The Art of Writing Software

Effective Sync Meetings

I ran across a paper a few years ago: “Do we really need another meeting? The Science of Workplace Meetings”. This paper is a survey article summarizing recent research about what makes for effective meetings (and what makes for ineffective ones, too). In a prior role, we took the findings and applied them to a meeting that many people learn to loathe: the weekly status (or sync) meeting.

Everyone has been in mind-numbing versions of these, where a deck is prepared, and then someone reads it out loud to the leader who is the primary audience for the meeting (and who has not read the deck yet). Most attendees never say anything, and yet everyone attends every week to make sure they don’t miss anything important that leader might decide on the fly. I don’t know anyone who particularly enjoys these.

So we decided to switch this up. One of the main opportunities provided by a meeting like this is having real-time discussions amongst the participants. If people aren’t actively participating (assuming there is not an overriding cultural problem where people are afraid to speak in meetings, which is another problem entirely), then we are likely wasting their time, or at least missing out on what the meeting had to offer.

Our new format was based on a meeting format called “Lean Coffee” which provides for on-the-fly meeting agendas. The general idea is to source potential topics from the participants, and then to have the participants vote on which topic they most want to discuss. We gave each participant two votes in our version. The meeting then starts with the first topic, but with a timebox around it. For a roughly 30-minute meeting, we used a 5-minute timer. When the timer goes off, the participants vote on whether to continue talking about the topic (“thumbs up”) or to move onto the next topic (“thumbs down”). In either case, a new 5 minute timer is started.

We sourced our agenda topics in Slack, with a poll add-on called Polly. We would start a poll in the team’s slack channel, at least a day in advance of the meeting, asking for agenda items. This would be a multiple-choice poll, where multiple votes were allowed, and participants could add options. People would add topics as new poll options, and then at the beginning of the meeting, we would ask people to vote for up to two topics. If we ran out of topics (or did not have topics), we would cancel the meeting or end it early.

By making the meeting as directly relevant to as many participants as possible, we were following several recommendations from the paper:

  • Prepare an agenda that is circulated in advance.
  • Make sure the meeting is relevant to everyone invited.
  • Actively encourage everyone to participate.
  • Allow attendees to participate in the decision-making process.
  • Schedule meeting length to fit with meeting goals; avoid long meetings.
  • Managers can build employee engagement by making meetings relevant, short, and participatory.

We later got more specific about our agenda items. The paper outlines several purposes for meetings:

  • Share information
  • Solve problems and make decisions
  • Develop and implement organizational strategy
  • Debrief a team after a performance episode

We started asking participants who brought topics to label them as one of INFO, PROBLEM, or DECISION to indicate more clearly what the desired outcome of the meeting for that topic was.

An INFO item was merely something that someone wanted to make sure everyone in the group knew; in many cases, we asked for a link to a relevant document to go along with it. Since no immediate action was required, we often were able to address each of these in the meeting with about 30 seconds to 1 minute of additional context before moving on.

A PROBLEM is something the group needs to do something about, but for which we do not yet have plans (or even options to consider). Here, the meeting goal is primarily to understand the problem! For small problems, a quick discussion can also lead to a decision on a plan, but for larger problems, we often went with a subcommittee approach: identifying 2-3 people to go off and come up with proposal options for the group to consider. These would often turn into DECISION items at a future meeting.

A DECISION was for situations where we had identified multiple proposals for solving a problem or meeting a goal, and we needed to select one. For these, it was expected that someone had prepared a set of options with their pros and cons, and had circulated that in writing ahead of time. The meeting was then to try to drive consensus (or at the very least, to provide the decision maker with as much context and different points of view as possible) and pick a course of action.

We designated two roles for the meeting, which we rotated amongst the participants–with an actual rotation schedule, to ensure equitable distribution of the responsibilities. The first role was a Facilitator, whose job was to open the agenda poll, run the timer, and run the voting during the meeting. The second role was a Notetaker, who recorded and published notes from the meeting.

The Notetaker role was very important, as (a) it helped us remember what things had gotten decided; and (b) allowed for people who could not attend (or perhaps would rather not attend) to skip the meeting without having FOMO (fear of missing out). This helped with additional recommendations:

  • Keep meeting size small by including only the people whose expertise and knowledge are required.
  • Send meeting minutes and action items out immediately following meeting.

One of the final recommendations is simply to get feedback on the effectiveness of the meetings. I would periodically do an anonymous poll asking things like “the weekly sync is an effective use of my time” with a Likert scale (strong disagree to strong agree) response. The overall results from the group were that they enjoyed the new meeting format quite a bit. As might be implied by the fact that I took the time to write this up, I agreed with them!

The paper overall is a really interesting read, and very accessible to a general audience–you don’t need a Ph.D. in organizational dynamics! One of the major takeaways is not necessarily that “fewer meetings is better”, but rather that “fewer bad meetings is better” and “well-run meetings are actually good”. Indeed, one of the main research results cited was that “Satisfaction with meetings is related to overall job satisfaction.” So: perhaps give some of the ideas in this post a try for your next weekly sync meeting!