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Meetings

How To Run Your Meetings Like Apple and Google

Contrary to popular belief: meetings are not the devil. We look at how to get more creative - and productive - with your weekly gatherings.


Careers have been built on poking fun at meetings. From commercials to comic strips it’s no secret that most of us would rather be, you know, working.

But there’s good news: Rapid experimentation with meetings in the past decade by startups and Fortune 500 companies alike has produced a new set of rules to consider. Here are three that seem to be universal:

  1. All meetings must have a stated purpose or agenda. Without an agenda, meetings can easily turn into aimless social gatherings rather than productive working sessions.
  2. Attendees should walk away with concrete next steps or Action Items. We love Action Items here, but we’re not the only ones. From Apple to the Toastmasters, the world’s most successful organizations demand that attendees leave meetings with actionable tasks.
  3. The meeting should have an end time. Constraints breed creativity. By not placing an endtime, we encourage rambling, off-topic and useless conversation.

Of course, there’s no need to stop there. Truly productive companies always continue tweaking to suit their specific culture. Here are a few highlights:

Apple

During the Steve Jobs era, Apple constantly worked to stay true to its startup roots while becoming the largest company in the world.

  • Every project component or task has a “DRI.” According to Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, Apple breeds accountability at meetings by having a Directly Responsible Individual whose name appears next to all of the agenda items they are responsible for. With every task tagged, there’s rarely any confusion about who should be getting what done.
  • Be prepared to challenge and be challenged. There are dozens of tales about Jobs’ ability to aggresively question his employees, sometimes moving them to tears. While you probably don’t need the waterworks at your office, everyone should be willing to defend their ideas and work from honest criticism. If a person has no ideas to defend, they shouldn’t be at the meeting.

Catalyst

Catalyst, a group of young Christian leaders in the South, places an emphasis on keeping meetings positive and loose. Some examples:

  • The answer is always “yes, and…” and never “no, but…” Keep things positive and ideas flowing by not shouting down initial proposals.
  • Take a break every 30 minutes. If your meeting must last longer than a half hour, make sure attendees can get up, walk out of the room and put their brain on pause.
  • Think and dream with out limitations. Those come later.

Google

In a recent issue of “Think With Google,” Google VP of Business Operations Kristen Gil described how the company spent 2011 getting back to its original values as a startup, which included reconsidering how the company approached meetings. Some takeaways:

  • All meetings should have a clear decision maker. Gil credits this approach to helping the Google+ team ship over 100 new features in the 90 days after launch.
  • No more than ten people at a meeting. “Attending meetings isn’t a badge of honor,” she writes.
  • Decisions should never wait for a meeting. Otherwise, the velocity of the company is slowed to its meeting schedule. If a meeting needs to happen for something to get done, hold the meeting as soon as possible.
  • Kill ideas, and meetings. After Larry Page replaced Eric Schmidt as Google CEO, the company quickly killed its Buzz, Code Search, and Desktop products so it could focus more resources on less efforts. Focus has to permeate every aspect of a company, including meetings.


37Signals

If it were up to 37 Signals, there would be no meetings at all and discussion would be limited to IM and email. In the company’s best-selling book Rework, they urge creatives to remember that “every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead.” In fact, the firm even created National Boycott a Meeting Day in 2011. But if you absolutely must meet, they have three rules:

  • Keep it short. No, shorter than that. And use a timer to enforce the time limit.
  • Have an agenda.
  • Invite as few people as possible.


Reily

This New Orleans-based food and beverage company was profiled in the book Good Boss, Bad Boss by Robert Sutton. The company utilizes “stand up” meetings made popular for the Agile method of software development.

  • Schedule the meetings for the same time. Keeping employees in a rhythm allows them to not have their work unexpectedly disrupted.
  • The stand up is to communicate, not solve. If your team has a regularly planned stand up meeting, “lack of communication” is no longer an excuse for problems. Just be sure to protect the stand up meeting time by deferring larger discussions to private meetings.

(BTW: If you’re interested in the nitty-gritty of the stand up meeting, Jason Yip wrote an entire manual.)

Technically Media

Not exactly Apple or Google, but at my previous company, Technically Media, we worked hard to make meetings as useful as possible. We met only once a week to update one another on progress, propose new ideas and hammer out any problems. We kept to an extremely strict time table and meeting structure as detailed by my fellow co-founder Christopher Wink on his personal blog. Some key observations:

  • There is no judging in brainstorming. Focus on capturing ideas before filtering and critiquing them.
  • Bring solutions, not problems. Solutioning in the middle of a meeting wastes precious communication time. If you can’t bring proposed solutions to the table, save it for next time or bring it up in private conversations.
  • Review “homework” from the last meeting. Not only does it remind participants what happened last week, it holds attendees accountable.

