Credit goes to: Dylan Gillis (Unsplash)

Meeting notes

One of the problems I observe in communication (and I have this problem myself) is that we _imply _things. When we start a conversation we rarely start by providing the context and rush straight into what we want to say or ask. We imply that everyone is in the context of what we are going to talk about. Especially if the topic of the discussion is declared. This is a selfish notion. And when we expect that people are ready to jump into our train of thought, we are almost always wrong.

The reason is simple - obvious things are not obvious. Or, at least, they are not obvious to everyone.

The good thing is that it doesn't require much effort to fix it. I came up with these ideas when I was teaching.

👇 TL;DR

Ingredients of a better discussion

These are not the things you have to do. They are the things I do in specific scenarios.

Before the talk

Plan the discussion in advance

It's a good idea to have an agenda for the meeting. It's an even better idea to share it with everyone in advance. Probably, right in the invitation. To come up with one, I clearly state for myself what the expected outcomes of the discussion are.

If things don't go according to the plan, it was an insufficient plan.

We often discuss tricky things, covered in fogs of uncertainty and misunderstanding. To be prepared for that, I try to predict observable branches of the conversation flow. If things are overwhelming, I draw a directed graph where edges represent intermediate answers and _nodes _represent further questions. It helps me understand what I could ask next. Occasionally, the stars collide and I manage to make a good forecast. The idea here is to foresee the paths from the starting point to one of the endpoints. A benefit that comes for free is that in some cases you can see what endpoint you are most probably going to, but there might be unexpected moves.

That's the foundation for creating an agenda, it just needs to be made human-readable and added to the invitation.

Keep the background in mind

This one is most relevant when preparing for a talk with more than one person. Yet the underlying logic applies even for a small talk with a colleague in the hall (if you are the kind of person who needs to prepare for that).

Before I initiate a talk, I spend some time analyzing "personas" that I am going to communicate with. Thus, I find out who is needed (if the list of participants is not yet clear) and what I need to tell them to make sure everyone is on the same page. I tend to abstract away from reality to avoid possible biases that, believe it or not, exist in everyone. This approach also helps me get prepared to talk to people for the first time. When I look at "personas" in my head, I typically focus on the wider context and then narrow it down to specific features. Throughout the process, I only pick things that may be relevant in terms of upcoming discussions.

The goal of this exercise is to find out how to group participants by X and then prepare a plan that would get to the group rather than individuals. Thus you can speed up the preparations dramatically.

If I need to make a call right now, this step is the only thing I do.

Reserve some time for Q&A

If there are no questions during the talk AND at the end of the talk, it generally means that either you are superior, or you are not. Better hope for the best, but I have the metrics - if the goal of the discussion was reached - job's done.

But most of the meetings are full of clarifications, digressions, and side talks. It's natural and there's nothing bad about it. So I just make some room for those things when I pick the time slot.

Make sure everyone who should participate CAN participate

I taught myself to check the schedule of those I am going to invite. Don't pull the anxiety trigger by creating events atop existing events. In the best scenario, the person will evaluate what is more important and pick the event which they find more relevant. My subjective point is: it is not possible before the talk. And chances are, you will get the maybe/tentative status because you came the second. Moreover, I see others mastering the creation of catchy meeting names so I'm just not good enough to beat them. So, for me, an easier way is to find a time slot that suits everyone. Another piece of advice - don't send invites to people who are on a leave. If they are from a different country, respect national holidays.

Although it might seem OK to create event hamburgers for those marked as "optional", it should still be avoided. If you just want the person to be informed about the event - better use other means. But, from my experience, not the events matter - their outcomes do. So, I typically just send them a follow-up.

During the talk

Make a brief introduction and provide the context

Now that everyone understands, what they are destined to, it's time to help people dive in. For me, the rule of the thumb is to spend at least 10% of the meeting time to provide the context. If there are questions or requests for clarification, I let some reasonable time to process them.

The tricky part here is keeping the balance between going too deep and providing lacking information. I tend to go "shallow mode" and ask for the need for an extension on the things that are directly related to what is going to be discussed during the topic.

Take notes

If I happen to be the one who talks the most, I ask someone to make notes and then hand them to me. Don't pass the obligation to send follow-ups to others. Respect their time. Moreover, there might be people outside the invited group who are also interested in the outcomes of the discussion.

After the talk

Complete the conversation

NEVER run out of time. If I feel that the discussion is not over and we only have 15 minutes left, I let everyone know that you are going to set up another call. We settle down all the questions that can be quickly closed and finish the discussion.

NEVER run out of time.

Do your best to reach the expected result in less time than is reserved. You would do everyone a great favor if you created a free spot in their schedules so that they could go and make a coffee and prepare for what they have to do next. On the other hand, don't prefer redundant time just to get the reputation of a nice person to have meetings with - people will get used to it and soon you'll get in a situation when even that amount of time is not enough. Guess who will lose the reputation at once? Besides, you block others from using the time for what is really important.

Send a follow-up

After the meeting, send a follow-up. As I've said earlier, do it yourself. I include everyone who was on the call and share an edited version with other stakeholders who need to be informed. A good practice is to have a RACI matrix 1 to be clear with who needs to know what.

Document outcomes

I occasionally happen to come to the result which is different from "we need to check with X", "nobody knows", etc. In this case, it makes sense to document it so that the discussion does not pop up again. Sometimes, the decisions made are controversial and may lead to questions about the reasons. To proactively mitigate them, I add a decision log and describe the key points why the decision was made. If someone still has alternative suggestions, it's a good idea to find time to listen to them - maybe they have completely different, and by far less controversial, ideas about the topic. Even if it is not possible to do it the better way, save the thoughts for future generations. I have never seen projects that were finished. Someday someone will do something with where you left off. Leave them a message, saying that there's a track to wander.

TL;DR

* _**NOTHING**_ is obvious. * Have a plan. * Always start a conversation by providing the context. Emphasize what matters most. * Don't allow digressions. * Allow asking for clarification on the go. Answer questions. * Make notes. Summarise. Send follow-ups. * Document agreements to reduce the number of repetitive discussions of the same things. If the topic is controversial, add the decision log.
  • RACI matrix, also known as REM (Responsibility Assignment Matrix) or LRC (Linear Responsibility Chart)

is a way to describe the participation by various roles in doing things. There are four roles:

Role Participation
Responsible those who do the work
Accountable those who are answerable for the delivery
Consulted people whose opinion is sought
Informed kept up-to-date on progress

You can get a RACI matrix template if you are interested. All the credits go to TeamGantt.com.



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