The Crucial Ingredient For Better Meetings
Before my product management career, I spent five years working in strategy consulting. There are many things you can say about strategy consulting—some good, and some not so good. Without assessing the net benefits of having worked in consulting for a product management career (which I've done before), I want to share are a few very practical things that I learned in that time that I still make use of every day.
One particularly striking aspect is that of meeting preparation. While I was in consulting, I was always baffled by the fact that so many people in non-consulting jobs complain about what a drudge meetings are. In strategy consulting, a very large proportion of the job is meeting preparation—especially on the more senior levels. You obsess about the story line, each slide of the PowerPoint deck, the meeting participants and their agendas, etc. “Obsession” is often indeed the right word in the consulting case, since it can take on quite an unhealthy form (I will spare you and myself reliving painful memories of late-night changes to the storyline of the meeting deck). All of this preparation usually ensures that the meetings provide a valuable discussion that tends to stay on topic.
Of course, in “real life”, no one has enough time to obsess about meeting preparation in the same way that paid consultants do. It would be a waste of time, too—not every meeting needs the perfect story line and pixel perfect slide layout. However, successful meetings do need some amount of preparation, and that's where the consulting experience comes in handy.
One of the iron rules that I learned was that every meeting needs objectives and next steps. In consulting, these were the first and the last slides of the meeting deck, and also the first ones to be created. Now, depending on your job, you probably don't create slide decks for every single meeting that you have, and I don't suggest you make that a habit. I do suggest thinking through (and ideally writing down) objectives and next steps, though. Let's look at these in turn.
Objectives are basically the meeting agenda. However, they go beyond a simple agenda in that they don't just list the topics to discuss, but rather the outcomes that you want to achieve with the meeting. These outcomes could be something like making a decision, gathering feedback, collecting input, sharing and getting buy-in on a plan of action, etc. An objective shouldn’t be something generic like “Discuss topic XYZ”. Discussing something isn't an outcome, it's a means to an end. Clearly think about what the end you want to achieve is.
Clarifying objectives helps in a number of different ways. Firstly, it can determine if a meeting is the best way to achieve the objective. Sharing information, for instance, can often be done asynchronously as opposed to face-to-face. Objectives should also drive the content, format, and set of participants of the discussion that might be best to achieve that objective. Gathering feedback on a proposed course of action might require a different set of participants and meeting format than actually making a decision, for example. Lastly, it can help keep the discussion on track in the meeting. While still be discussing the right topic, it is easy to get sidetracked in detail discussions that won't actually help achieve the objective.
Next steps are what happens after the meeting. To ensure a good meeting, you should be able to determine in advance of the meeting what the follow-up tasks should be, who should take on each task, and what the rough timeline might be. In the meeting itself, you can then make those next steps more concrete and get commitment to actually take these next steps. Identifying these next steps before the meeting is beneficial in a few ways.
Firstly, it ensures that the meeting actually results in action. If you have a meeting and no-one does anything differently afterwards than they did before, then you might as well not have had the meeting. If you can’t come up with any ideas for what follow-up tasks might result from the meeting, then chances are you don’t even need the meeting. It is also another forcing function to make the meeting objectives actionable—if your objectives don’t result in action, then they might have been more of the “discuss topic XYZ” variety.
Secondly, it makes sure that everything that's going to be required from the group of meeting participants as a prerequisite to these next steps can be taken care of in the meeting. For example, let's say that one follow-up task requires a particular piece of information from a different meeting participant. If you know this in advance, you can make sure that that information is passed in the context of the meeting so that the owner of the follow-up task doesn't get blocked.
Lastly, having the list of next steps prepared for adjustment and agreement during the meeting acts as a forcing function to actually talk about and assign follow-up tasks. I have been in way too many meetings in which impassioned arguments were had, excitement and energy were in the air, and once the meeting was over, nothing happened—because nobody talked about and captured what should be done coming out of the meeting.
There are, of course, some meetings for which these two points of preparation don’t apply. If you are a manager, for your 1:1s with your reports you should typically only have the objective to assist the report in whatever way is most helpful for them, and the best preparation would be actionable feedback rather than a list of next steps. Similarly, in product teams we often run retrospectives, for which we can certainly write objectives, but the next steps will mostly result from the discussion itself. Also, some formalized “ceremonies” like daily standups will not need this additional preparation since they follow a specific format anyway.
For most other meetings, from status updates over product reviews to strategy sessions, however, really benefit from just 5-10 minutes spent thinking about objectives and next steps. Typically, it should be the “owner” of the meeting (which mostly translates to “whoever sent the calendar invite”) who does this thinking, but even a participant can contribute what they believe the objectives should be, in case the owner hasn’t done that.
When I left consulting and entered the product management world, I certainly went overboard with my meeting preparation (and made slide decks for meetings that definitely wouldn’t have needed one). Over time, I gradually reduced that obsession to more normal levels. However, to this date, for every meeting that I organize, I try to be very mindful what the objectives are and what next steps after the meeting should be. You should try it, too—your coworkers will be thankful for more organized and focused discussions, and fewer meetings that “could have been an email”.
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