The Klaro blog

Management

18.06.2020

Are meetings toxic?

Maybe sometimes but they really don't have to be: meetings are great when conducted with collective intelligence... and supported by great software

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

TL;DR

Meetings provide great opportunities for team members to share, build and plan altogether. What makes meetings toxic is the lack of preparation (before), the lack of structure (during) and the lack of follow-up (after). We recently created a Klaro template to conduct our own meetings, with interesting results so far. This blog post shares a few hints and details, and introduces you to our Collective Intelligence Meeting Klaro template.

Introduction

Meetings are difficult to get right. We've all probably attended unproductive meetings where people talk a lot, make few decisions, or cannot focus on important topics. In many companies it's even worse: almost all meetings seem to be conducted that way.

Various approaches exist to tackle meeting organization problems:

  • In the agile world, standup meetings are done with people standing up, and time-limited to 20 minutes maximum. The aim is strongly to focus on identifying blocking points requiring further communication among team members in order to be resolved.

  • Various tools such as Klaxoon exist to facilitate meetings making them enjoyable, helping team members to contribute actively, supporting collective votes on important decisions, and so on.

  • At Basecamp, meetings are simply considered toxic. This vision has become so popular that it's not unusual to find people thinking that all meetings must be avoided at all cost. To quote them:

Every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead.

At Klaro, we recently discovered that meetings can be great, at least when conducted with techniques informed by collective intelligence, structured notes, and great software support.

The method and template we use

Our Klaro template and method is based on three observations:

  1. We all know that good meetings need an agenda. We also know that it is frequently missing, unstructured, or too long...

  2. Meetings are conducted by humans, with their feelings, moods, fears, creativity, and so on.

  3. Most meetings need follow-ups. This is not done by magic.

From these observations, we built a bridge between collective intelligence techniques (the social side of meeting organization, bringing meeting moments) and agile techniques (the operational side, bringing structured notes and follow-ups).

Meeting moments

Meetings have four phases:

  1. Welcome: waiting for everyone to arrive. It's completely natural for people to talk about whatever they want; there's no need to deep-dive into work too quickly.

  2. Inclusion: the welcome phase naturally evolves as a round table and it is the moment to ask everyone: How are you? What do you expect from the meeting? What do you bring that helps the team?

  3. Core discussions: let's simply discuss things, that's what human beings are good at. But it doesn't mean that we don't need structure -- one of us takes notes (see next section).

  4. Declusion: second round table. Ask everyone: How do you feel now? What are you leaving with?

As you can see, at Klaro we completely accept that meetings are about people and discussions by their very nature. You can't really escape this without either cancelling all meetings (pretending they are toxic yields a good excuse) or dehumanizing them (e.g. by denying people the right to talk about what they feel).

At the same time, just having a discussion is often unproductive from the company or project perspective: the primary goal of a meeting is rarely to socialize! Deny the reality that things must actually get done and progress, and you quickly end up with people wondering why they attend meetings that do nothing more than stop them getting their work done.

Structured meetings notes are key!

A key element of effective meetings, in our opinion, is to support naturally unstructured discussions with very structured notes. You need a good Scribe (note-taker): someone who is able to type fast on a keyboard, who is allowed to slow people down, who has a strong ability to bring order and categorization to discussed topics, and who is able to bring transparency and clarity into the picture.

This is where Klaro really helps: encoding is fast and categorization is at the heart of everything. Sharing a board is natural through either projection or collaboration. A template leads the way to structure; ours has the following card kinds:

  • Meeting: one card per meeting, where we input the agenda in an unstructured way through notes (hopefully before the meeting, but that's not a requirement).

    • Hint: the Declusion of a meeting is a very good moment to take a few notes regarding important topics for the next one! Listen to negative feelings: they generally hide missing answers and decisions to be made.
  • Objective: we track meeting objectives in a more structured way, one card per objective. This may happen before the meeting (from the agenda) or during the meeting itself.

    • Hint: In all cases, especially when the agenda is missing or incomplete, listen carefully during the Inclusion. Team member expectations are close to objectives, and can be elicited easily by the Scribe.
  • Question: we track all important questions during all meeting phases, even if the answer is known or obvious. Doing so documents the meeting itself, and makes uncertainty visible and explicit, which is key to great project management.

    • Hint: the Inclusion and Declusion phases are very important. Feelings like fear, stress, hope are rooted in uncertainty and can be related to questions requiring collective answers.
  • Decision: tracking decisions is essential for transparency. Tracking every decision as a well-written Klaro card also brings disagreements to light, which in turn calls for eliciting questions, tracking action points, and building long term (meeting) agendas.

    • Hint: track decisions during Core discussions only, and avoid doing so during the Inclusion and Declusion in particular. Those moments are for human beings; decisions are too focused on the project and company.
  • Action point: while decision cards mostly exist to document the project and bring transparency, action points (or tasks) are aimed at structuring the decision consequences, setting responsibilities and organizing the necessary follow-ups.

    • Hint: track action points during Core discussions only. The Declusion might yield a few additional points and the temptation is there for the Scribe to track action points at this moment. Don't: you no longer have the members' approval to do so, and there is a big risk that you will get new and unstructured conservations starting. Keep them as an unstructured agenda for the next meeting if possible, without necessarily making a big deal of it in the Declusion.
    • Hint: obviously action points are where Klaro is particularly useful. You can later set an assignee per action point, due date if needed, set up a kanban board, vote on business value or importance... In short, simply use Klaro as usual here.
  • Inclusion and Declusion. It is still an open question for us whether writing down Inclusion and Declusion cards per member is a good idea. The team might feel uncomfortable with that, for privacy reasons for example, or because someone taking notes is distracting. On the other hand, remembering the feelings and moods of each member when reading questions, decisions and action points later brings a lot of clarity, and may even help in prioritizing or challenging things.

Is it magic?

Of course not. At Klaro, we know that what works in one place, such as our own Meeting organization, might very well be a complete failure elsewhere. We also know that what works for us today will probably be organized differently tomorrow. That's fine. We built Klaro to let us change our mind, process and way of working easily.

That said, maybe our Collective Intelligence Meeting template is useful for others? That's why we are excited to share it today. Feel free to use it, adapt it, abandon it. If you do use it, please do share with us what works and does not work for you!

Enjoy Klaro, we do!

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