Six ways to improve meetings using open source principles

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The path to collaboration is usually paved with the best intentions. We all know too well that this can happen when a meeting is called. A bad one can completely derail needed work, but a good one can leave a team feeling energized, even excited. 

You can't control every meeting you're in, but you can improve the ones you run. Is anybody thinking about how to do this? Let's Google it: How to have a useful meeting.

There are approximately 352,000,000 results—suggesting everything from stand-up meetings to topless ones. (The ‘top’ in question is a LAPtop, but I bet that got your attention.)

With so many suggestions out there, where do we begin? 

Start with an example—a meeting you were in that didn't suck.  What made it work? Then think of a meeting you hated. What made it so awful? Here are a few (common-sense) observations.

It (always) starts with technology

Many offices have email, project management, data storage, social media, and information-sharing technologies available internally. If you don’t have these tools, ask for them. If you can’t get them, there are many online information-sharing services—from free and very public, to expensive and moderately private. If you can’t afford the risk or cost of an external solution, even a small, simple email system can keep everyone connected.

Don't overcomplicate things

Choose the right tool for each job. A complex project might require a spreadsheet, a stack of written documents, videos, design files, and more. It's tempting to hold out for an all-in-one project management solution, but you're probably better off figuring out which tools do exactly what you need, and spending the extra time finding a better way to manage them.  All-in-one technology might seem nice, but the downside of so much complexity is lots of complicated ways it can fail.

Besides, all the elements of a project are probably created by different people, and stored in different places. Resist the urge to copy things—provide access instead. When you can’t provide access to original files, make it easy for the file creator to update any necessary copies. Transparency, in this case, saves work. If your systems are transparent, well-managed, and everyone has access, then it doesn't matter if you have one tool or ten.  

One tool to rule them all

Good management is key. Pick one place where you can coordinate all of your work tools and materials. You can call it a headquarters, homepage, or portal. Use a blog, a digital whiteboard, a wiki, or a website--whatever works best for your team. This transparent HQ must have a consistent location that is easy for anyone to update and share with others.

What's your number one?

Knowing what kind of answer you're looking for gives you and the people that attend a direction to head in. It lets you know when you've succeeded.

Picking a number one helps not only determine what you're doing, but what tools you use--and when you use them.  The best way to talk about this is by example.

Our number one: Collaboration

Our first priority is collaboration. We called a meeting to get consensus on company standards--most having to do with writing and brand. We wanted to make sure everyone had equal opportunity for input, and could not only suggest solutions, but also pose any questions they had for the group to consider.

We borrowed a tool we saw used in other successful collaborative meetings—Etherpad.

Etherpad is a simple, multi-user text editor with basic formatting tools, revision controls, and in-document chat.

We use Etherpad to share, edit, and discuss the meeting agenda ahead of time. We can eliminate agenda items that are completed or being worked on elsewhere, and add any new suggestions.

During the meeting, we use the agenda as our to-do list. Anyone attending can add or edit, and color-coding makes it easy to tell who did what. When there’s work assigned out, it’s noted immediately. The agenda and notes persist, so we can go back to remind ourselves of any details, or look up a forgotten assignment.

The chat options are especially useful when there’s a phone conference, but they also make sure anyone (even the shy and introverted) can join conversations. Questions can be asked and answered without interrupting a speaker, or queued and held for later.

With a tool like Etherpad, even if you don't attend the meeting, you can know where it's going. And if you miss out, it’s easy to catch up.

It’s not the tool alone that makes a meeting succeed—but a bad tool can get in the way of progress. Etherpad is a simple solution that helps us share ideas and organize tasks efficiently with many participants.

Don't have access to Etherpad? There are other similar tools, as well as combinations of common tools that can be used in the same way. For example, you could use IRC and link to web content, and for a tiny bit more effort, get a similar result.

Transparent practices

You can make a meeting happen all by yourself.  But do you really want to?

Before you meet, gather information. Identify what you’d like help with (your number one), and ask broadly for suggestions. Figure out your tools, and use them to collect ideas, see who is interested, and how they’d like to proceed. If you require people to show up, they’ll fill a seat. If you invite them to attend, they accept, and come back for seconds--then real work might get done.

If you make your meetings non-mandatory, and no one shows up? Then a meeting isn’t going to solve your problem, but at least you’re no longer wasting everyone’s time.

People who are engaged are much more willing to take action. An interested, knowledgeable team with a concrete list of objectives can efficiently move a project forward—with a meeting, or without. And sometimes, you will need to get together and talk, generate ideas, and review materials.

Tips for a successful meeting

If you decide to have a meeting, proceed in this fashion: info in, documentation during, actions out.

  • Info in. Everyone in the room should know why they’re there and what the number-one topic is. Provide current and prior work and materials as soon as possible and in a place that’s accessible to anyone. No surprises!

Every meeting should have an open agenda. Make a to-do list or ask questions that need to be answered. Share it ahead of time, too. The group can then resolve items that have easy answers, and add any topics that have been overlooked.

  • Documentation during. The (possibly revised) agenda is your guide. Keep it visible, stick to it, and take notes as you go. Tick off each item, and assign and document tasks as they’re created.
  • Actions out. The last item on any agenda should address what comes next—due dates, project milestones, and other checkpoints. Decide if and when you should meet again. By actively updating notes and materials throughout the meeting, everyone exits with a clear idea of their own assignments, the duties of others, and an easy way to review (or share) all the information you’ve collected.

Transparency is critical. Use the right tools to openly share information. Avoid locking your goals and deliverables away in spreadsheets and easily-forked local documents. You can make a meeting happen, if you really want to. But making a meeting useful takes real effort. Collective, transparent, technologically sound effort.

At Red Hat, we borrowed things
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