Meetings get a bad rap in business today and for good reason—very little gets accomplished in them. I can recall a Dilbert cartoon in which several people sat around a table while the meeting organizer said, "There is no specific agenda for this meeting. As usual, we'll just make unrelated emotional statements about things which bother us…"
That pretty much sums it up. The majority of meetings are unstructured, uninspiring, and unproductive. But they don't have to be that way.
When I decided to write a column about running effective meetings, I turned to a leader who holds more than anyone I know and who actually credits her meeting structure for leading to some of the most innovative advances in technology today: Marissa Mayer, Google's vice-president of search products (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/19/06, "Marissa Mayer: The Talent Scout").
Mayer holds an average of 70 meetings a week and serves as the last stop before engineers and project managers get the opportunity to pitch their ideas to Google's co-founders, Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Eight teams consisting of directors, managers, and engineers—all at various stages of product development—answer to Mayer.
In a shop like Google (GOOG), much of the work takes place in meetings, and her goal is to make sure teams have a firm mandate, strategic direction, and actionable information, while making participants feel motivated and respected. Mayer's six keys to running successful meetings follow:
1. Set a firm agenda.
Mayer requests a meeting agenda ahead of time that outlines what the participants want to discuss and the best way of using the allotted time. Agendas need to have flexibility, of course, but Mayer finds that agendas act as tools that force individuals to think about what they want to accomplish in meetings. It helps all those involved to focus on what they are really trying to achieve and how best to reach that goal.
2. Assign a note-taker.
A Google meeting features a lot of displays. On one wall, a projector displays the presentation, while right next to it, another projector shows the transcription of the meeting. (Yet another displays a 4-foot image of a ticking stopwatch.) Google executives are big believers in capturing an official set of notes, so inaccuracies and inconsistencies can be caught immediately.
Those who missed the meetings receive a copy of the notes. When people are trying to remember what decisions were made, in what direction the team is going, and what actions need to be taken, they can simply review the notes.
3. Carve out micro-meetings.
Mayer sets aside large blocks of time that she slices into smaller, self-contained gatherings on a particular subject or project. For example, during her weekly two-hour confab with the co-founders and CEO Eric Schmidt, she sets aside five- to 10-minute segments—or longer, depending on the subject—devoted to such specific areas as weekly reports on how the site is performing, new product launches, etc.
This method offers enough flexibility to modify the agenda just before the meeting, should anything pressing occur. It also instills discipline that keeps the meeting tightly focused. Mayer does the same with members of her teams who might need only five or 10 minutes of her time instead of 30 minutes—the shortest block of time her calendar permits. By setting aside micro-meetings within a larger block of time, she accomplishes more.
Mayer, who has a background in engineering and computer science, jokingly refers to micro-meetings as "reducing latency in the pipeline." That means if she has an employee with an issue that comes up Tuesday, he or she can schedule a 10-minute micro-meeting during Mayer's large time block, instead of waiting for her next 30-minute opening, which might not be available for two weeks.
4. Hold office hours.
Mayer brought this idea from her experience teaching computer science at Stanford, where she first met the two guys who would go on to revolutionize how the world gets its information. Beginning at 4 p.m., for 90 minutes a day, Mayer holds office hours.
Employees add their name to a board outside her office, and she sees them on a first-come, first-serve basis. Sometimes project managers need approval on a marketing campaign; sometimes staffers want a few minutes to pitch a design (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/30/06, "Inside Google's New-Product Process").
Says Mayer: "Many of our most technologically interesting products have shown up during office hours. Google News, Orkut [Google's social networking site], Google Reviews, and Google Desktop all showed up first in office hours." During office hours, Mayer can get through up to 15 meetings, averaging seven minutes per person.
5. Discourage politics, use data.
One of Mayer's "Nine Notions of Innovation" is "Don't politic, use data" (see BusinessWeek.com, 6/19/06, "9 Notions of Innovation").
This idea can and should apply to meetings in organizations in which people feel as though the boss will give the green light to a design created by the person he or she likes the best, showing favoritism for the individual instead of the idea.
Mayer believes this mindset can demoralize employees, so she goes out of her way to make the approval process a science. Google chooses designs on a clearly defined set of metrics and how well they perform against those metrics. Designs are chosen based on merit and evidence, not personal relationships.
Mayer discourages using the phrase "I like" in design meetings, such as "I like the way the screen looks." Instead, she encourages such comments as "The experimentation on the site shows that his design performed 10% better." This works for Google, because it builds a culture driven by customer feedback data, not the internal politics that pervade so many of today's corporations.
6. Stick to the clock.
To add a little pressure to keep meetings focused, Google gatherings often feature a giant timer on the wall, counting down the minutes left for a particular meeting or topic. It's literally a downloadable timer that runs off a computer and is projected 4 feet tall.
Imagine how chaotic it must look to outsiders when the wall shows several displays at once—the presentation, transcription, and a mega-timer! And yet, at Google, it makes sense, imposing structure amidst creative chaos. The timer exerts a subtle pressure to keep meetings running on schedule.
Mayer does have one caveat when it comes to the timer—maintain a healthy sense of humor about it. (The timer was counting down to the end of my interview with Mayer—but she turned it into a fun and friendly reminder instead of an abrupt end to our discussion.)
Please keep in mind that these meeting techniques work well for Google. They may or may not be appropriate for your place of business. But these six keys should give you some new ideas about how to transform your meetings from a waste of time to time well spent.