Wednesday, December 3, 2008

One Tip to Make Technical Meetings Matter

Most software developers that I know prefer almost any facet of their job more than attending meetings. A friend of mine quotes his father's line that I agree with: "It takes an awfully good meeting to beat having no meeting at all." In fact, many of the articles and blogs on effective meetings include the tip to only hold a meeting if it is necessary. However, meetings are sometimes necessary and I have found one tip to be particularly useful in increasing the short-term and long-term benefits of a technical meeting.

The following articles are just a small sample of the numerous articles out there that warn about carefully choosing what to meet on. There is a reason this piece of advice comes up so often: ill-conceived meetings have little chance of being useful and will typically simply waste time.

Resources Recommending Considering No Meeting at All
* Six Tips for More Effective Meetings
* How to Run An Effective Meeting
* Eight Steps to More Effective Meetings
* Effective Meetings Produce Results: Tips for Meeting Management
* Ten Tips for Effective Meetings

There are situations in which meetings are actually the most efficient mechanism to make progress. I have sometimes found a meeting necessary to get multiple stakeholders moving in the same direction, to clarify face-to-face issues that just cannot seem to get resolved in e-mail or in personal discussions, and sometimes just to get multiple parties to actually communicate with one another. However, even when a meeting's topic is a good one, poor execution of the meeting can lead to results as ineffective as a meeting on a poor topic.

There are many useful tips on running an effective meeting such as having an agenda, assigning and reviewing action items, and keeping people on track. However, one practical, concrete tip that I have found to be particularly useful in running an effective meeting partially addresses several of these ideas. I have found that this tip has repeatedly led to more successful meetings where the increased successful results of the meeting is seen both in the short-term and the long-term.

Record Meeting Notes/Minutes Electronically for All to See

The simple technique that I have found to produce dramatic results is to take meeting notes/minutes during the meeting in electronic form such that all attendees can see the notes as they are recorded. This simple technique is extremely powerful because it improves the chances of getting thorough notes that cover what was discussed for future reference when memories have started to fade, it improves the chances of someone who did not attend the meeting being able to find out what was determined, it helps attendees to better understand what is being discussed in the meeting, and it helps to improve the quality of the long-term minutes because attendees can correct misconceptions as they are recorded.

There's No Time Like the Present

The best meeting minutes tend to be those recorded as close to the time of origination as possible. The longer the delay between making a decision and recording it, the more opportunity there is for distractions to reduce the clarity and accuracy of what is recorded.

"Why Did We Decide to Do That? I Know We Talked About It"

When meeting notes are not recorded, it is easy to forget why certain design or other types of decisions were made. Even if the reasons can eventually be recalled, that recollection often comes at significant expense in terms of time and effort. Recording the meeting minutes (especially the important decisions along with advantages and disadvantages of major choices) during the meeting ensures that they get recorded at all (better than what sometimes happens when they never get recorded), improves the chances of them reflecting the actual meeting (see above item), and will help refresh memories without much effort.

DRY (Don't Repeat Yourself)

Most of us are familiar with the DRY principle. Like many software development principles, this can be applied to "softer" or more organizational/managerial aspects as well. There are problems associated with repeating oneself such as wasting time, possibly repeating things differently than the first time, etc. Recording electronic meeting notes during the meeting makes it a trivial matter to e-mail these notes to those who should know the results of the meeting but were not in attendance.

I like to include all attendees present at the meeting on the To: line of the e-mail message and place all people who probably should have been at the meeting (but were not) on the Cc: line. If the meeting notes are of wide enough interest or enough long-term significance, I also may place them on a Wiki page or other review artifact.

Meeting notes being taken electronically so that everyone can see them as they are recorded also benefits the meeting because the late arrivals can see what has been discussed and decided. This reduces, but does not eliminate, the questions asked from the late arrivals. It is really better if everyone is on time, but these notes viewable by the late arrival will help reduce the negative consequences of the late arrival. It also increases the chances of communicating to the late arrival any actions assigned to that person.

It is also worth noting that taking meeting notes electronically during the meeting can be especially helpful if teleconference and if the other locations that are participating in the teleconference can also see at their location what is being typed on the screen. This can help mitigate some of the other issues commonly associated with teleconferencing.

Everything You Wanted to Know About the Meeting Topic But Were Afraid To Ask

It can be easy for a meeting attendee to not understand something being discussed, but be afraid to ask. This is especially true if another attendee is domineering or suffers from personality traits that seem to take pleasure in demeaning or belittling others' questions. Meeting notes taken in such a way that all attendees can see them as they are recorded helps clarify what is being discussed. It requires more work on the note taker's part to digest what is being said and to try to make it coherent, but that work pays off in helping everyone in the meeting better understand what is being decided and what the issues are. It also improves the quality of the notes. Finally, it can really help when every attendee truly thinks he or she understands the topic, but sees the recorded note say something different than what he or she understands. The act of articulating the discussion can help drive clarity in the meeting.

Motivating Other Effective Meeting Techniques

A final advantage of taking meeting notes electronically and in a way that is visible to all attendees is that this practical step actually helps motivate some other approaches that lead to more efficient meetings. When notes are taken electronically, it is more obvious to everyone when things have stalled because there are very few useful new notes being added. The electronic note taker might have the good fortune to have an agenda already and be able to type the meeting notes directly into the document with the agenda. This can improve the chances of the meeting staying on track. Action items are also easily recorded in electronic format and can be e-mailed to anyone assigned an action item that is not present.


Most of us find that meetings can be useless, inefficient, and even downright mentally painful when not run correctly. While we may never look forward to a meeting, we can at least make them worth the time by employing effective meeting tips. I have found that electronically recording meeting notes during the meeting on a screen visible to all attendees is a particularly effective technique for improving the quality of the meeting and for improving the short-term and long-term results of holding the meeting.

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