ‘meat’, ‘vegetables’, ‘appetizers’, ‘desserts’, ‘sides’, etc.. Under the category for ‘vegetables’, we may put ‘mashed potatoes’, ‘candied yams’, ‘green bean casserole’, etc.. But then, I ask, let’s look at the mashed potatoes. Can we further subdivide this dish into anything else and still have a ‘thing’ that we eat, without getting into the activities or ingredients needed to create them? No.

When you hit mashed potatoes, you’re at the bottom of your WBS.

Karl Cheney
Castlebar Solutions