Optimize your meetings so that you can spend less time in them
Monday morning meetings, recurring 1-1 meetings, team meetings and weekly company all hands. You might sometimes feel like you’d rather disappear into a black hole for a few months than spend a single additional minute of your time on the planet in meetings, but the unfortunate truth is that meetings are a necessary part of getting things done in product teams. So it’s probably a good idea, then, to invest some time in conducting meetings effectively so that you can ultimately spend less time in them.
Here’s a little guide we’ve put together to help you to optimize the meetings product teams have the most. Each meeting guide has a bunch of resources included which we hope you’ll find useful.
The meetings we have the most
If you’re anything like the product folks I know, it’s likely that your calendar looks something like this, with a diary packed full of meetings with various stakeholders, team members and third parties:
Whilst there are a number of different meetings we have to deal with on a day to day basis, some meetings tend to be more stressful than others. Here’s a selection of some of the meetings we have most:
Before we dig deep into each of these, let’s get explore a few bits and pieces.
“How can you achieve your 10 year plan in the next 6 months?” – Peter Thiel
Here are some guiding principles to follow which can be applied across all types of meetings, not just the most difficult or common ones:
Introduce timebox mechanics – we often overestimate the amount of time we might need for a particular meeting. Mr Peter Thiel suggests you practice asking yourself the blunt question “how can you achieve your 10 year plan in the next 6 months?’. Apply this to your meeting etiquette and force yourself to trim your meetings down to the most essential components within an aggressive time frame. Google’s browser timer is a quick, practical way to introduce a timebox mechanic to your meetings. You’ll be surprised at how effective this is at eliminating unnecessary fluff.
Be disciplined – how many times have you arrived at a meeting someone else invited you to, only to discover that nobody has bothered to come prepared, including the person who invited you? Be disciplined and come prepared – particularly for your own meetings!
Agree actions and outcomes – have you ever left a meeting and thought to yourself ‘so… what did we actually agree to in that meeting’? This often happens when there’s a difficult decision to be made and nobody wants to make it. Aim to agree on the outcome of a meeting – even if the outcome is that you haven’t yet reached full agreement. This will help to influence the actions you need to take next.
3 Unconventional persuasion tools and tactics
Perhaps one of the most difficult types of meetings are the ones where you know beforehand that you and someone else completely disagree on a particular problem, solution or decision. You know you disagree because you may have had an email exchange beforehand or a disagreement in a prior meeting. In fact, you’ve called this meeting to resolve your disagreement.
In these situations and indeed other meetings, it helps to arm yourself with a couple of powerful, practical persuasion tools and tactics so that you can influence the other person. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t listen to the other person or team since it may be the case that you need to change your mind when presented with new information. However, having these tools up your sleeve will enhance your ability to present and frame your side of the discussion.
Here’s some of our favourites:
Attention hijacking – introducing a rapid change in environmental circumstances hijacks human attention and acts as a jolt which can make your message more persuasive. Video advertisement producers use this in carefully crafting their visuals; scenes will be cut in ways which jolt your attention and make the messaging more persuasive. Try having your meeting in a completely different environment out of the office, presenting information via an unexpected medium (whiteboard only vs. powerpoint) or using concepts from completely unrelated and unexpected industries to jolt your attendees attention. It will work in your favour.
Shared birthdays – people who have the same birthdays like each other more when they first meet each other. Not only that but merely creating a positive association with someone’s birthday can help you to get them on side. If you’re presenting to a team and 1 person is the decision maker, try searching your internal HR systems for their birthday and using that strategically in your presentation. For example, if you’re presenting mockups, you might include the birthday as your example in the mockup. As crazy as it sounds, the mere positive association will work to influence the other person to like – and agree with – you more.
Implicit egoism – studies have shown that our ego can drive our decision making and that we can be persuaded if our ego is massaged. Coca Cola produced 100 million cans of coke in the UK with your name written on it for a reason. And the reason is known as ‘implicit egoism’ where your ego takes control over your decision making. This can work in your favour if you’re aware of it. One way to do this in a business context is to personalise your materials to your audience by carefully using the name of the attendee(s) you want to influence. For example, if you’ve put together a deck, including the other person’s name on the opening slide next to yours will work in your favour. A simple line such as ‘Prepared by [Your name] for [Their name]’ will do the trick.
Yes, I know, some of those do seem a little machiavellian, but they are fun concepts to know about nonetheless.
By now you’re probably thinking, ‘OK, that’s enough of the waffle, where are the meetings?’. Fair enough. Let’s dive in.
We talk of users being paramount and the importance of being user-centric, however, it’s easy to forget that in some companies – particularly larger corporates – product teams are responsible not only for delivering an exceptional experience to external users, but also to support the needs of internal users of products.
