Productivity to the Max: Kevin Hoffman on Designing Better Meetings

Image source: Pat Jarrett.

Information architect and design strategist Kevin Hoffman is passionate about improving meetings. It led him to write his first book, “Meeting Design,” in which he explains that meetings don’t have to be “painfully inefficient snoozefests” and suggests treating them as a design problem. If we establish best practices for them, just like we do for other design issues, we can transform them into a valuable tool that can help us be a lot more productive, he says.

We sat down with Kevin, who’s recently joined Capital One as vice president for design, to find out how to avoid pointless meetings, how to change our approach toward them, why they beat Slack conversations, and much more.

Why do most meetings suck?

I’m afraid it’s your fault. Not you, the person asking me this question, but you, the reader. You (yes, you!) are the reason your meetings aren’t any good. Plus, you might have disagreed with the premise of the question entirely, like I did. You might think that most meetings are great (try not to cringe if you don’t see it that way). If that’s the case, most meetings are great also because of you. Allow me to explain.

Consider the culture of your workplace group. That group could be your team, your department, even your entire company. The cultures of those groups place constraints on the behaviors of the people who inhabit them, both in the form of official policies and more powerful unspoken behavioral norms.

Meetings are a great place to observe the latter’s influence on the culture. For example, is it considered acceptable to draw on a whiteboard or doodle while you are discussing something? Are interruptions common or accepted? Do those interruptions carry a pattern associated with role, job title/seniority, or gender?

All of these lead to you, as an individual, creating a system of beliefs in order to get whatever value you can out of your meetings. Those beliefs tend to be self-fulfilling prophecies. If you are convinced that meetings are unproductive, chances are that you’re going to go into meetings with an unconscious bias looking out for unproductive conversations. If you believe that meetings are awesome, you’ll probably dive more aggressively into topics that you believe will be awesome to address.

Kevin Hoffman with his book

Kevin Hoffman’s book, “Meeting Design,” covers the design principles and innovative approaches you need to transform meetings. Image source: Owen Hoffman.

Whatever predisposition you have, it came from your professional experiences in meetings up to this point. You learned what meetings could be like from your first job, and have been comparing your meetings to those meetings ever since. Obviously it’s not as simple as waving a magic wand and changing those predispositions, and, over time, experience with lots of different types of meetings can make you more flexible. But in the meantime, try to be more aware of how your assumptions about meetings affect your experiences with them, and be open to things being different.

In other words, there is no spoon.

What are the benefits of meetings when they work, and why should you favor them over a Slack conversation, for example?

Two benefits come to mind. The first benefit is having wide-open channels for communication. Good interaction design creates the ability for humans to interact with other humans in a meaningful way. In-person meetings remove any technological intermediaries, as well as some of the boundaries and comforts those tools create. Even remote meetings, through video or audio conferencing, are still a purer form of interaction than a real-time asynchronous messaging platform like Slack. The potential for seeking alignment is greater because more communication channels exist, and at least in person — they are wide open.

A second benefit is the presence of diversity in that communication. Applying multiple perspectives to a clearly defined problem takes teams to ideas they can’t find otherwise. This is partly made possible by lateral thinking. Lateral thinking is a concept defined by Edward De Bono. It proposes that taking an indirect, multidisciplinary, and creative approach to problem-solving, rather than a conversation to try to science the sh*t out of something, will result in fresh insight, humor, and, ultimately, innovation. Meetings that mix diverse perspectives, such as those from very different disciplines, are a fertile ground for this kind of thinking.

That’s one of the reasons why projects in which designers and developers interact earlier and more often seem to go better. It’s also why this ridiculous combination of individuals seemed to be able to solve their problems.

Kevin Hoffman speaking at edui 2017 in Charlottesville

Kevin Hoffman talks at conferences around the world. Here he delivers the opening keynote at edui 2017 in Charlottesville. Image source: Pat Jarrett.

What can we do to improve meetings?

It may sounds obvious, but have meetings that count. You can do that by reducing their length, their quantity, or their “fat content.”

