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On meetings

Volume 3, Issue 2; 25 Jan 2019

Fewer meetings, please. But if I can’t have fewer, can I have better?

A meeting without minutes didn’t happen.

It is a well known fact that we spend too much time in meetings. We have staff meetings, team meetings, grooming meetings, planning meetings, 1:1 meetings, review meetings, quarterly meetings, lead’s meetings, off-site meetings, standup meetings, annual meetings, and ad hoc meetings. Plus a whole lot more meetings. My favorite is the “pre-meeting planning meeting.”

I don’t know what to do about that. But I have a plan, of sorts.

One of my goals for 2019 is to develop new, productive habits. Yes, I recognize that the road to hell is paved with plans like these and I’ve probably had these plans before. But this year, I’m taking some concrete steps. They invove Emacs, of course.

The first is time management. This isn’t strictly about meetings, but it’s relevant, I promise. I have resolved that all “todo” items will go in exactly one place: Org-mode. No more scraps of paper, reminders in email, notes on my phone, weird calendar appointments, etc. I’m a little concerned that this will throw in to sharp relief just how many too many things I believe I can do. But that’s probably something I should own up to and deal with.

That puts me in daily (hourly, most days) contact with Org-mode. Which is relevant, I promise (again).

I’m not a huge fan of the “closed laptop” meeting rule. I understand what motivates it, it’s all too easy become distracted and “zone out” of a meeting. You lose focus, glance at a web page, check your email, and before long, you’re completely ignoring the meeting. But here’s the thing: if you can ignore the meeting, why are you there?

The problem with the closed laptop rule for your average technical meeting is that participants need access to bug reports, technical specs, email threads, calendars, etc.

My resolution with respect to meetings is this: I will take notes. By which I really mean, take minutes. With a few exceptions (daily standups, for example), if I’m at a meeting, I’m going to take minutes.

If you’re taking minutes, you have to pay attention. You have to stay engaged in the meeting. That’s respectful to your colleagues. It also means that nothing else is getting done. Meetings suck productivity out of a day; we shouldn’t be concealing that fact. No more fixing bugs during meetings. No more support case emails. No more backlog triage.

And, to make good on my aforementioned promise, taking minutes involves Org mode too. Because that’s where I’m going to take them. I have used lots of different techniques over the years (IRC (I miss Zakim), plain text files, markdown files, Org mode, XML files, and HTML files, at least). On balance, Org mode offers a great deal of power for a minimum of fuss.

And it’s Emacs-native. After a couple of weeks, I realized that I was doing a fair bit of repetative, manual labor: calculating next meeting dates, copying action items from previous minutes, etc. (I’m also using Org mode to maintain the agendas for meetings that I run.) So I wrote If you’re not using a programmable editor, may I encourage you to make a goal of your own for 2019? a hundred or so lines of elisp to automate those parts. Man, that’s sweet.

Here, for the curious, is my template. As I look at it “out of context,” I realized it’s tailored a bit to the meetings that I run, where I set both the agenda and take the minutes. If I’m taking notes for someone else’s meeting, some of this just gets deleted.

The template doesn’t actually include things like the title and the meeting dates; that’s generated by (or prompted for by) the elisp code. I’ve filled in some sample data in the template below to make the example more comprehensible. (It’s also worth noting that I delete some of the metadata if I email the minutes to anyone; tags, startup options, meeting numbers, etc. are just for me.)

#+TITLE: Meeting Title, 24 January 2019
#+DATE: 2019-01-24
#+AUTHOR: Norman Walsh
#+FILETAGS: :Tags:For:This:Meeting:
#+STARTUP: showeverything
#+MEETING: 004

* Minutes

** Administrivia

   + Roll call:
     + Present:
   + Scribe: Norm
   + Accept the agenda?
     + Accepted
   + Accept the minutes of the previous meeting: 17 January 2019?
     + Accepted
   + Next meeting: 31 January 2019
     + Regrets:

** Technical agenda
   + Review of open action items
   + Topic 1
   + Topic 2
   + Topic 3
   + Any other business

** Review of open action items

   + ACTION 003-01: Norm to do something.
     + Completed, 22 January 2019
   + ACTION 002-04: Someone Else to do some other thing
     +

** Summary of new action items

** Topic 1

** Topic 2

** Topic 3

** Any other business

** Adjourned

Actions taken during the meeting occur under the various topics, but I copy them to the “summary of new action items” section and make sure they have IDs after the meeting.

As far as running meetings go, I say you can’t be too ruthless. Send an agenda beforehand. Start them on time. Stick to the agenda. If you can finish an hour-long meeting in 25 minutes, you win 35 minutes of your life back. And remember, if you don’t publish minutes, your meeting didn’t happen.

(A shout-out to the chairs and scribes of all those meetings I attended at the W3C. Most of what I learned about running an efficient meeting, I learned from you. Some of you anyway. 😁)

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