I read Meeting Design

For a few months now, I’ve been putting off reading any of the management and leadership related books in my queue. For whatever reason, my internal gears recently turned enough that I felt like picking one up. Probably it’s because I spent a week in Vienna. I should write about that, too. Anyway, I picked up one of the books on my list and read it, and that book was Meeting Design by Kevin M. Hoffman.

the book cover

I had mixed feelings about it. I don’t quite think it delivered on what it promised, but I think it’s got useful thoughts and suggestions in it. There’s a kind of book where I read it and I think, “There should be a second edition that really nails this,” but it rarely happens. Most second editions are of books that nailed it the first time, not books that needed a second version. Anyway, I’m putting Meeting Design in that category.

Here’s an early section that really set my expectations high:

Design is an intangible currency that separates things that matter from junk. Something designed has been given appropriate and actionable consideration, with forethought and research guiding its creation and ongoing evolution.

Meetings are usually not designed. They are rather used as blunt force, expensive but ill-considered tools to solve communications problems.

The author provides this summary of the design process:

  1. Clearly define the problem that a design should solve through observation and good old-fashioned research.
  2. Create and consider multiple options, as opposed to sticking to a single solution.
  3. Select the option assumed to be the best and begin an iterative effort to refine it from a minimum viable concept. This contrasts with spending excessive time visualizing the finished product in every gory detail.
  4. Execute or “ship” at an agreed-upon level of fidelity so that you have an opportunity to see how the design fares in the real world with real people. After that, jump back to step one as needed.

From these early passages, I formed an expectation of the book: it would provide an idea about how to consider and compare meeting forms, how to measure their effectiveness, and how to improve meetings over time based on iterative review and refinement. I wanted the book’s content and structure to focus on making me good at doing those things. In the end, I don’t think that’s how the book worked.

Instead, the first half was a few chapters describing aspects of meetings, like facilitation, agendas, or managing conflict. These are topics worth covering, but I felt the material was much more about advice than about leveraging these things based on desired outcomes. That theme was there, but it didn’t feel central, compared to things like the advice “don’t fifteen bullets on your slide”.

I would’ve liked to see a clearer division between universal advice (no, you never want fifteen bullets on the slide) and description of the choices one can make to achieve different outcomes (maybe ask questions out loud, maybe take written submissions). Because those two kinds of things were presented together, it was sometimes unclear what was advice and what was a choice. Also, the choice between two options was often provided by showing when one of them was bad, as opposed to the ways in with both could be good or bad. This often came in the form of an anecdote, something like this text, which I’ve written to make my point:

Alice had to make sure everyone knew how to use the new system. Upon getting her thirty team members in a room, she started by asking for examples of flaws in the old system. This led to thirty minutes of complaints about the system she wanted to get rid of. Imagine, instead, that she had stated a few examples in one minute, and then moved on to explaining the new system. This would have been better.

Every time an anecdote like this was deployed, it tended to feel like universal advice, even when it might have been about showing whether a choice was good or bad in a specific circumstance.

I won’t belabor the point further, but: I think the premise was good, and the execution could use more refinement.

Part 2 of the book is a catalog of meeting templates, organized into meetings that begin endeavors, happend during them, and wrap them up. For each meeting, there’s a description of the goal of such a meeting, the means of measuring the effectivness of the meeting, and a detailed sample agenda. It runs about eighty pages.

A section like this could have felt like old hat. I’ve read plenty of descriptions of how to run various sorts of meetings, including many of the ones in this section. What made the catalog of meetings so interesting, to me, was the way in which each one was presented in the same framework. It hammered home that for any meeting, it should be possible to decide on the goal, and that it should be possible to review the effectiveness of the meeting toward achieving that goal. I also appreciated small details in the description of meetings, like the way in which two similar meetings differ, and how techniques for one might confound the success of the other. Also, a number of these sections had helpful pointers to further reading on specific meetings.

These descriptions also often included specific techniques, like “draw a line on the whiteboard and have everyone put stickies above or below it”. These linked back, either explicitly or implicitly, to some of the choices that were discussed or gestured at by the first section of the book. This made the questions of intentional design more clear and interesting.

When I was halfway through the book, I thought it was a bit of a dud, but that it had at least given me some new ways to think about running meetings. By the end, though, I felt I’d probably pull the book off the shelf again in the future to consult the catalog and think about what patterns might be useful for my own meetings.

Finally, there was a good sidebar from Adam Connor, describing the idea of working backward from the final outcomes required to the kind of meeting and meeting process required. This kind of “working backward from the goal” is often the way I like to build things, and I’m not sure I ever really considered applying it to meetings. In retrospect, it’s obvious, but that’s often the way.

With this book done, I am ready to pull down and read the next book off my management and leadership shelf. I’m just not sure which one it will be, yet.

Written on February 18, 2024