Agile processes are interesting because, on one level, they are a recipe of meetings designed to have almost zero fat content. Agile, depending on your flavor, requires shorter meetings with clear procedures, all in service of aligning upon and working toward measurable, ideally desired change. An agile team meets often, but the meetings are more precise.

It also requires a particular set of skills to function in those kinds of meetings. Direct communicators and extroverts can thrive in agile processes because they are a great fit for those kinds of meetings. Exploratory or emotional communicators and introverts may not be as successful.

Ask this question: what kinds of people are in this meeting? Then modulate how you use time, how your organize content, and how much time you spend inside (or outside) of the key goals. There’s not an easy answer to improve meetings because every context a meeting exists within is different. But the more you know about that context, the more you can improve the meetings.

How do you plan meetings to ensure they’re going to be productive and the right people take part?

Here are three steps for planning a meeting.

First, don’t think about the meeting at all. Think about the outcomes you or your team are hoping to achieve, which this meeting might make possible. Write those outcomes down, and make sure everyone agrees on them. With outcomes clear, ask yourself: what decisions are standing in the way of achieving those outcomes? A good meeting agenda should connect decisions to outcomes by designing a conversation that improves on alignment, on outcomes by discussing, and in some cases, making, decisions.

Second, with outcomes and decisions in hand, figure out who should be there by using a RACI model. With regards to each decision you hope to explore or make, list out all the parties that are responsible (R) for those decisions because they make them, accountable (A) for them (they have veto power), could be consulted (C) because they have subject matter expertise, and informed (I) because the decisions may affect their work. Then plan enough of an agenda to get the right mix of those people to occupy those decisions.

Last and most importantly, be ready to abandon your planned agenda a little, maybe even completely. A meeting agenda that fails because you’re unwilling to change it in the moment is too brittle. You might find that your team isn’t thinking the same way that you thought they were. That’s OK. Be self-aware enough to be okay with the meeting taking a different course, as long as it’s toward the same decisions, and, ultimately, outcomes. Remember, it’s not about you.

How can you make meetings less time-intensive?

Spend less time in meetings by introducing time limits for activities — or the meeting as a whole — upfront, and make someone responsible for keeping those limits. Time is not limitless, at least in this universe. An organization that regularly goes over time limits has a very clear cultural value: the combined cost of those people’s time is less valuable that the promise of consensus. A Time Timer is a great tool to help people remember the pressure of valuing each other’s time.

Time Timer: keeps meetings on track

Some departments at Google use a simple timer, called the Time Timer, to keep meetings on track. Image source: Owen Hoffman.

How do you rescue a bad meeting when you’re already in it?

The whiteboard marker is your secret weapon. Stand up, walk over the whiteboard, and write or draw what people are saying. Be sure to do it large enough, so that anyone can see it from anywhere in the room.

By doing this you are creating a visual memory of the meeting that functions as a feedback loop between what people say and what they see. This reveals the narrative of the conversation visually. If it’s a circular conversation, it will probably look like a lot like a circle. Hopefully, it won’t look like this.

How do you ensure people pay proper attention in meetings, whether they’re remote or in person?

Social proof is a powerful method for behavior change. I recently attended a multiday workshop, where a small plastic basket was positioned at the center of each table of six or seven people. At the beginning of each day, the workshop facilitator reminded everyone to turn their phones off, and put them into the basket until the break. All it took was one or two people at a single table to start the behavior, but most people followed along. By the second day the behavior was almost universally followed. All it takes is a few people setting an example, and you can change the behavior of dozens.

How can you use meetings to improve internal buy-in on design projects?

Buy-in is not the goal, or at least not how I’d frame the goal. The goal is having a relationship so that people feel safe enough to be honest, but trust your expertise. For that reason, establishing a tone of equal partnership and collaboration at the beginning of a project is critical. First impressions are hard to overcome.

Kickoff meetings are your best opportunity to establish that tone. To increase the odds of positioning your design team as a trusted partner in the first working meeting, pre-interview key stakeholders — remember to use RACI to identify them — before the kickoff meeting, and pay special attention for vocabulary and concepts that they consider to be crucial for success. Mirror those things back into the meeting through the lens of your expertise as designers. And don’t forget to have fun.

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