Tagged: meetings

Ideas for better scheduling

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how to make more time for meaningful project work as well as for rest. One way to free up time has been to significantly reduce the number of meetings I attend and facilitate, and to make those meetings as efficient as possible when I do attend.

This post focuses specifically on better scheduling techniques. If you find it useful, you might also find Strategies for Facilitating Better Meetings useful.

Idea 1: Only schedule meetings when there are no other effective options.

Meetings take up a lot of time. An hour long meeting doesn’t just take an hour, it takes an hour per person who attends the meeting. There’s also an opportunity cost associated with meetings. When you’re in meetings, you aren’t getting any other work done. The opportunity cost is multiplied if you have work that that requires long blocks of uninterrupted time. On days where I an hour of free time interspersed between meetings are days where I completed nothing but superficial tasks.

In general, always aim for fewer meetings. Before scheduling a meeting, ask yourself what the goal of the meeting is, and can that goal be accomplished in another, preferably asynchronous way.

There’s a caveat to this idea, however. If while discussing a topic in an asynchronous channel and you realize going round and round without progress or are otherwise not making progress, it’s time to move to a synchronous channel. This might be a video or telephone call or an IRC chat.

Idea 2: Schedule the shortest meeting possible.

Think about your goal, the number of people attending and then pick a meeting length accordingly. Many people default to hour long meetings for no other reason than it’s the default of many calendaring tools, and we’re used to thinking in full-hour increments. Take a look at your agenda. Do you need a full hour to get through it? Would 30 or 45 minutes work instead? Treat people’s time as the valuable and finite thing that it is and only ask for what you absolutely need.
zimbra default appt duration

Idea 3: Use a calendar tool to create and send a meeting invite.

Zimbra, Thunderbird via Lightning, iCal, Google Calendar, Outlook. Most email clients have this built in, so you shouldn’t have to think too hard and nor should your recipients. If you’re self-hosting email or on an otherwise non-mainstream hosted email, you probably have enough technical savvy to figure out how to send a calendar invite. Why? For those of us who live and die by our calendars, if something is not on there, it isn’t happening. Or it is, but I don’t need to know about it. Sending a calendar invite bypasses my often overwhelmed email queue and gives me the opportunity to respond in a routinized way without having to get to inbox zero.

Idea 4: Only invite those who really need to attend.

Call out attendees who are truly optional (many calendar tools have this feature, if not, use the invite body). Your agenda should give an good indication to invited attendees why they need to attend. Keep an eye out for acceptances and declines and follow-up accordingly. Don’t wait until the meeting has started to try and track down a necessary participant who didn’t respond to your meeting invite.

optional attendee field in Zimbra
optional attendee field in Zimbra
optional attendee field in Google Calendar
optional attendee field in Google Calendar

Idea 5: Manage large, group meetings using shared calendars instead of individual invites.

In the case of large, group meetings, I recommend using shared calendars instead of sending invitations to individuals or even groups of individuals. These work best for meetings where attendance is medium to very large, attendance is optional and variable, and the content of the meetings are largely updates with room for discussion. Using shared calendars allows people to subscribe to the calendars of events or groups for which they are interested in participating and gives them control over how to manage that information in their own calendars. With a shared calendar, a person can toggle visibility and choose whether or not those appointments will affect their free/busy status without having to respond to individual invites.

Public, shared calendar for CBT Education Working Group
Public, shared calendar for CBT Education Working Group

Idea 6: Share your own calendar whenever possible

Sharing your own calendar allows others to initiate meetings with you without having to go back and forth via email asking ‘what time is good.’ Doodle and other websites accomplish similar things, but take time to setup. If you share your calendar publicly and let people know about it, they can compare it with their own schedules and send an invite for a time that seems to work for both of you. If the time doesn’t actually work for you, you can decline or respond suggesting a new time. You won’t necessarily eliminate the back-and-forth with this method, but at least you’re a step closer. When someone sends you an invite, your time is blocked as tentative and there’s less of a chance you’ll be booked for something just after you’ve told someone via email you were free at that time.

What about privacy? Most calendars allow you to set not only the visibility of individual appointments (private vs public), but also to what extent you share the details of your calendar. Here’s what my public calendar , which is a combination of my personal and work calendars, looks like:

My public calendar
My public calendar

I’ve chosen to share only the free/busy status of my calendar, so all you see are blocks of time say ‘busy’ and ‘tentative’ depending on how I’ve responded to appointments. For me, this is a good mix of privacy vs the convenience of easier scheduling with other people.

Idea 7: Respond to meeting invites timely and accordingly

Whenever possible, respond to meeting invites timely and accordingly. This means accepting, declining or tentatively accepting invites that you receive. What constitutes ‘timely’ here is contextual. When I receive the initial invitation for a regular recurring meeting, I either accept all as tentative (thus blocking my schedule) or do nothing. Then at the beginning of each week, I look 2-3 weeks ahead and make sure I’ve either accepted or declined according to my availability. For meetings happening on the same day as I receive the invite, I try to accept or decline as soon as I see the invitation. For meetings happening within the week, I try to respond the same day I receive the invite. If I don’t know whether or not I can attend, I respond with a tentative acceptance and often provide the reason or a clarifying question: “I most likely have a conflict at this time, but could potentially move it. How important am I to this discussion?”

What are you strategies?

What strategies do you have to make scheduling easier, better, more productive? Leave them in the comments. Or tweet at me.

Strategies for Facilitating Better Meetings

As part of my work with Mozilla and Stumptown Syndicate, I attend a lot of meetings and many of those I am responsible for facilitating.

