Successful Meetings: Know Your Boss's Opinion

This is one of the lessons I learned through observation, that actually had fair unfortunate after effects. Back when I was in charge of usability for my company, I was called into what I thought was a discovery meeting for a new usability test.  Back then we were still trying to convince people of the benefits of usability, and most of my meetings and conversations were about how it could be used and customers wanting to do it - but to do it cheaply. It turned out I was walking into a mess of confusion and conflicting opinions.  The meeting that I thought was a discovery meeting was actually a working meeting.  Not a big deal, I just shifted gears and settled in to plan the session.  It simply meant my job was easier; the requesting project team had already decided they wanted to do the sessions. The other two people in the meeting was the project manager and the representative customer from the requesting component.  Our department worked as a service department, so each project had a customer from the requesting component and was assigned a project manager; so far, very typical of our work. The customer had suggested they wanted to bring in some specific people to run through the tests, including airfare and hotel.  The project manager was adamantly against this.  The project was in the very early stages of development and - next on the agenda - was the consideration of whether we were going to do paper prototyping or an actual mock-up of the program. This is where the problem occurred: the project manager attacked the idea of bringing in people from across the country to view the project so early on.  There was definite frustration in his voice, and I knew that something deeper must have been going on. The customer responded well, and entertained the idea of using local testers.  The conversation ended up consuming the entirety of the meeting. Later, I was brought in to our director's office and the explanation was given: the director had made the suggestion to bring in the key customers.  It was part of the larger plan for the project. The problem was that the department direct and the project manager didn't have a miscommunication; they had no communication on the subject.  As a result, the project manager unknowingly mocked and put down the director's idea/plan. Note to everyone: openly putting down your boss's boss's plans... hardly ever a good idea. The problem is that it raised all sorts of issues:
  • Which is better? To fly in testers or use locals?  Either the director or the project manager had to be wrong.
  • Why wasn't there communication between the director and the project manager?
  • Was the lack of communication a bigger issue with the project?
  • Why was the project manager so stern about how bad of an idea it was to fly people in?
  • Who was in control of the project: the project manager or the director?
As such, whenver I go into a meeting on a subject for the first time I always do my best to learn what the department opinion is on the topic, or if I'm free to express my own ideas publically.  If not, and I disagree, then I'll be sure to communicate my concerns behind closed doors within my dept... but externally I always want to show that the department I'm working for presents a unified opinion. It's also important that - with many issues and conflicting opinions - the boss usually has a better grasp of what's actually involved in the decision: how promoting one agenda may take away from another project, how delicate relationships need to be handled, or what confidential info they might be aware of. Again: tearing down your boss's idea in a formal setting (particularly when the boss isn't around to explain or shut you up) is seldom the right choice.  Know your boss's opinion.  If nothing else, it might help you get a promotion.  
Read More

Successful Meetings: Dress Up a Little

First, read this.  Penelope Trunk has a way of getting right at the heart of matters and always provides excellent research on anything that might seem unorthodox or controversial.  And, in my own career, I've found her advice to almost always be spot on. Did you read it? One of my friends would get upset, almost to the point of quitting, because the job he was in had a dress code.  Many of us in our 20s are concerned with things like identity and wearing jeans to work and getting visible tattoos.  I, personally, would love to grow a big, long massive beard.  But more important is the knowledge that appearance can make or break perceptions and attitudes.  Those perceptions and attitudes that are formulated will continue to stick with you. I have worked for the same company for six years now.  When I first started I was fresh out of college and was not, how might you say... "kempt."  Sure, I wore dress pants (kind of), but they also had holes in them.  I didn't own an ironing board.  I didn't own a real razor (just an electric one). When I got a promotion here in 2005, I started wearing suits once a week, to help change some perceptions abot how serious I was about my career.  Earlier this week, I ran into one of the guys I worked with back in my first role here.  I didn't have a suit on, just regular casual dress clothes.  As I got off the elevator, he mentioned that I looked very dressed up. His image of me, the one imprinted from working with me every day for two years, is still an unkempt, out-of-college guy.  What is now a dress-down day for me stood out in his mind as me being dressed up.  I'll likely never be able to change his perception of my attire, and all the stigma that comes from that. So what does this have to do with meetings?  Everything. Every day before I leave work, I check my schedule for tomorrow's meetings.  I scan the attendees and am looking for two things: 1) Anyone I don't know 2) Anyone in a higher position than me, who I don't normally interact with/have a working relationship with If either of those are true, I plan on wearing a suit coat the next day.  It's that simple.  It doesn't matter if the person I don't know is an entry-level, new employee or a peer by all accounts; if it's the first time I'm meeting them I do what I can to make the best impression.  If it's someone of a higher position, you always want to make a great impression - you never know who you'll be working for/with someday. What if dressing up isn't your style?  Get over it. What if you can't afford nice clothes?  Go to Goodwill.  Half of my suit coats are from there.  The majority of the other half are from Target.  I don't make a ton of money, but that doesn't mean I should look like I don't know what business casual means. So dress it up a little and - if you have to - find your own way of adding a little more identity to the "costume" of dressing up.  One of my favorite belts to wear with a suit is a little studded belt I have.  I save ties for only the super-important meetings (once or twice a year).  My formal brown shows are actually RocketDog shoes. There are plenty of ways to make it work for you, but just be sure to make it work.
Read More