Product managers and product teams more broadly, play an important role in the value chain; defining and delivering value to the end users. However, an essential part of value delivery, in larger companies in particular, is in building the tools that underpin the supporting activities of the value chain:
Reporting tools for sales teams
Backend admin systems for content management
Internal analytics tools for marketers
These unsexy parts of product management are largely downplayed or ignored by the mainstream product industry since they’re simply not as exciting as the latest features you might be working on for your end-users. Who wants to hear about a new reporting dashboard for a corporate finance team when Snapchat is working on a new pair of glasses? Not me.
As unsexy as they may be, these tools for supporting activities are still a major part of the product management role.
Whilst discovering and defining requirements for consumers typically involves experimentation and testing strategic hypotheses until you find product market fit, in the context of internal products, your users are often sat in the same building. It’s a common task, then, for internal-facing product folks to host requirements gathering sessions with stakeholders to uncover product requirements. This can be fun and rewarding, particularly if you’re an extreme empath, since you’ll get to see the impact of your products in real time and not through the filter of user feedback sessions and comments on forums. I often find that building products to support dull, unsexy business activities is a strangely satisfying experience. Or maybe that’s just me.
Here’s a few guidelines on how to run effective requirements gathering sessions with your internal stakeholders when developing your internal products.
Problem identification – The primary objective of your requirements gathering sessions is to understand the nature of the problems that your stakeholders are experiencing today or that they anticipate they might experience in the future. It may be that you’re working on a larger project or initiative which has implications for a particular internal team, which means this team is fretting a little about all the things they believe they need to cope with the upcoming demands the initiative brings. In this case it’s often the product folks who need to understand the scope of the problems faced and the potential solutions to them.
Context – why is this problem important?
Solutions – what might a solution for this problem look like?
Timeframe: A few hours or a full day, depending on the scale of the challenges you’re facing. You’re likely to need at least 2 separate sessions: one on problem analysis / solution ideation and a series of follow ups with solutions presented. If the problems you’re trying to solve impact multiple stakeholders, aim to get everyone in the same room and give yourself enough time to flesh out important problems in detail.
Attendees: stakeholders who are impacted by the solutions you might build. Ensure both the daily users and decision makers are present or are involved in the process.
Room: big enough to host your stakeholders comfortably, ideally get out of the building for the day to free your mind of the burden of your 4 walls.
Rules: take regular breaks and cultivate a safe environment where everyone feels confident that they can openly share their problems, opinions and ideas. That isn’t to say you should avoid conflict, since conflict can be the source of excellent ideas, but rather that people feel comfortable sharing opinions which conflict with others.
Intros – if you’ve got a large group of stakeholders together in 1 room, do a quick round of intros
Problem identification – what problem are we trying to solve?
Problem contextualisation – why are we trying to solve this problem?
Potential solutions – what are the potential solutions for these problems?
Stakeholder requirements gathering sessions can often start with solutions. In fact, the meeting itself might be named as the proposed solution. So for example, you may find yourself invited to a ‘Marketing Intelligence Platform’ meeting or a ‘Sales Report Dashboard’ meeting, which assumes that the solution is to build a marketing intelligence platform or reporting dashboard before you fully understand the nature of the problems and opportunities available to you.
Try to keep your requirements gathering meeting names broad enough to avoid jumping to a solution – at least in the early stages. Try ‘Product and [DepartmentName] – Requirements Session’ or something similarly objective to avoid any upfront bias.
The best way to understand a problem is to see an example of it first hand. This may mean paying a visit to your call centre, your data analysis team or whoever the stakeholders impacted are. Spending just an hour with the team in their environment can be an invaluable experience since problems are far more real when you see them in real life.
In your requirements gathering meeting, ask your stakeholders to list the problems they are trying to solve by building the feature they have requested. Your stakeholders will want to jump straight into solutions, but always try to bring everyone’s focus back to the problems and challenges.
Step 1 – ask your stakeholders perform a review of the relevant problems faced by a particular team or part of the business. This typically involves writing the problems on separate pieces of paper or post it notes.
Step 2 – ensure you fully understand the problem. To do this, repeat back the problem to your stakeholders and explain it to them as you would to a child (note: we’re not suggesting your stakeholders are children, but rather than explaining things simply demonstrates a deeper level of understanding!). Encourage your stakeholders to draw the problems faced on a whiteboard if you’re struggling to grapple with it.
Step 3 – group the problems thematically. If the problems listed span across multiple different parts of the business, group them together thematically so that everyone can visibly see how the problems relate to each other.
