Adventures in Engineering


Ever found yourself finding nothing to contribute to a meeting? Or perhaps giving one piece of somewhat token input as a stakeholder and otherwise uninvolved? Yeah, I get that a lot. Meetings sap hours of my productive time every day and leave me wondering where my day went. I call it being meet-napped!

I’ve slowly established some fairly stringent techniques to ensure that my time is used most effectively and to not waste others’ time in meetings either. This post is a quick brain dump to explore just some of the strategies I use to get the most of out meetings (or avoid them altogether).

This conversation was started at the Community Leadership Summit, Austin May 6th and 7th 2017.

1. Prepare

This might seem obvious but every item in my calendar gets 5 minutes of attention to jot down a few bullet points. Sometimes its just a summary of what I want to get out of the meeting (whether it be input/guidance or questions answered). This is still true for meetings that I’m not the presenter, facilitator or primary participant – if I’ve said yes to a meeting there’s a reason why I’m there.

Increasingly I’ll have a few figures up my sleeve for discussion if its relevant. It’s not a report, but having a few points means that when called upon I can participate immediately instead of having to shelve a topic to yet another future meeting. Any follow ups can then often be done by a simple email rather than wasting another 5 people’s half hour.

2. Have a clear agenda

An agenda keeps you on track, provides context for participants and empowers them to prepare too. It also empowers them to defer or bounce invitations to other participants. Think about it, how many meetings have you had only to have a follow up with the actual person who will be involved?

An agenda isn’t just a list or a sentence, its a setting, points of discussion, leading questions and most importantly “what do I want to get out of this meeting”. Crudely speaking, that allows me to divide up a meeting into blocks of time and help stay on track early to avoid running overtime.

3. Stay on track

Now that you have an agenda, stick to it and stick to it early. My default is to take the split the time evenly for each agenda item with 5 minutes at the beginning and end to intro/outro and any adjust for late attendees. Naturally that applies equal discussion weighting but its a great starting guide.

4. Take things ‘offline’.

This serves two purposes. The first is to help stay on track and discuss all points on the agenda. Taking things offline allows you to create a more focused discussion with participants that want or need to be most involved, saving the time of the wider group who are less interested in your deep time consuming discussion.

The second point is it helps you reduce the noise around decision making. If people are already in a meeting they’re more likely to offer an opinion and that draws out the process. If you shelve for another meeting or email it introduces a slightly higher point of friction; those who are keenly interested will make the effort to contribute and those who aren’t won’t contribute noise. It helps create a more focused list of ‘stakeholders’ to any decision or discussion and get to an outcome faster.

5. Say no.

Given all the points above, if you don’t feel you can get or give something from a meeting then say no, but also say why. This can sometimes be tough, especially when it means challenging invitations from managers and leaders in the business. But by doing so I’ve found I can either give more detailed answers earlier, or by encouraging an agenda it means we have a more productive meeting.

If I get an invitation from a meeting with no agenda, I ask for some discussion points. More times than not those discussion points can be easily replied to by a 5 minute email and not require a half hour meeting.

If I get an invitation to a meeting where I only have one opinion to offer, then I email it through and then trust the group to make a decision.

6. Block out time.

This one is quite simple and again its nothing new. I have recurring time in my calendar to do:

  • Daily or weekly tasks
  • Step back, review and refocus on work and priorities at hand
  • Make time for, you know – work!

This means my mornings are often blocked out to ‘get on top of things’ including email; there’s usually something that pops up I need to address. It also means I can cover some of the repeated operational parts of my job (e.g. review dashboards and reports etc). I also block out time for food at lunch and some time to prepare workplans like newsletters etc.

I also know its frequent to block out sleep (especially if you have an international team). This means that any invitations that clash with sleep time will automatically back to the meeting organiser and prompt them to reconsider the timing before (hopefully) explicitly reaching out to discuss timing.

And this then frees me up to contribute where it matters most. That might be to attend specific meetings where I need to have a voice, opinion or contribution. Or (and this is my preference) not in meetings at all and free to get on with the job of… my job 🙂