What’s Your Approach?

How does your organization run its meetings?

Any unusual tips or suggestions you’d like to share?

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

Comments (45)
  • Eve Gelman

    Great article. I am a fan of stand up meetings of no more than 5 people. Its amazing how much can get accomplished quickly vs. the traditional sitting in your chair falling asleep meeting.

  • Paul Jolicoeur

    Always, have a plan, the lack of direction on the part of the leader of the meeting will only frustrate those attending the meeting. END ON TIME! Don’t just set an end time, stick to it and end on time. If you do, people will give more of themselves during the meeting. If you always go over, you will lose momentum. Ending on time, like being on time, builds trust.

  • Saqib Ali

    Some tips:

    1) Allocate time for each topic in the meeting. And stick to that time slot. If you think a topic will generate a heated discussion, allocate more time to it in the agenda.
    2) If a particular topic is going over its allocated time, stop the discussion. Do this for all topics and for everyone – yes even for your boss. No exceptions. This way no one attendee will be offended if you cut them off.
    3) Try rotisserie style discussion where you go around the table, and each person gets x mins, where they can speak uninterrupted, or simply pass. But no one person gets more than x mins This doesn’t work for all types of meetings/organizations, but give it a try and see if it works for you.
    4) Distribute the agenda prior to the meeting. Make sure the attendees have enough time to review it and suggest updates. If it is an morning meeting, make sure the agenda is sent the day before the meeting. If it is afternoon meeting, distribute the agenda in the morning. Never distribute the agenda more than one day in advance.

    And mostly importantly observe the same rules when you are attending someone else’s meeting.

  • Weighted Decision

    A great list of good meeting rules. What gets measured gets done is the old cliche so make sure you measure the right things. You could do this in a meeting by using pre-prepared templates to capture information. Use ours if you like http://www.weighteddecision.com

  • Kenny Jahng

    Everyone needs to read http://www.bit.ly/readthisbefo

  • Kris Jaeger

    • No lap tops unless it is quite clear you need it to assist with the meeting. I’m in so many meetings that take too much time because people are busy working on email or other unrelated things. So you waste a lot of time catching them up when they check out and scheduling another meeting in order to finish what you couldn’t get done in the original one.
    • Meetings aren’t a badge of honor that makes you more important than others. There are a lot of people who use meetings to show how important they are rather than using quick, face to face, talks with the pertinent individuals to get things figured out and done. You reference this under Google: Decisions should never wait for a meeting.
    • When you invite someone to a meeting, they should know what the meeting is about and what you expect from them when you send the meeting request. Too many times I’ve gone to a meeting only to find out that it really had nothing to do with me, I wasn’t needed at that stage, or that I wasn’t prepared with what I needed to be an effective participant.

  • John Perkins

    Great set of pointers. I might add allow time (could be as brief as a single word per person) for “check-in” and “check-out.” This puts bookends on the meeting and serves as a ritual means of signaling the start and end.
    Also set aside time (before the designated ending time) for an After Meeting Review (the meeting variant of After Action Review: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A… ) This is used extensivesly by the military and fire jumpers, and now airline crews, operating rooms, and others are finding it adds value and learning.
    We are finding that having the agenda posted on our shared network allows any participant access to adding agenda item, links, and written summaries.

  • rbpratt

    another good pointer for meetings that I have been told- no one sits down. People sit, they get comfortable and meetings run over. If everyone is standing, all people are more conscious of time.

  • BigNose2

    If you want to run meetings relevantly, you need a tool that help you measure meetings performance and help you filling the gap between 2 meetings (the black hole where actions plan and all decisions made during a meeting are lost).
    Except on some R&D paper survey i never found this magic tool for several years ’til now. http://www.perfony.com/en help you managing meetings performance and improving it collaboratively.

  • BigNose2

    If you want to run meetings relevantly, you need a tool that help you measure meetings performance and help you filling the gap between 2 meetings (the black hole where actions plan and all decisions made during a meeting are lost).
    Except on some R&D paper survey i never found this magic tool for several years ’til now. http://www.perfony.com/en help you managing meetings performance and improving it collaboratively.