Successful Meetings: Make Everyone Smarter Than You

If the meeting you are hosting is a discovery meeting, then there is one very simple rule to live by: Everyone is smarter than you. This is one of my favorite bits of advice because of how true it is, but we often forget it.  There is this undercurrent of pride in setting up a meeting: "i'm in charge," "i know what needs to happen here," "i have the research," or "i have the agenda."  As soon as the meeting starts, however, there should be a not-so-shocking discovery: there are other people in the room with you. And everyone in that room, for the remainder of that meeting, is smarter than you. How do I know that?  Because you invited them.  Your brilliance, your shining wisdom, your skill was bringing the right people to the table.  Now let them talk. If the people in that room aren't smarter than you, then you picked the wrong people to be in the room.  Shame on you.  And this makes them smarter than you; they're going to get credit for working on a project that they aren't going to need to effectively contribute to, because they aren't the smartest people in the room. The key to leading the discovery meeting isn't about sharing your ideas, it's about aquiring other people's thoughts.  Give them the chance to contribute.  Your hard work comes after the meeting, sifting through the myriad ideas and suggestions to create something out of concept. If you get the right people in the room, they really should be smarter than you.  They should be experts in their field.  There should be a reason you brought them to the table; some skill or knowledge or connection that you don't personally have.  Otherwise, why call the meeting at all?
Read More

Successful Meetings: What Kind of Meeting is it?

One of the keys to hosting a successful meeting is knowing, upfront, what kind of meeting it is.  Without the proper direction - and, thus, goals - a meeting can flounder and get nothing accomplished.  Meetings can be very expensive for a company.  It's always a motivator to look around a room and guesstimate how much an particular meeting is costing a company.  If you are pulling coworkers away from their desk, be sure you at least know what you're pulling them away for. Here are just a few of the types of meetings I've been a part of: (1) The Discovery Meeting.  This meeting has the most potential; the most potential for something to go wrong and the most potential for something great to happen.  A discovery meeting is needed when a project is first getting off the ground.  The goal of a discovery meeting is to find out who are the experts in the project, what the true scope of the project should be, and who is going to do what. Leading a discovery meeting is a bit like being a coach.  You know (hope) that you have all the right players on the team.  In the few short minutes of the meeting you need to figure out where the players go on the field, and whether or not they are going to cooperate.  Discovery meetings will often set the tone for the project going forward; if the meeting comes off as a mess, that impression will last with all the participants.  If everyone can walk away feeling their time was well used, you'll be able to leverage their skills and abilities in the coming tasks for the meeting. (2) The Informational Meeting.  This meeting is usually chaired by the manager of a team or director of a division.  The key is not for interaction, but instead for information assimilation.  These meetings are often very costly due to the number of people in the audience, and the managers know that.  In other words, you as a participant had better listen. If a topic is covered at an informational meeting, be sure to remember it.  Anything covered at an informational meeting is assumed to now be in your knowledge.  If it's a divisional meeting and you didn't get to go (out sick?), be sure to get the notes - seriously!  Being the only person on a floor not to know about a new project or time tracking rule can not only be embarassing, but seen as totally unprofessional.  Careers are not high school where you can feign ignorance; it's your ownresponsibility to have the up-to-date information. If you are in the position to be leading an informational meeting, remember that your participants (even though they should be listening) might not (probably aren't) listening.  They are still processing through whatever work they left in their inbox.  If you aren't asking for participation, they are going to disengage. One final not to participants of informational meetings: if you have a genuine question about a topic covered at a meeting, you should follow up and ask it.  It will show that you have an interest in the project and that you were one of the few people listening.  If it's not a genuine question, don't; no need to be a suck up. (3) The Working Meeting.  This is the hard one.  I've found that these actually come few and far at levels below management.  If you're a working professional, you typically have a normal ebb and flow of work to do, whether alone or in a team.  So when a working professional gets pulled into a working meeting, it's usually a bit of adjustment and we often come unprepared. A working meeting is just that: thirty minutes to an hour to solve a problem.  If the wrong people are in the room, oh well - there's no time to stop.  Whoever is in the room will get the outgoing assignments.  Whoever is in the room are the experts for the organization at that moment.  Whoever is in the room will solve the problem.  If you're in that room, enjoy the challenge and put a smile on your face. A working meeting can be anything from hashing out taxonomy to deciding what a marketing message will be.  The intent isn't simply to discover possibilities and then reconnect later, but it's to walk away with an answer to a problem.  It's ok to walk away with new questions, but the initial problem must be solved, or at least have a tentative solution.  Otherwise, the company just spent a lot of money on a conversation that should have just been had over email. The problem, of course, is that working professionals usually get pulled into a working meeting and aren't prepared for it.  This is where listening back in those informational meetings comes in handy.  Keeping a finger on the pulse of the projects going on around you and their status will lend favor to you knowing when your expertise might be called upon. These are just some of the general meeting types I've come across, but I wanted to go ahead and introduce the language that I'll be using in future posts.  The key here is being able to sense what kind of meeting you're attending, or letting participants know what kind of meeting you're hosting.  When people know what's expected, they will come to the table with the right mindset and, hopefully, the right goals in mind.
Read More

