From Wasteful to Productive — How to Design Meetings for Success
By Kevin Hoffman | September 03, 2019
In this Perspectives in Engineering interview series, engineering leaders talk about how to build, coach, and scale world-class technology teams.
Like most of us, Kevin Hoffman has experienced his share of nightmare meetings—ones that, in one way or another, were not focused on making decisions and progressing the team.
He wanted to figure out how to make meetings more responsive and purposeful. So for the last decade-plus, as the acting CEO and co-founder at Boardthing and previously the VP for Design at Capital One and founder of Seven Heads Design, designing meetings has been his purpose.
“We’ve basically taken the scientific method and applied it to design shipping—design thinking, as it’s commonly known,” Hoffman says. “Learn something, come up with a theory, build a strategy, measure if it achieves your goal or not, and then iterate. It occurred to me that I could take this same approach to meetings.”
He took his curiosity about organizational design as related to meetings and authored the book Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, published last year. He says that most of us build meetings the way we experience them in our own careers, without much thought toward how to best accomplish the purpose of the meeting.
But there are other ways, he says—ways that account for how our brains function, and that build meetings for specific purposes beyond just having the right amount of meetings.
In this interview, Hoffman discusses the benefits of having meetings in the first place, how to design meetings to serve the participants rather than the organizers, the cognitive realities that determine how our brains process and retain information, and how design thinking can apply to 1:1s as well as group meetings.
Meetings are expensive, but their results can be worth it
In evaluating how best to design meetings, Hoffman first has to answer the one big question: Why have meetings at all?
“There are things that are possible with the mind, intelligence, and instincts of a group that aren't possible with an individual,” he says. “If you want to take more of a linear code approach to why meetings, I would say meetings exist to solve problems. How do you solve problems in meetings? You make decisions.”
Therefore, the powerful question Hoffman asks in return to “Why meetings?” is “What decisions do we need to make?” Evaluating whether or not meetings (either recurring or as-needed) are connected to a team’s practice—that’s a simple metric for deciding which meetings are necessary.
After all, he reiterates a point he makes in Meeting Design that having meetings is not an end goal in itself. The intent of a stand-up is not to have a stand-up—it’s to reach conclusions as a team, however that can best happen.
“Having an adaptive meeting culture is an end goal,” he says. “Think about meetings as in a constant state of shipping. The cycles might change. There may be quarter meetings that you change once a year. You experiment with them less often. There might be dailies that you institute and abandon all the time. But all of it collected should be an evolutionary process towards outcomes, rather than reaching the goal of the perfect amount of meetings.”
"Having an adaptive meeting culture is an end goal. All of it collected should be an evolutionary process towards outcomes, rather than reaching the goal of the perfect amount of meetings."
Meeting formats should serve the attendees
Many meetings are structured from the manager’s or leader’s perspective—or not at all. For meetings to work well for their intended purpose (namely, sharing information, collaborating, and making decisions), Hoffman has learned to format them in service of the attendees.
“If we think about designing a user experience, we're designing a user experience for the user. We're not designing a user experience for the designer,” he says. “The meeting experience should be designed for the attendees who need to make the decisions. They shouldn't necessarily be designed for management.”
Hoffman evaluates the experience of a meeting—from the preparatory materials distributed ahead of time to the styles of conversations in real-time—on whether it’s sufficient to create a positive experience for the people making the decisions.
He discusses below how to pace a meeting with the attendees’ memories in mind, but he starts by offering a real-world example of a company whose meeting culture accounts for valuing everyone’s time within the meeting space itself.
"The meeting experience should be designed for the attendees who need to make the decisions. They shouldn't necessarily be designed for management."
“One of the most interesting examples that comes up a lot is Amazon,” Hoffman says. “You can’t call a meeting without writing a whitepaper. And you can’t start a meeting without everybody reading the whitepaper together in real time. That really equalizes the conversation, and it gives people time to focus on the content.”
For people spending most of their daily hours in meetings, he believes that having every meeting contain a pre-read as part of the meeting experience is a tremendously thoughtful design choice. It stands in stark contrast to meetings where not everyone has read the agenda, and certainly not everyone has the same background context for the information being discussed. The whitepaper ensures that everyone has the same foundational information in front of them.
“The way that Amazon does meetings works really well for Amazon,” Hoffman says. “You can take that approach, drop it into the Wells Fargo team, and it may or may not work. But the point is to ask the question ‘Is it working, and how do we know?’” Designing meetings around how our brains work will aid memory and processing A meeting clearly does little good if the information conveyed and decisions reached vanish into the ether. Pacing and building a meeting so the attendees have the best chance of retaining what was discussed is critical, Hoffman stresses.
"At a bare minimum, we should recognize that the brain is a biological engine. Let's design for that engine. Let's not design like our brains are computers or tape recorders, because they don't work that way."
“My experience has been, throughout my whole career, that so many meetings are learned and ritual,” Hoffman says. “Whatever you start in your career, that's how you learn to do meetings.”
As just one example, PowerPoint has long been synonymous with meeting presentations. It may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, but it’s ubiquitous. Yet it has its cognitive limitations.
Hoffman points to the Edward Tufte’s essay “PowerPoint Does Rocket Science,” which examines how PowerPoint may have contributed to the Challenger space shuttle disaster. “It shows the slides that engineers used to help people make the decision as to whether or not to launch in those conditions,” Hoffman says. “Obviously, it was the wrong decision. But a contributing factor was there was just too much content, and it wasn't presented in a clear way.”
That’s not to say PowerPoint—or any presentation media—deserves to be dumped unceremoniously from our arsenals. But it means that people designing presentations should focus more on the needs of their audiences, rather than the possibilities of the platform.
