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Episode #193 Kevin Hoffman - Designing Stellar Meetings

December 14, 2012  ·  11 minutes

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We’ve all sat through terrible meetings before. Part of what makes those meetings so bad is poor communication. Being present in a meeting doesn’t guarantee that your attendees will retain the important information from the meeting, or feel like they played any role in it. Improving the way that things are heard, seen, and discussed will go a long way to improving your meetings overall.

Show Notes

This is a sample of Kevin’s featured talk from the User Interface 17 conference.

We’ve all sat through terrible meetings before. Part of what makes those meetings so bad is poor communication. Being present in a meeting doesn’t guarantee that your attendees will retain the important information from the meeting, or feel like they played any role in it. Improving the way that things are heard, seen, and discussed will go a long way to improving your meetings overall.

Kevin Hoffman is a proponent of approaching meetings as a design problem. In his talk at UI17, he discussed six frameworks to help design better meetings. The first was focused on the hearing aspect of designing meetings. Much of this has to do with making your content easier to understand. Kevin suggests covering five to seven points, and then reviewing before moving on to the next set of content.

Roles are another important aspect to meetings. One of the roles is that of a recorder. Kevin says that having the recorder use a whiteboard for “public recording” provides clearer communication. People can use the board to recall forgotten information. It also turns one way meetings into more of a dialogue.

Full Transcript

Kevin Hoffman: I'm going to talk about six frameworks today that are going to help you design better meetings. They're very simple things to keep in mind, and I'm going to show a number of really easy agendas that you can try yourself, and I've shared a lot of those agendas with you via the slides to make your design meetings, as Jared likes to say, "more stellar," OK?

And the first one has to do with improving what people need to hear, focusing on the hearing aspect of designing meetings. When you're deciding whether or not you're going to have a meeting there are two things you want to think about. How much content can we fit in this meeting? And there's a really great rule of thumb for doing that. And how much meeting do we need to have? How long is that meeting going to be, right? So it's a question of scale.

And scaling meetings to people's needs and relationships to the work has really helped me to eliminate all those meetings that are so frustrating. When I first started teaching -- I used to teach at a number of schools -- and when I first started teaching I asked teachers, "How do I teach?" because I didn't know anything about teaching.

And they said, well, one thing you can do is you can put about five to seven things at a time in your talks, and every five to seven things you should review, because after about five or seven things people start to have a hard time keeping everything in their head at once.

So at five -- five is a nice number to start with. Structure your content in your presentations or in your meetings in five concepts at a time. And do that in about 10 minutes. And after those 10 minutes review those five concepts before you move on to the next one.

And it's a really easy way to very quickly scale the content that you've got to get across to have people do the kinds of activities you want them to do, that you're going to facilitate in your meetings, OK?

Now the second aspect of meetings is length, and length is one where we really have a lot of problems, right? So everybody here does their work in the form of projects. We break it into projects, and we all have different relationships with those projects. At the bottom is the simplest relationship you can have with a project, right?

You may be in a large organization. There are so many projects that are going on, many of which you many not even be aware of, but at a minimum there might be a project that you want to be aware of. You might not be able to participate in it, but you just want to know that it's going on.

Above that there are projects that you perceive have an effect on you so you won't have the ability to participate in that project, but it's going to affect your priorities in some way. And maybe above that it's going to affect it in such a way that you do want to be able to collaborate on that project and have an effect on the way that project affects your work.

Above that you may want to contribute so much that you change the direction of the project fundamentally, and that would be where you might want to have that work recognized. And finally, at the top, the deepest relationship you can have with any project that you do is a project that you own, that you are responsible for the results for that project.

You can map two dimensions of all of your meetings along these relationships to help make decisions about what kind of meeting you need to have for a project. Meetings at the bottom where people just need awareness should be shorter and very simple agendas, and by shorter I mean less than 10 minutes, you know? And meetings at the top should be more time, and have more complex agendas, and that's where you should start to introduce more workshops into things.

So at the bottom, if you think about even traditional agile process, that's where people are doing these things like scrums. That's why those meetings are so short, because they're just about quick awareness. Now at Foursquare, they've eliminated those meetings entirely.

I'm actually tweeting links as I speak using some sort of black magic, and there's an article on how Foursquare has eliminated check-ins entirely using asynchronous reading. I highly encourage you to check that out. That's where we want to eliminate those meetings, meetings where we're doing one-way communication, because we can do that asynchronously.

