Google’s Rules For Effective Meetings | Eric Schmidt & Jonathan Rosenberg

In How Google Works, on pp. 163-165, executives Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg give rules for running meetings, that are worth pondering, because they clearly know the topic. They rules are for a software organization, but it doesn’t mean they are not relevant in Manufacturing.

Here they are, with my comments:

1. Meetings have a single decision-maker/owner.

My comments: A project manager or chief engineer can call a meeting and be the sole decision-maker/owner at this meeting. On the other hand, if the purpose of the meeting is negotiation, then, by definition, its purpose is to arrive at an agreement between multiple, independent decision makers. A negotiation meeting may be organized and run by a neutral moderator, who makes no decision on substance, and can’t really be described as the owner.

2. Decision-maker/owner organizes meeting, writes minutes.

My comments: US government departments are run by “Secretaries,” the top official of the UN is called “Secretary General,” and many political parties in the world are led by “General Secretaries.” How did these powerful positions come to have the same title as the people who take phone calls and make appointments for others, for whom the designation of “secretary” was eventually retired as demeaning and replaced with “administrative assistant”?

The key is that, in a meeting, the secretary is the one who writes and publishes the minutes, the meeting’s only tangible output. The minutes are all that remains after the meeting disbands, documenting decisions, commitments, and deadlines. The writer of the minutes wields great power, and this principle says that the decision-maker/owner should not delegate this task.

The problem is that writing the minutes of a meeting can take longer than the meeting itself, particularly if participants are allowed to make objections. There are ways to streamline the production of minutes, starting with using templates. A low-tech approach is to summarize the meeting on the conference room white board, in particular the agreed action items. Each participant initials his or her commitments, the secretary emails a picture of the board to all participants and, voilà: the minutes are published as the meeting ends. A high-tech alternative is to use a template with software supporting collaborative editing, to allow all participants to review their action items simultaneously on the same draft.

3. Decision-maker/owner can cancel meeting at will.

My comments: Meetings easily degenerate into habits and rituals. There is the weekly staff meeting, the quarterly project review,… What this rule says is that the decision maker/owner should not hesitate to cancel any meeting — regularly scheduled or not — that is not turning out to be useful. In some companies, managers measure their activity by the number of meetings they attend every day. This rule says that they shouldn’t.

4. Meetings should have at most 10 participants, preferably less than 8.

My comments: Group dynamics tells us that 5 to 8 people coalesce into teams more easily than smaller or larger groups. That’s why it makes sense to have meetings with a corresponding number of participants. In practice, however, this is not always feasible, because the number of participants in a meeting is determined by its agenda, not by group dynamics.

5. Participants should leave or excuse themselves if not needed.

My comments: The decision maker/owner should invite everyone who has skin in the game and no one who doesn’t. It is difficult to do in practice, and the most careful meeting organizer will still occasionally upset individuals who feel they should have been invited but weren’t, and others who were invited but felt the meeting was irrelevant.

“If you aren’t needed, leave,…” says the Google book, implying that the decision is up to each individual. This strikes me as unrealistic as a general rule. I am sure that, at Google as in any other organization, there are meetings called by managers with words like “We have to talk,” to which attendance is not optional. I see this rule as meaning in practice that meetings with mandatory attendance should be rare but, stated this way, the rule would be so vague that anyone could claim to follow it.

Many companies hold meetings that employees are required to attend, but shouldn’t be. For example, the periodic staff meeting of a functional department ranks among the most excruciating corporate rituals. Members who work in parallel — like field engineers or sales reps with different territories — stand up one after the other and report on their progress since the last meeting. What each presents is of interest to the manager but not to colleagues, yet all are made to sit for hours while everyone else presents. This is different from the meetings of a project team, that are focused on milestones and events affecting the project, and where all members are engaged in planning the next steps.

6. Meetings begin and end on time.

My comments: This needs to be said, even though it should be obvious. Starting a meeting late wastes the time of the participants who showed up on time, discouraging them from making a habit of it. A culture of systematic lateness takes hold easily. A culture of punctuality, on the other hand, requires sustained effort, particularly on the part of managers, who tend to think their time is more valuable that their subordinates’ and don’t hesitate to make them wait. Making others wait is a common power play, well-understood by those subjected to it, and replicated by them when the opportunity arises. Breaking this pattern must start from the top. Various tricks have been tried to reinforce punctuality without being too heavy handed, like making the last participant to arrive responsible for providing refreshments at the next meeting.

7. Participants give meetings their undivided attention.

My comments: Laptops, tablets, smart phones and WIFI have made it increasingly difficult to get any group to focus on a meeting agenda. Speakers are often blamed for failing to overcome the myriad of distractions drawing audiences’ attention away, but I think it places a impossible burden on speakers, and that attendees should either fully participate in the meeting or leave. There again, the managers have to lead by example and follow ground rules like having their phones turned off during meetings. In some cases, phone calls or text messages are deliberately arranged to provide an excuse to leave a meeting. Companies even used to sell fake beepers for this purpose. It’s a move that can be used in meetings with outsiders but not in internal meetings, because it fosters a culture in which the work done by a group in a meeting is less valued than any obligation participants have outside of it.

While participant cell phones should be turned off in meetings, other devices, like laptops, tablets, or live-boards cannot be excluded because they may be used for the meeting’s business, to show charts or maps, run numbers, or to hold videoconferences with remote participants. But individual participants’ devices should not be open unless they have an explicitly recognized role in the meeting.

#meeting, #howgoogleworks

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