…And you can, too!
We did it with one simple rule:
Only items that have already been raised on the mailing list are allowed on the agenda.
Using this rule, Reps Council cut their average meeting time from 2 hours (yes! you read that right!) to the target 1 hour. It’s really that simple. Here’s why it works:
We realized that most of the meeting was taken up with the “stupid” questions that inevitably come up with a new topic, asking for clarification on what was meant, asking for background on the topic. Getting everybody on the same page on a new topic can take 15 – 30 minutes depending on how complicated or contentious the subject is.
By the way, this is why Reps meet on IRC. I like to say that “you guys don’t type with an accent!” when I mention my preference to IRC meetings over voice calls. Depending on the English skills of the people attending, they may need more time to understand what was said, or have it explained a different way. At least on IRC non-native speakers can form their thoughts while others are typing.
Using speech, the accent issue can cause delays both ways. Not all English speakers’ accents are created equal. When the Reps mentors met in Berlin, it was often requested that I speak because my Canadian accent was easily understood, while some people whose written English was very good, couldn’t be understood by many when speaking.
The language barrier does cause delays even on IRC. It can add 15 minutes or more while people try to understand what was said, then formulate their response, and have to speak slowly. More worrying is the time that isn’t taken up by those that don’t understand the topic well enough to discuss it in the moment.
Forming an Opinion
Before you make a decision on a topic, you need to know how you feel about it. In well functioning teams this also means taking time to consider how the rest of the team feels, and why. An opinion can’t be formed in a moment. It takes consideration, some mulling, maybe even research. We could easily take a whole hour discussing one new topic, but here is another 15 minutes at least of discussion.
The 80% Rule
In Athens, Gunner introduced a very good rule for group discussion. He said (paraphrasing), “For a feature to be included in Firefox, it has to be relevant to 80% of the users. Only ask questions that you think apply to 80% of the group.” If a meeting is the primary discussion mechanism for a group, or team, it becomes the place where people ask questions that only apply to a small portion of the team, or even just themselves. Everyone else has to wait for these discussions before moving on to the next 80% topic. Even the time it takes for someone to ask the question and be told to ask it privately later can add up. It can sometimes take 5 minutes or more for the person to explain their question and for the other participants to understand that it’s not really applicable to the group.
Using a mailing list, newsgroup, forum or other asynchronous discussion tool prevents many of these topics from running down the clock in your meeting.
This is a time trade-off. Obviously the 101 discussions and opinion arguments need to happen. Having them asynchronously allows people to choose the time that best suits them for contributing to the discussion. It allows people to participate that can’t make the meeting time. People can skim over the topics they’re not interested in, or don’t have anything to add to. In a synchronous meeting, they must sit and wait while these discussions happen, unable to completely context shift away from the meeting as they need to follow along to know when the discussion reaches a topic of interest.
Background and 101
You can give a much more complete background of a topic asynchronously. Asking people to read a blog post or proposal before a meeting means people can come to the discussion well informed, which a chance to point out missing pieces of the background. Again people can choose when to do this on their own time and will be able to give it more time and consideration than if you give them 5 minutes in a meeting to get familiar. People who are familiar with the topic can skim the discussion without having to wait through that portion of the meeting.
Forming an Informed Opinion
How many of us have epiphanies on subjects while in the shower, or taking a walk? We all need time to consider someone else’s point of view. I think we all tend to be more aggressive about our own opinions when discussing them real-time. Our brains don’t have time to explain ourselves while trying to understand someone else in the moment. When we have time to think about what we’re saying, and what others are saying we have time to form better responses, better consider what the other is saying, and even time to walk away, calm down, and come back with a fresh perspective.
Discussing opinions on a topic before a meeting also allows those in the meeting to recap and consider the opinions of those who can’t make the meeting. Someone else can raise a good point that was made in the async discussion, even if it wasn’t their own.
Making Decisions and Moving Forward
When topics are presented and discussed on the mailing list (or your tool of choice) it leaves you prepared to recap and make a decision in the meeting, identify the next steps, assign action items and move on. All of a sudden a topic that used to take up 15 – 30 minutes of your meeting can be reviewed and acted upon in under 5. People can call out where they need still need help or have completed past action items, and use “discuss on list” as an action item liberally!