Running Better Meetings

2021-03-14 ~1200 words

In data science and engineering, technical skills are often the quickest way to early-career advancement – a new contributor who can write decent code is immediately an asset, in a way that a business-savvy developer with no coding ability is not. Companies often publicly espouse the benefits of softer skills, but that may not ring true in entry-level positions. In some technical fields, non-technical strengths can actually be viewed as negatives by peers, a betrayal of the ethos of the programmer. And it’s hard to separate effective navigation of the business – knowing the right people to ask, managing meetings and emails – from “playing politics”, so the former can feel dishonorable by its association with the latter. Soft skills just aren’t valued in the culture.

I think that’s why technical people never learn how to run meetings. As they gain more responsibility and are forced to take on the dreaded “navigation of the business” challenges just to get anything accomplished, engineers and data scientists often find themselves organizing a lot of meetings. And, by and large, they’re terrible at it.

Managing meetings, like most soft skills, rapidly becomes more important in the mid-career phase. Most medium and large companies are too siloed for a single team to be able to get something out the door without the involvement of others. You’ll need alignment on timelines, project goals, and sometimes funding. You’ll need to check in with stakeholders to keep on the same page. You’ll need to collaborate with other teams to create or adhere to standard practices within the business, like data naming conventions and how to write documentation. Data scientists will need to ask engineering teams for help with deployment and infrastructure; engineers will have to understand data scientist workflows in order to productionize code.

Running those meetings is going to be important to your career. Luckily, as an organizer, there are really only two or three goals you need to think about:

  1. The meeting needs to result in concrete progress on the project or inquiry at hand.
  2. The meeting shouldn’t be too unpleasant for attendees.
  3. (Ideally) All of the meeting time should either be advancing #1 or #2 above – all time should be purposeful or pleasant.

#3 is, in some ways, part of #2 – unnecessarily long meetings are necessarily unpleasant.

It’s pretty rare to find a meeting that is too productive (#1) – it would probably just be quick and painless – but there are lots of meetings that are too pleasant (#2). Happy hours are fine, but they’re not meetings; meetings are for accomplishing something. And if your meeting becomes a happy hour, you’re just going to end up having another meeting. For that reason, focus on making progress first and fun second.

How can you accomplish these goals? Keeping in mind just a few things can go a long way:

  • Keep it moving
  • Make decisions
  • Ask things clearly
  • Don’t ramble
  • Bring some energy
  • Explain what’s next

Keep It Moving

If you are the meeting organizer, it is your job to make sure things keep moving. Awkward silence? You need to end it. The meeting trails off and it’s unclear if there’s more to be discussed? You need to decide: either bring up the next topic or end the meeting. You cannot abdicate responsibility as the emcee. If you sit back and just hope the meeting will run itself, it won’t.

If you fail to take charge and advance the meeting when it loses direction, you’re missing both primary goals – nothing productive is happening, and everyone is uncomfortably staring at their feet. Also, some of them are pretty annoyed with you.

Make Decisions

“So…. do we want to do that?”

“I guess we need to decide who will take that task…”

It’s common to hear these phrases, which invariably end with silence. Many meetings are scheduled specifically for the purpose of making a decision about something. But decisions don’t make themselves, and if nobody is coming forward with an answer initially, you need to propose one. It’s fine if people veto yours – at that point you can ask them if they have a better idea – but often all the non-organizers are willing to let those questions remain unanswered.

This is really just a more specific case of keeping it moving, but even more important to getting something out of a meeting.

Ask Things Clearly

Phrase your questions as questions. “So uh, we probably need to figure out whether it makes sense to do more trainings” ought to be: “Does it make sense for us to do more trainings?” Making your questions question-y gives the audience the hint that they’re expected to answer; statement-y wonderment is unproductive, because people often only half-listen if they don’t sense that they need to be involved.

More generally, just spit it out. Be tactful but clear – meaningless business jargon and overly-delicate language just leads to listeners ignoring your message or question.

Don’t Ramble

We all go off on tangents sometimes, but it shouldn’t be happening in every meeting you attend, and never multiple times in the same meeting. Unfortunately, some people are chronic offenders. How can you tell if people think you’re The Rambler? Pay attention to the faces of the other attendees while you speak, and if some lose interest and look away before you’ve finished, it’s probably because they’re tuning you out – at this point, whatever you’re saying is no longer worth listening to for them.

In general, you should try to be empathetic in discussions. Does this information benefit the listeners in any way? Even if it does, is a verbal explanation in a minute or two really an effective way to convey it? Going down a rabbit hole on the bug that’s slowing down your project is likely not a good use of the listeners’ time.

When in doubt, err on the side of brevity. If others want to know more, they can ask.

Bring Some Energy

Everyone has wished for death in the meeting that never ends. Monotone, unenthusiastic delivery makes anything feel like a drag. Even if the topic at hand is genuinely boring, the person running the meeting is responsible for making sure nobody passes out from boredom. This is obvious but often ignored.

Explain What’s Next

This one isn’t universal – there are some meetings, including information gathering, that don’t require a clear statement of followups. But most of the time, it’s best to clarify who is going to do what next. Ideally, that “who” is you; everyone resents being assigned work by someone who isn’t their boss. But sometimes you do need to ask someone else to help, and you should clarify that they are indeed going to provide it (and you should check on their timeline too).

Getting meetings right isn’t easy. Many of us don’t realize how bad we are at it until we’re on the other side, listening as a coworker rambles through 30 minutes with no clear message. But it’s not hard to be a good emcee if you pay attention, and as you progress in your career it only pays greater dividends.