Digging deep into the problems generated by your stakeholders will give you a shared, deeper understanding of the problems so that you can start to contextualise them.
Contextualisation involves taking your problems and processing them through multiple filters so that you can start to decide which problems are the ones you might want to focus on:
Goal filter – what problem, if solved, helps the team and / or the business achieve its goals? For example, if your goal is to increase your NPS and your customer service team are asking for an NPS automation tool which sends text messages, this directly links back to your NPS goal. If a problem has no impact on any goal, consider carefully the benefits of solving it.
Revenue filter – is the problem having a material impact on revenues? Are you losing money as a result of this problem not being solved? Ask yourself and your stakeholders to question whether there is a direct – or indirect – impact on revenue by solving or not solving the problem.
Customer filter – what impact, if any does this problem have on the customer?
Future filter – is this problem likely to be a problem in a year’s time? Travelling into the future can be a useful tool when assessing problems. For example, if your customer service would like to invest product effort in upgrading their call centre phone systems, consider whether your call centre telephones are likely to be replaced by live chat and powerful CRMs in the future.
Metrics filter – which metrics best communicate this problem? If you are to build solutions you’ll need to agree on a metric which represents the problem today and the metric to measure your solutions by.
Filtering involves practicing the rare ability to zoom out of the details and to take a wider look at the overall business. You might struggle to do this at first, but zooming is an essential part product. Encourage your stakeholders to think in a similar way.
With your problems filtered, you’ll end up with a list of problems which need solving. It’s at this point that you can start to finally move onto the moment everyone’s been itching to get to…
We are wired to prefer jumping to solutions. Now is your chance to ideate your way to potential solutions for the problems you’ve uncovered. What you’ll often find is that if you have a deep enough understanding of the problems, your solutions will likely be different – and seemingly more creative – than what you may have originally had in mind.
Use a problem / solution diagramming tool to make it explicitly clear how your solutions might solve the problems. 1 solution may solve 1 problem or multiple problems.
How to agree the scope of your MVP solutions
Ultimately, you don’t know if your solution is in fact a solution, until you ship it and see how it gets used. De-scoping your solution and distilling it into an MVP allows you to reduce the risk of shipping something nobody wants. This means agreeing with your stakeholders what the scope of the first version of the product will be. This can often be a difficult discussion to have.
Start by analysing the proposed solutions by considering technical complexity vs. impact where impact is shifting the needle on the metrics you identified during problem contextualising. Technical complexity can be kept to T shirt sizes at this stage so that you have a rough idea of the work involved.
Teresa Torres, a leading product thinker, suggests using a neat tool called an opportunity tree to prioritise your potential solutions and here’s a little video which explains this concept in more detail:
“An Introduction to Modern Product Discovery” by Teresa Torres - YouTube
Agreeing the scope of your MVP will also involve communicating to your stakeholders what has been agreed and here’s a few way to do that:
2 columned, simple tables outlining what’s coming up in the MVP and what may or may not come at a later date:
If you’re releasing a solution in stages, as you iterate and incorporate feedback, using a mockup to clearly articulate this can often help. Tools like Invision allow you to easily add interactive annotations so that your stakeholders are clear on what is and what is not included in the first version of your product.
Opportunity tree – Teresa Torres’ solution for identifying and prioritising opportunities and solutions
Invision – useful for communicating wireframes and the scope of solutions
Meeting 2 – Planning
If you’re working in 2 weekly sprints or some other form of scrum team set up it’s likely that you’ll need a planning session with your team. Planning can be a tricky meeting, especially if you’re a product manager who has just joined a new team as the engineering team will look at you for answers to often complex problems.
Preparation before planning is key. Yes, you’re drowning in 23 other things on a Tuesday afternoon but this needs to be a priority. Aim to cover as much ground as possible before your planning session so that you can have a crack at anticipating potential questions that are likely to get raised, but don’t give yourself a hard time if you don’t know the answer to a specific question on the spot. If you’re not sure, rather than giving an answer you’ve just made up to avoid looking foolish, be honest and say you’ll look into it instead. It’ll be easier for everyone in the long run.
Timeframe: 30 – 45 minutes. If it overruns, have a break for 15 minutes and continue or pencil in a follow up session.
Room: large enough to fit you in comfortably with a screen
The objectives of planning
If you’ve ever missed a planning session you’ll start to feel it. It feels a lot like eating bad food or being sat on the sofa scrolling through Instagram Stories for 3 hours; you’ll start to feel a little lethargic, miserable and lacking in focus. A planning session helps you and your team to get yourself back on track.
Goal setting – set the goals for the upcoming development period so that the team understand what exactly it is you’re aiming to achieve.
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