Harper and I originally met at FooCamp in 2013, when he attended a FooCamp unconference session I led called How to Run Efficient Meetings. When we re-connected a few months ago, I discovered that after that one hour session 8 years ago, he revamped meetings at his company, and at every company he’s worked at since. We re-united to record a Lead Time Chat nerding out on meetings and to encourage more teams to implement these high-density, high-efficiency team meetings. You can find the full Lead Time Chat here.
In 2013, Harper Reed was running his company, Modest. From his experience leading the tech team for Obama’s re-election campaign, where he admitted that the team was not very diverse, he wanted to build a different kind of team.
At Modest, he wanted to build a team that was accessible and inclusive, “not just externally with hiring, but internally for the company to try and make things more accessible, to all different types of people. And that meant like anything from an introvert to an extrovert, to a person of color to someone who just works differently than we do, because we just want to create a cradle that can hold anyone, not something that just held extroverted white male dudes with red beards.”
Harper was looking for something to not only make better use of his team’s time, but also thought, maybe there’s a way for internal tooling to create an environment where everyone feels empowered to contribute, to share their ideas, to raise their issues.
“There was just a lack of structure, and I had this strong reaction to like agile kind of methodologies that just didn't really fit with the teams that I was either working on as an individual contributor or the teams I was building.
“A lot of like the tooling around all this stuff just didn't really fit with what we were doing. And this is the time of like pivotal tracker and all this kind of fun stuff. And it just didn't fit it.”
Looking back at that time, he says, “my life is full of meetings that are meetings, but they're not effective.” For example, the weekly “team meetings were just taking forever and it was just wandering. It was like this nice hangout wandering meeting that took three hours and it was driving me crazy. It was driving everyone crazy because it was important, because we were trying to talk about what we did that week. We were trying to talk about issues and it's like very high information density, but probably very low signal to noise.
And, as the CEO and a “extroverted white male dude with a red beard,” he didn’t want to dominate the conversation in meetings and at the company anymore.
By the time Harper made his way to my unconference session the summer of 2013, he was actively looking for ways to build a company that was more accessible to different types of people. As he recalls the session, “you ran the session, like you would run a meeting — it was very clear and very high information, but very efficient and very high signal.”
“I was able to take that back and tell my co-founder Dylan,
Eureka! We found something — we struck gold!
Really what it was, was like this idea of we can do our meetings differently. You gave me permission to change how the meeting was run, which I had never really thought about. I think it's silly to say now, because we've talked about meetings a little bit more since then, but I don't think I'd ever thought about adding structure to the meeting.”
When Harper brought this type of meeting back to Modest, their long meandering 3 hour meeting immediately became a hyper-efficient 30 minutes weekly meeting.
“As a leader, what I loved is that it didn't make the meeting less effective. In fact, it made it more effective. I think I had mistaken the length or intensity of a meeting with the effectiveness of the meeting”
Lower barrier to participation
For quieter folks who tend not to speak unless prompted, the larger the meeting, the higher the perceived barrier of bringing your topic to the table. The dynamic agenda-setting and facilitation of check-in meetings means that you’re called on to add an agenda item, and you’re free to pass if you don’t have anything to discuss.
Check-in meetings created an opportunity for access, allowing more people to participate in a real way.
“It created an opportunity where even if you were of low authority in the company, you had a strong voice, which allowed for changes to come from anywhere, for innovation to come from anywhere.”
The team at Modest used a spinner to select the note-taker for each meeting. The meeting structure and clear agenda made it easy to take notes, and it made information about what teams were working on accessible, distributable, and searchable.
Meetings notes made it possible for Modest’s distributed team to stay aligned:
“We were hiring all over the United States, and we had this very distributed team. It was an amazing team, and they all lived in different time zones. They would wake up at different times. They'd have different work schedules. Some people had kids. So they'd work later at night after the kids went to bed, and in the middle of the day, when the kids were at school or what have you, but not earlier and not towards the afternoon...I wanted the people to work how they could work. And every single meeting had notes.”
Curious about the meetings that led to Harper’s “Eureka!” moment, and that he brought to every company he’s worked at since?
Harper’s advice on getting started is a little counter-intuitive. While many may suggest starting small with a smaller meeting, Harper suggests starting with your team check-in meeting, or rather, the most costly meeting with the most people that seems the least efficient. “If you can demonstrate that it works in a meeting that typically people think is a waste of time, then people will be super stoked about bringing it to a meeting that’s usually highly productive.”
Read more about the evolution of check-in meetings
You can watch Harper’s Lead Time Chat here.