The six meetings we can’t live without

It’s easy to complain about meetings. Everyone has been to meetings that were just pointless.  Developers would rather code, marketers would rather publish, and so on.

The alternative should not be “no meetings” though. While lots of meetings can be replaced by chat, intranet discussions, mail and ad-hoc conversations, meetings do have their place. Things would get rather impersonal if there were no face-to-face meetings, and in many cases less efficient too.

To avoid common problems, here at Small Improvements we have simple yet effective guidelines: Have a clear agenda, keep it short, and only invite people who can either learn or contribute.

Most meetings are very specific and don’t repeat. But we do have a couple of regular meetings too. While regular meetings sound not so great at first, we find it hard to remove even a single one. Take a look – is there something that is not important?

Team planning: weekly (45-60 minutes)

A team can’t work efficiently without a rough plan for the week. The planning has to happen one way or the other, and we feel that a regular planning session easily beats “ad hoc” meetings because these would also have to get scheduled (who has time when?) and most likely they wouldn’t run much shorter either. So, at a planning meeting, a dev sub-team might be discussing the features for the week, prioritizing bug fixes or cleaning up code. The marketing team might be discussing how to launch a feature, who will set up the next customer visit, or how to deal with a partnership proposal. It’s a meeting, but it’s really very work-specific.

1:1 with your manager: weekly (20 to 50 minutes)

Personal growth and individual feedback are super important. But without a regular cadence, these things tend to end up on the back burner. There’s always other important work, which is why a regular meeting that’s auto-repeating on the calendar is crucial. The One on One meeting is everyone’s opportunity to talk to their managers about things that annoy them, and to give and solicit feedback, on a frequent basis. The manager can also give feedback of course, and gently nudge the employee to work on their self-selected goals and learning objectives. And, shameless plug, we feel it’s such an important meeting that we built an entire feature around it.

Company all-hands: weekly (30 minutes)

We’re a fairly distributed company, and we believe it’s crucial that everyone gets to see the rest of the company frequently, especially the remote workers. So at an all-hands Google Hangout, every sub-team presents a quick summary of what they are working on, and what will happen next week. We set a strict time limit of just three minutes per team.

While not everything presented is relevant for everyone, there’s still a significant amount of overlap. For example, marketing promoting features that the dev team built, sales learning what’s happening in support, etc. We feel it’s totally worth the 30 minutes per week to ensure we all work together and avoid sudden gaps in communication.

We also share summaries on the wiki for people who are out of office. But we feel that just the summary itself doesn’t suffice.

Team standup: daily (5 minutes)

Just a short meeting to ensure no double work occurs, and to have a “formal” time when one can ask for help because stuck. Frequently it serves as an icebreaker too and stimulates communication that might have been missed (‘oh, you’ll work on X? Let’s talk about that in more detail after lunch, I have a suggestion!’). Spending five Minutes to ensure everyone inside the team knows what the others are doing? You won’t get a higher return on time-spent!

Team retrospective: biweekly (60 minutes)

Most (but not all) sub-teams like to meet biweekly to revisit what went well, and what can be improved on in the team’s processes.  Topics are voted on, and then the top problems get discussed, and solutions and tasks are assigned. This is probably one of the mentally toughest meetings because everyone really needs to think hard about how to make the team work better. On the plus side though, if it weren’t for this meeting, many problems would go unaddressed, and the time wasted on inefficient processes will most likely be much higher than the time spent on a regular retrospective.

Developer exchange: weekly (60 minutes)

We’re working on a highly modern tech stack. In order to stay at the forefront, we need to improve and update all the time. With our dev team split into 3 sub-teams of 3-4 people, there is, of course, a risk that each team comes up with their own particular way. It’s better to discuss ideas and overarching concepts before implementing, and it’s better to present initial sub-team learning of a prototype before launching a new library company-wide. The Dev Exchange gives each sub-team a chance to present interesting concepts, and to learn how the others are “doing it”. Of course, we also use Slack, our Intranet, and ad-hoc chats to prepare proposals. But nothing beats the efficiency of a moderated and time boxed discussion in person.

To summarize

Although five regular meetings sound like a lot, we haven’t found a way to reduce this number. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them!

One important key is scheduling. Each meeting no matter how relevant – is an interruption to other work, and nobody likes context-switching.  So for instance, we put the Dev Exchange meeting right before the All-Hands meetings. This way the meetings together are a 90 minutes block (including a short break) at the end of the day, rather than two interruptions in the middle of the day.

Last but not least, meetings are of course not the only way to ensure staff meet, gel and feel included. We organize plenty of other events, attend and present at conferences, we have our annual company trip, and so on. Useful meetings are a great foundation, but it takes a lot more to build a great company culture.

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