How to Have a Successful Meeting: Why bother?

I completely messed up my first job at LifeWay.  I was fresh out of college (10 days between graduation and day 1 on the job), had a creative position, and thought I was something special.  The dress at LifeWay is business casual; I work ripped pants and often forgot to comb my hair.  I kept odd hours.  I was, for all intents and purposes, a mess. One magical day, however, I surprised everyone and dressed up - suit coat and all.  The reason?  I had a meeting to go to, I had a goal I wanted to accomplish, and I was meeting people outside of my department who I hoped I would one day get to work with.  In short, I looked forward to that meeting with Scott Allen and Ken Dean more than any other thing I had done up until that time. I'm an odd bird in this: I love meetings.  I seriously, absolutely, love meetings.  One of my favorite moments of my job was when I realized that I had 16 meetings in one week.  I get a thrill out of it because so many times I'm able to come out of a meeting and think, "we're changing things for the better."  And, at LifeWay, changing things for the better means changing people's lives forever. As such, as I continue to learn tips and tricks about how to have successful meetings, I'm going to share them here on my blog for the world to see.  I hate that meetings have gotten such a bad rap.  I always feel like the awkward kid a dance; I'm excited for another meeting when so many other people see them as nothing but a nuisance. The most important key to a successful meeting is this: is the meeting necessary? The reason people have such an aversion to meetings is because they've been to too many meetings that were pointless.  There was no goal, there was no outcome and that was truly accomplished was a distraction from the daily work.  Pile too many memories of wasted time, and meetings become something to dread and despise. So what makes a meeting necessary?  Why should one even bother with a meeting? A meeting is essential when, simply put, two humans abilities are not enough.  If two people can get it done, no meeting is needed; instead a simple conversation or working lunch will get the job done.  If the work you're doing requires the input, abilities and acknowledgement of two others (or more... and less than say... six others), a well-planned meeting is the most effective tool. A meeting is not strictly a scheduled time at a scheduled place with a set agenda; a meeting should be a literal meeting of the minds.  A meeting should always result in an output that is greater than the sum of its parts.  A meeting is where you get support, buy-in, and - sometimes - can disperse responsibility. I have seen magical things happen at meetings.  I've seen people invent entirely new marketplaces, I've seen people break down a "no, it's impossible" to "we can do that, just let me know what you want," but I've also seen dreams fall apart and uninformed decisions alter the course of good products. I'm an optimist, I know.  I go into every meeting with wide-eyed wonder and excitement about how my job might change in the next 45 minutes.  Hopefully, over the course of these little tips, we can learn how to better control the expectations - and outcomes - of your meetings.
Read More