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Craig Kerstiens

Lessons from college: Efficient meetings

I think back to my time in college, and I learned some valuable things. I also learned some incredibly worthless things (i.e. don’t flip a car upside down and then backover… it’ll break the axle so you can’t roll it). Even in classes… the basic approach to a supply/demand curve to maximize profit is cute when done in a classroom vs. the complexities of how things actually work… I mean I get the idea behind it, but what you learn is so far being able to be translated into being usable. But what surprises me looking back was a couple of skills around running meetings that I find so rare in the workplace that have immense value.

I’ve always been fascinated at the intersection of business and technology. I’d been coding for a long time before college, and while interesting it was also a means to an end. When you combine technology with business you can solve things in entirely new and valuable ways. My major was management information systems, and all folks in my program came out with a computer science minor in addition to their business degree–something pretty rare for more MIS majors in other programs and well generally for anyone coming out of a business school. Perhaps I’ll get into the value of CS training even if you aren’t looking for a CS job some other time.

Within the program we would have a senior project that was actually a real world project for one of the large companies that sponsored part of the program. We’d have monthly reviews with the company stake holder. We’d also have weekly meetings, these were especially well run. There were really 3 items that made them especially efficient.

1. Agendas circulated out 24 hours ahead of time

Before each meeting there was a very explicit agenda. This was circulated out 24 hrs in advance, at almost exactly the 24 hr mark the professors would inquire into the delay in the agenda. This early circulation allowed for:

  1. Time to review and prepare
  2. Ability to make modifications

A sample agenda may look something like:

  • (5 minutes) - review last weeks action items
  • (10 minutes) - review blockers
    • blocker 1 - foo
    • blocker 2 - bar
  • (20 minutes) - feature design walk through of x
  • (15 minutes) - toubleshooting of
  • (10 minutes) - review action items and next steps

2. Explicit roles for the meeting

There were three roles explicitly set for each meeting:

  • Manager - This was essentially person responsible for setting up the agenda, ensuring the agenda was followed, and making sure everyone was involved and an active participant. I find that last piece is very key still today. Making sure folks that are remote have a chance to chime in, or ensuring very junior people are heard. Now days I often keep a small tally of how often various people within a meeting speak and make sure to give those that don’t a chance to.
  • Timekeeper - 75% of the meetings I’m in run long, and in the end there is a big scramble to figure out what the result of the meeting was and whats next. A timekeeper making sure that you spend the allocated amount of time is key. If you don’t do this that 10 mintues for reviewing action items and next steps gets squeezed and you lost a lot of the value of the meeting.
  • Scribe - A person whose sole job is to take notes ensured there were good quality notes. These would be kept within a sharepoint that was circulated around.

3. After the meeting

While the scribe was the one to take the notes, the meeting wasn’t done when the meeting was over. The notes were then circulated around. Everyone on the team would review and make comments/notes on things they felt were different or missed details. At the end in the review action items there would be very clear owners assigned and next steps laid out.

Within 24 hrs after the meeting while it was fresh everyone was required to review and acknowledge. This ensured there was a closed bookend and then this would be a clear transition for each of the roles to move on to the next meeting.

I’m sorry professors, you were right

At the time, it was annoying. I could take my own notes. I remembered the things I needed to do. If we went over on time for one item it was because it was important. But now… putting these things in place, any time I replicate this I get more time in my day and the team gets more done. Science/Math/History… sure, but running efficient meetings I never would have expected how basic but also challenging and how valuable.