How To Hack Meetings: Using UX and Collaborative Techniques to Make Meetings More Productive

Slide at Shopify (Credit: spydergrrl)
I work on an enterprise project with a large constantly-changing project team. People come in and out of the team regularly, which means that we are very reliant on our ability to adapt and work together to get things done quickly. Some times it can feel like meeting hell though, as people resort to what they know best (put people around a conference table to discuss a topic) instead of what we need (workshops, working sessions, more collaboration and fun!). Last week, I ran a lunch and learn session for my colleagues on Hacking Meetings. I took the foundation for our web work (user-centered design) and applied it to collaborative work to answer the question: how can we design meetings to make them more productive? Below are my notes for the session and links to some resources including a GIANT facilitator toolkit, containing instructions for dozens of collaborative techniques. Enjoy!

Hacking Meetings

Here's some basic meeting math: 8 people attending a 1 hour meeting = 1 day of productivity
Do you think your last 1-hour meeting generated a full day's worth of value?
Probably not.

What does working collaboratively mean?

  • It doesn't just mean working together. Also means respect for your teammates as demonstrated through the amount of focus and effort you put into preparing for meetings or working sessions, respect for their time and expertise, your facilitation of a session to ensure appropriate use of everyone's time.
  • Basic examples:
    • Checking other people's schedules before booking meetings
    • Accounting for travel time between meetings
    • Determining the appropriate length of the meeting (just because the default in Outlook is 30 or 60 minutes doesn’t mean all meetings should be those lengths)
    • Always providing context and an agenda in meeting requests
  • Investing time in preparing sessions to ensure optimal use of time
  • Focus on desired outcomes, not vague goals. What do you need to accomplish by the end of the session? This becomes a stick for parking offside discussions and keeping the meeting on track.
  • Planning the type of interaction for the purpose:
    • Purpose - Why are you meeting?
    • Desired outcomes - What do you need to accomplish?
    • Attendees - Who is essential to the discussion? How best to engage with them?
    • Session type - How should you structure the session? What kinds of activities will best elicit the information or results you are seeking?
  • Take a user-centered approach to meeting planning: Fit session type to desired outcome/ purpose
    • Formal Presentation
    • Structured/ facilitated discussion
    • Working session with tasks and activities
    • Workshop
    • Other possible structures: interviews, lessons learned, brainstorming, structured walkthrough, observation
    • Working session activities: benchmarking, SWOT, modeling, estimation, data analysis, problem tracking, prototyping, root cause analysis, scenarios, use cases, storytelling, survey, break-the-thing, experience mapping, visual note-taking, card sorts, dot voting, Personas analysis, role playing etc... (see PDF)


1. Black Holes (Time-suck meetings)
Problem: Lengthy agenda that could be covered in much shorter amount of time with focus.
Solution: Don't just run your meetings, facilitate the discussion.
  • Facilitate! Treat your meeting like a workshop: you are the discussion facilitator
  • Add Structure! Move shorter discussions to beginning of the agenda to get through everything and leave time for longer conversation.
  • Time box! Make one person the time keeper; not the person running the meeting.
  • Set rules! Define rules at the outset of the meeting re. how to handle discussions that are going long (see parking lot)
  • Park it! Park any issues that begin to take longer than allotted time. Review parking lot once all topics are covered, to determine whether to address now, schedule another discussion, move to forward agenda
  • Dealing with grandstanders, bullies and naysayers: capture it, action it or park it.
    • Capture it: write it down clearly, succinctly, boil it down to the core issue and move on (make sure they confirm the wording so they agree you captured their concern). You can even turn them into the note-taker so they have to focus on what other people are saying.
    • Action it: do root cause analysis, outline a plan to explore/ address it, schedule another session to explore it...
    • Park it: write it on the visible parking lot and agree not to discuss it any further in the session.

2. Social Work

Problem: Working sessions without a clear structure that go off topic regularly
Solution: Lead a structured work session
  • Set goals and define the desired outcomes: What do you need to accomplish by the end of the session? Can it be all done in a single session or should there be multiple?
  • Invite the right people: Think RACI: Who is responsible? Who is accountable? Who needs to be consulted or informed? Do they all need to attend the session? Do you want to mix the detailed technical folks with the high level comms folks or would it be better to get their input separately?
  • Plan the activities:
    • Presentation: paced, structured walk-through with visuals and storytelling
    • Collection: Break-out groups and sharing, stations and rotation, facilitated round table discussions (time-boxed with goals and visual data collection)
    • Feedback: post materials and physical walk-through
  • All sessions could include:
    • Parking lot
    • Priority-setting (at beginning and end)
    • Next Steps discussion/ logging
  • Set the stage: find the right space and prepare the right materials

3. Failure to Launch/ Groundhog Day 
Problem: Meetings that never seem to arrive to a conclusion or repetitive meetings where the same discussions seem to happen
Cause: unclear goals, next steps and/or lack of accountability
Solution: Track the conversation visually by taking notes publicly
  • Using a whiteboard, flip chart or on-screen document to log critical parts of the meeting:
    • Goals established at the beginning of the meeting
    • Key discussion points
    • Decisions
    • Next steps
  • You don't need to have great handwriting or the ability to draw; the mere act of documenting publicly will help to focus the discussion around what is being documented
  • Circulate photos of visual notes along with the action items upon meeting end for agreement on record
  • Alternative: Seek help from your project management office (if you have one) or a facilitator to run and structure discussions, log action items and owners for follow-up

4. Innocent Bystander (aka Not my meeting, not my problem)
Problem: you're not the organizer but this meeting is totally offtrack. Is it your place to step in and steer it?

Solution: Absolutely! You deserve to get something out of this session, because it's your time that is being wasted. But tread with caution.
  • While you shouldn't take over, you can definitely help:
    • Offer to document the discussion, agenda or take visual notes
    • Help in stealth mode: Ask questions to clarify the scope, goals and desired outcomes, confirm your understanding, determine whether the right people are in the room
  • Make the best of the situation but understand that you won't fix every meeting

Want to know more?

Facilitator Toolkit (PDF) - this is an incredible resource from the University of Wisconsin containing over 90 pages of collaborative techniques, including instructions on how to use them
Stealth Meeting Facilitation (HBR)
Crucial Conversations