Now in the middle where people need to collaborate, but they're not in charge of projects or they don't want to be in charge, that's where we have those traditional half hour to one hour meetings. But then above that we have the opportunity to do workshops, and the best time to do those kinds of things is at the beginning of projects when a lot of people feel like they have a lot of stake in something. All right?

So that's the first. The second framework has to do with the roles that we play in meetings. Now meetings are not a new problem. Meetings have been around for a long time, so long, in fact, that they were around before the Web.

In the seventies there was this book that came out by Michael Doyle and David Straus called, "How to Make Meetings Work," and they put forth this very simple role-based methodology for improving the value we get out of meetings. And it's a methodology that I've incorporated into a lot of my design process. So these are the roles that are involved.

The first role -- and this is the one that's probably the most critical -- is the role of a facilitator. A facilitator is one who runs a process during a meeting. And this is where designers often get frustrated. Facilitators shouldn't contribute ideas to discussions.

They shouldn't be evaluating the things that people say or contributing any of their own ideas. They should simple coordinate and manage a process, get it from beginning to end, make sure everybody knows what they need to do, right?

The second role is that of a recorder, and everybody thinks, "Oh, yeah, I know in meetings we're supposed to have somebody taking notes. That's the secretary or the court stenographer of the meeting." But what's different about this role, and what I do in almost all my meetings is that I do what's called, "public recording."

So you're recording on something called a whiteboard, and you're writing at a size that people can actually read from anywhere in the room what the notes of the meeting are. You want to capture just the essence of what people are talking about. And they're not contributing. They're focused on that recording. And then afterwards they distribute that stuff, and people can kind of say, "OK, that's what I meant," or they can add to it.

The third role and everybody else in the meeting is a group member, and those are the people responsibility for the content of the meeting, but as Adam and Aaron talked about earlier, they need to come prepared. That's why we have agendas in advance of meetings. This is no-nonsense stuff, right? This is obvious.

Ideally, they need to stay positive and not be defensive. They should check and balance the facilitator and the reporter. If you're in a meeting and someone's supposed to be facilitating that meeting and they're actually biasing the process by contributing ideas, group members will start not to trust them because they're not actually running the process, they're actually steering it in a direction.

They're able to say wait a minute, you're biasing the process or wait a minute, that's not what I said. I need you to correct what you wrote down to the recorder. The last role is the role of a leader. A leader is somebody in an organization who's at a level that they're responsible for deciding whether or not you're going to have a meeting and who should attend that meeting and what the goals of that meeting should be. It's not necessarily somebody that attends the meeting, but if they do attend the meeting it should be an agreed upon rule that leaders in meetings play the role of group members during meetings.

In an organization that has reporting structure, it goes flat during discussion. That goes a long way toward improving people feeling like they can say what they need to say during a meeting, it feeling like a safe place. Every time I talk about these four roles, every time I do a workshop or present on this stuff, I always hear the same thing from everybody. It's the first question I get.

Hold on a minute, Kevin. I'm not in charge of any of these meetings. I'm getting called into meetings that I don't have any say over all the time and I'm in all of these meetings that I didn't know who was invited, I don't know why we're there, nobody sent me an agenda. What am I going to do about those meetings eating into my time, the time that I want to use to produce stuff?

There's one thing that you can do in that meeting that will always make that meeting better, that will turn the tone of that meeting from that one way sitting through things into a dialogue, and that's public recording. The recording role. If you're at a meeting that's going off the rails, just get up out of your seat, walk over to the write board, and just start writing down the key ideas of what people are saying.

Keep capturing those key ideas. It's the thing that we usually think is obvious but a lot of us forget to do that. We rely on that secretary to write those notes down and, if we're lucky, that secretary will distribute those notes after the meeting and then nobody will read them again and they're lost forever.

Public recording is something entirely different. Public recording is about giving people the ability, because they can't remember everything they hear, to use their eyes to look up and recall information. It makes meetings much more effective. I've taught this at a lot of agencies.

At first, there's always a moment of awkwardness like why are you getting up and walking over there in the middle of our meeting? I've heard people spontaneously applauding at the end of meetings because they were able to recall much more of the content and made the discussion much more effective. If you're somebody who might feel uncomfortable doing this, before the meeting just say to the person who's calling the meeting would you mind if I got up and wrote some of this down? It's going to help me to remember it later. Actually, you're going to be helping everybody in the room.