“That, to me, is the most powerful story about why presentation matters,” Hoffman says.
WE RETAIN 5 +/- 2 IDEAS AT A TIME
“This idea of five plus or minus two is a common idea when discussing memory,” he says. “That’s the number of concepts that you can keep in your brand at a time. On average, we seem to be able to remember six, seven, maybe four concepts at a time. In a really serious conversation, we're trying to synthesize and compare these things.”
By cramming 15 bullet points, each containing a complex concept, into a 10-minute presentation, people will only remember a few of them—likely the last ones presented. Hoffman suggests using current cognitive understandings to pace the information more digestibly: five ideas, plus or minus two, every 10 minutes or so. Then create some space between blocks of information to review and apply that information in some way, because that synthesis is a powerful memory tool.
OUR EARS AND OUR EYES WORK TOGETHER
One of the groaner clichés of a bad meeting is a presenter who reads aloud exactly what is on the slide. Not only is that horribly dull; it may actually reduce the audience’s ability to retain what’s being read and said.
A neurotypical brain that uses different senses to interpret the world, Hoffman says, uses ears and eyes together—and in different ways that complement each other.
“If people take in identical content with listening and seeing simultaneously, like when reading slides to people, it actually creates a cognitive dissonance,” he explains. “Subconsciously, I imagine it's like switching between channels. Am I going to listen or am I going to read? In my experience, it decreases the ability to retain information.”
On the flip side, when an audience is able to visualize the content in a way that adds a layer of meaning, such as an illustration or a metaphor, that visual allows people to understand the information in two contexts simultaneously. As a result, Hoffman says, people retain the information more effectively.
“There's some really cool visual techniques for facilitating conversations,” he says. He recommends the books of David Sibbet and Sunni Brown for learning how to make visualizations a part of a meeting—but doing so can even start with something as simple as representing tickets with sticky notes on the wall.
“That visualization really adds a better understanding of what everybody’s doing and how it all connects,” he says.
OUR BRAINS ARE ORGANS, NOT MACHINES
Hoffman has designed his own approach to meetings from two decades of experience leading meetings, as well as researching brain chemistry and stages of memory. “I asked, are there any interesting connections? How can meetings work better if we consider this information?”
He stresses that he’s not a neurochemist or a cognitive scientist, so he doesn’t have all the definitive answers—then again, he says, neither do the neurochemists and cognitive scientists.
“What has been observed about human behavior as it relates to memory is always changing,” he says. “I just think at a bare minimum, we should recognize that the brain is a biological engine. Let's design for that engine. Let's not design like our brains are computers or tape recorders, because they don't work that way.”
Design thinking is applicable to 1:1s too
Many of Hoffman’s insights about designing meetings refer to group sessions. Yet he’s also experienced success applying design thinking to 1:1s, as well, where PowerPoints and bullet points are largely supplanted by direct conversations.
ADJUSTING TIME FOR IN-DEPTH 1:1 EXPLORATION
His strategies come down to how managers and engineers can both use that time most constructively. “I think a lot of people take the approach of a half hour or an hour a week with these meetings,” he says. “That’s two hours a month for every person.”
Rather than divvy that time equally between weeks, Hoffman experimented with different chunks of time. He ultimately found the greatest impact with meeting semi-monthly rather than weekly: he’d hold a 90-minute meeting one week, then two weeks later, hold a 30-minute meeting.
“For the ninety-minute meetings, I wanted my reports to come to the table with a complex problem, and we’d work on solving it together,” he said. “We'd whiteboard it, we'd explore it, we'd try to map the problem out, whatever kind of conversation we wanted to have.” The half-hour meetings, then, became more traditional 1:1s.
TAILORING 1:1s FOR THE ENGINEER’S EXPERIENCE
He discovered something else, too: this format worked remarkably well for those people who were self-guided, didn’t need or want feedback on day-in/day-out tasks, or were generally established in their roles or even getting closer to promotions.
“For them, it was a really good format, because they know when they got their ninety-minute meeting, they could really to dive into something,” Hoffman says. “I was supporting them in a way that was focused on the larger problems that they might not have had experience solving, but I maybe did.”
Yet for people who were new to their roles—either new to the organization or the career, or freshly promoted into a new position—this format didn’t work very well. For those people, Hoffman found that a 45-minute weekly worked best, working down to a 30-minute weekly, then transitioning them into the 90/30 split.
WORKING WITHIN YOUR OWN CONSTRAINTS
Just as with the Amazon whitepaper he discussed earlier, Hoffman clarifies that this system worked best for his reports in his organizations—and the general idea warrants experimentation in your own circumstances.
Always, though, he reminds folks that a major aspect of design is constraints. Yeah, it would be great to give every report more time for 1:1s, but doing so increases a manager’s own time commitment. Even though managers are designing 1:1s and team meetings with the attendees in mind, they still have their own limitations in time and resources.
“You’ve got to work within the constraint,” he says.
Hoffman recognizes that each team and organization needs to design meetings in their own way in order to reach the right results. He concludes, however, that these are staple considerations for designing any kind of meeting:
- The format of the meeting should serve the participants, rather than the leaders. Whether it’s providing baseline information or establishing a certain format, an effective meeting is designed around how the people making decisions can best do so.
- Meetings can be designed around how brains process and retain information. Remembering basic cognitive principles—such as how most brains can handle 3-7 pieces of information at once, how they require a chance to synthesize material, and how different senses complement each other—can make meetings much more impactful.
- These principles apply to 1:1s as well as group meetings. And in fact, 1:1s can be tailored much more specifically to the participants’ needs over time.
For a further look at Hoffman’s process, you can refer to his book Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone.
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