I think most people consider meetings to be necessary evils. Meetings are often time-consuming, inefficient and take us away from real work we need to be doing, and yet they seem unavoidable. It’s probably true that we can’t get away with eliminating meetings all together. Sometimes you just have to get everyone in a “room” together to hash out some issue.

However, I think we can work towards having more efficient meetings and below are some strategies I’ve learned for doing so.

Designate a Facilitator

The facilitator is usually the “driver” of the meeting. She helps the group understand and achieve their objective(s), assists the group in following the agenda and staying on schedule. The facilitator should ensure that notes are taken. Often, but not always, the facilitator is the person who initiates and schedules the meetings (by sending out the meeting invite).

Have a Clear, Obtainable Objective

Before the meeting (ideally when the meeting is scheduled), an objective (or set of objectives) for the meeting should be drafted and communicated to the entire group. The objective should follow SMART criteria: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. If you are meeting to make a series of decisions, state what specific decisions need to be made.

Create and Distribute an Agenda

Having an agenda is essential for keeping a meeting focused and timely. Whenever possible, circulate the agenda ahead of time so attendees can: a) determine the important of their presence at the meeting and prioritize their schedule accordingly, and b) prepare for the meeting.

In agendas I draft, I always include the following:

(Descriptive) Meeting Title & Date

== Objective ==
== Attendees ==
== Agenda / Notes ==
== Action Items ==

Did you note my use of wiki syntax? Not a coincidence! If you’re using a wiki in your organization, writing notes and agendas in wiki syntax makes recording of agendas and meeting notes that much easier (more on this in a bit).

Make Sure You Really Need a Meeting

It sounds simple, but before you schedule a meeting, ask yourself if you really need one. Can you clearly state your objective and draft an agenda? If not, you may not be prepared to have a meeting. Would an email work instead? A quick IRC conversation?

Include Compete Participation Instructions

Include complete participation instructions every time, even for regular meetings with regular participants. The reason for this is that you want as few barriers to attending your meeting and being on time for it as possible. If someone has to go looking for information on how to participate in the meeting, there is a chance that they will be late or that they won’t attend at all.

Things to consider including in your meeting invite:

  • date and time (including in UTC)
  • physical location (if there is one) and any special access instructions
  • conference/video call information, including complete dial-in number, room number and any required access codes
  • key instructions for using the conference/vidyo call system (e.g. how to mute yourself)
  • direct links to on-line meeting systems
  • if software is required to participate in the meeting, instructions on how to obtain and install it

Don’t assume that participants will have any of the above info readily accessible, even if they have attended your meetings before.

Here’s text that I put at the bottom of every Mozilla meeting invite (some info has been faked, so please don’t use for a real Mozilla meeting):

==============================================================
Connection Details: 

Vidyo 9597 (ckoehler).

+1 650 903 0800, x92 (or +1 800 707 2533, password 000) 
Then 99597 

•1 to mute if you’re dialed in (nb: it makes an audible beep) 

Direct room link: 

https://v.mozilla.com/flex.html?roomdirect.html&key=1234567890

==============================================================

Note: If you’re a Mozillian and you want non-employees to join your Vidyo meeting, be sure to include the direct link.

Be Mindful of Participants’ Time

Because people’s time is precious, we should be mindful when requesting and utilizing it. There are several aspects to being mindful of your participants’ time:

  • Make sure each participant is really required at the meeting. Each of your participants should have an integral role in obtaining the objective of your meeting. If they don’t, add them as an optional attendee or don’t invite them at all.
  • Be aware of the timezone for each of your participants. When working with a global organization it’s often not possible to find a time that’s convenient for everyone. But you should have some awareness of who is being inconvenienced when, and try to distribute that burden. For example, don’t  schedule every meeting for times that are convenient only for those in Pacific time.
  • Start on-time and end on-time. Most people have multiple meetings per day, and have other things they need to do at certain times. Don’t make others late by conducting a meeting that exceeds its scheduled time. Better yet, strive to end a few minutes early! Most everyone appreciates a few unexpected minutes between commitments to stretch their legs, use the restroom and get some water or coffee. Likewise, be respectful of those who arrive on-time for a meeting by starting on-time. A meeting that starts at the scheduled time is that much more likely to end by the scheduled time.

Take Notes

One of the most important things you can do during a meeting is to ensure that good notes are taken. Taking notes has the following benefits:

  • helps to keep participants focused and on-track during the meeting
  • provides a clear record of what was discussed and decided during the meeting, for reference both by those who attended the meeting and those who were not able to do so

I find it works well for the group to take notes together in the same etherpad I have used for the agenda.  Notes do not have to be a word for word recounting of what was said in the meeting, but should include a summary of the discussion points, questions raised and answers given.

You don’t need to create perfect notes while the meeting is happening. Just record the important information and be prepared to edit afterward.

Follow-Up

A good meeting is not complete until you’ve distributed and recorded the revised meeting notes (or minutes), with key decisions and action items clearly indicated.

The complete agenda and note-taking process looks like this:

  • create and circulate an agenda in advance of the meeting
  • use etherpad (or another collaborative editing tool) whenever possible
  • take notes, with the group’s assistance, in the same document you used for the agenda
  • edit the notes after the meeting is complete, making sure to call out key decisions and action items
  • distribute the edited notes to everyone you invited to the meeting (not just those who actually attended)
  • record the notes in an accessible location (on a public wiki, on your organization’s intranet, etc.)

When I distribute meeting notes, I usually do so via email, with a link to the edited notes and action items included in the actual body of the email.

Your Strategies?

What strategies do you have for running better meetings? Let me know by leaving a comment.