  • Avi Kaye

    Excellent points here – I really liked the Google rules (maybe that’s why you can only have 10 people in a Google Hangout :)). One more pre-meeting item that I’d like to add is – send the agenda BEFORE the meeting. This means that I can
    1) Prepare for the meeting and know what is going to be discussed
    2) I can see if I am really relevant to the meeting, or am just invited for sake of being there
    3) Make sure it’s not going to be longer than an hour, tops🙂

    By the way, this is exactly why we developed MeetingKing (http://meetingking.com), as we believe that the right tools can help everyone make their meetings actually work for them, and not the other way around.

  • Jason Small

    Right on – I would also add to measure the meeting effectiveness by the action items generated and/or decisions made. The only exception to this would be a ‘stand up’ (agile method) or ‘status’ meeting (which were effective in an agency where I previously worked – this helped prevent inefficient use of resources when digital projects had technology overlaps.

  • Sean Blanda

    Awesome list. Thanks for sharing!

  • Alli Blum

    Sean:

    I read your piece this morning and then emailed my team to suggest that we have a hard end and take a break 30 minutes into our product development meeting. My goal was partially to save time, but more to increase our creativity by constraining ourselves and building in time to not think about the t-shirt graphics we were reviewing.

    We ended on time, but the conversation went by so fast that we didn’t take a break. At 30 minutes, we were buzzing and I didn’t want to be the one to break the flow. Next time, instead of planning to break at 30 minutes, maybe we’ll plan to break whenever everyone’s brains are broken. And maybe in addition to a DRI we’ll have a DCM–Designated Conversation Manager–for meetings that run long or feel tedious. This person will be responsible for sensing when everyone needs a break to recharge and for making that break happen.

  • Bryan

    We have end of the week meetings for the upcoming week. Staying ahead of the ball is always important. Meetings should be kept timed to encourage creativity and most important, it should involve everyone. Too many meetings have bystanders that are just there (present but not active)

  • Graeme Oke

    Really appreciated the list and the comments and links supplied. I would add that a significant adjunct if you have direct reports is to have one to one informal regular meets. Even over coffee just to touch base and reconnect on issues and projects. Keeps you in touch and your team members feel listened too.

  • Tom

    Lots of great tips from the comments here. I wrote a little web app that helps you run a better meeting – http://meetingticker.com

    Allows you to assign times to your agenda items, which then gives you licence as the meeting chair to cut people off🙂

    I’ve used it in my workplace and it works a treat. Free app and open to improvements.

  • James H. Bao

    Catalyst’s rule of always answering “Yes” seems disingenuous and unproductive. I found the most productive meetings are ones where people can cut the BS and be honest with their opinions. It’s a better idea to create a culture where hearing “No” isn’t such a bad thing. After all, it’s just part of the process.

  • Jacki Whitford

    The only way anyone can conduct a successful meeting is if the right people show up and they show up on time and contribute.
    When I worked at AOL in the early 1990s, we closed and locked the door at 1 minute after the start time of the meeting. If you were not in the room, you did not get in. We also stayed on topic using the agenda and any ideas or action items that came up that were outside the scope were delegated to the proper teams, but not discussed in the meeting.
    At the telecommunications company I worked at for a decade, all meetings were conference calls. They started after roll call (making sure all decision makers from all systems were represented) – usually within the first two minutes of the start of the call. After getting status on action items, any issues were discussed, new action items were assigned and the majority of the attendees were released. Only people who needed extra help remained on the line until their issues were resolved. All status was updated online real time so anyone could go to a web page and see current status of the project/release.

  • Scott Belsky

    Agreed, meetings (and chairs in meetings) shouldn’t be too comfortable…

  • auxano

    Great thoughts – especially for ChurchWorld, the market I serve. Can I repost this content on our Auxano’s Vision Room? More details available via email. bob@auxano.com

  • Sean Blanda

    Sure. Just be sure to be a good Internet citizen and link back here, please.

  • Yelena Yanich

    Yep! We can learn from this even in academia a bit…. love this approach.

  • Martin Kovach

    Any thoughts on those back to back meetings that are in different rooms at large corporations, we always seem to start 10-15 minutes late as team members go from meeting to meeting. I feel like the default settings in Outlook add to the issue.

  • AldenGoodwin

    Excellent content. I am a fan of take a position up events of no more than 5 individuals. Its awesome how much can get achieved easily vs. the conventional seated in your seat sleeping conference.

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