Blog

Meetings

Nine years of efficient meetings: Lessons learned from Range's VP of Engineering

The evolution of check-in meetings

Jean Hsu, May 4, 2021

Imagine being in a meeting where you feel relaxed, knowing that a competent facilitator will manage the time well to make sure all the important topics are covered and that everyone has a chance to be heard.

Imagine leaving that meeting feeling aligned with your team — you know that all the known roadblocks have been unstuck and that the team has clarity on next steps. It feels great, like you’re all rowing in the same direction.

There was a brief moment when someone couldn’t resist the urge to take a topic in another direction, and you felt that familiar feeling of your body tense up as the meeting’s relevance started to slip away. Thankfully, the facilitator quickly cut off the speaker and easily redirected the conversation. You relaxed again as the meeting got back on track.

Better yet, your hour-long meeting ended half an hour early.

It started with Holacracy

Sound too good to be true? My relationship with this specific type of meeting started in 2011, when The Obvious Corporation, shortly thereafter called Medium, brought in consultants to install Holacracy at the company. For months, the consultants facilitated our meetings — and the one I fell in love with was tactical meetings.

Before tactical meetings, it was all too easy to just observe, and for the senior-most person to run the entire agenda and talk at the rest of the team, while we all nodded along. More often than not, meetings had unclear outcomes and any actions were only captured in personal notebooks.

In the five-plus years that I worked at Medium, Medium was running Holacracy for about three of them. There were many ups and downs, pros and cons — but I can say confidently, without a doubt, that the absolute best part of the entire experience was the incredibly efficient and well-run meetings.

Towards the end of Holacracy at Medium, the company decided to stop running as an official Holacracy organization, but of course, we kept the best bits. Meetings — especially in the product and engineering organizations — remained mostly unchanged. More often than not, we ended our weekly engineering tactical meetings 20 or 30 minutes early, having bulldozed our way through 10, sometimes 20 agenda items.

The empowering effect of facilitation

Before tactical meetings and before I started facilitating meetings, I was more often the person sitting quietly by, listening. I would speak if I felt particularly compelled, if I felt like I had something really really important to say, or if someone called on me to share my opinion. But often, as meetings dragged on, and aimless conversations continued to be aimless, I just waited for the meeting to be over — hoping for someone to knock on the glass conference room wall, signaling that they had booked the meeting room next.

I definitely didn’t feel empowered to say “Hey...that seems off-topic. Could you maybe perhaps take that offline?” It didn’t seem culturally normal for anyone to say that.

With the transition to tactical meetings, I soon found myself being elected and re-elected as facilitator for all the recurring meetings I was in. The clear facilitation rules empowered me to cut off even the most senior executives at the first whiff of them straying off topic. Everyone else very much enjoyed participating in well-run, efficient, and effective meetings.

How to Run Efficient Meetings

At this point, I still had a memory of “regular meetings,” so when I found myself at FooCamp (an annual invite-only unconference run by O’Reilly) in 2013, I remember thinking to myself, “What in the world could I teach people here?” I almost came up empty-handed, but I dug deep, grabbed a big sticky note, and wrote “How to run efficient meetings.”

It would have been easy enough to just attend sessions and meet new people, but I had an inkling that there was something important to share. We gathered in an outdoor tent, 20 or so folks, and I ran the session as a tactical meeting. I went around the room, gathering agenda items (mostly in the form of questions about the meeting itself) and ruthlessly facilitating to my heart’s content. Before we ended the session, each person shared some reflections.

“Every session here should be run this way.”
“I can’t believe we got through so much.”
“I need this for my team.”

The next year, I returned again, this time with my manager at Medium, Dan Pupius. We co-hosted a session on Holacracy and meetings, again running it as a tactical meeting. Harper Reed came up to me eagerly, said that in the past year (after the last FooCamp session) he had implemented tactical meetings at his company Modest, and he was back to learn more.

Further meeting evolution

When Medium stopped using Holacracy, we also started tinkering with the meetings. The core structure remained the same, but we adapted it to fit our needs.

Working with a small team on Publications, we decided we also wanted to have a weekly planning meeting. Instead of scheduling another hour of weekly meetings, why not mash it into our existing tactical meeting? We time-boxed metrics and updates to the first 15 minutes, spent 15 more minutes on lightweight weekly planning, and spent the second half of the hour building and processing agenda items.

Thus, the franken-meeting was born.

This practice spread throughout Medium — though I chuckle when I read write-ups that describe franken-meetings as a very specific set of structured topics. The beauty of the franken-meeting is that you can adapt it to whatever your team needs. Need five minutes near the beginning to review the Asana board before diving into agenda items? No problem. Want cross-functional updates every week from the same people? Add it in.

Re-integration?

When I left Medium, one of my greatest concerns was, how would I ever re-integrate into a company with a “regular” meeting culture?

I later learned that many alumni didn’t, and instead evangelized tactical meetings on their new teams, spreading their use at their new companies.

Personally, I worked for myself for a few years before joining Range to work again with Dan Pupius. I wouldn’t say that their adherence to tactical-style meetings (including a meeting tool) to run said meetings) was the biggest selling point, but it sure didn’t hurt.

What’s core to a Check-in Meeting?

These days, I don’t have to facilitate meetings much. Everyone has drunk the Kool-aid on these structured check-in meetings. They’re just better. Everyone gets to bring their topics. People genuinely enjoy them. We use them for team planning meetings, collaboration meeting, full-company meetings, cycle recaps — basically every recurring meeting we run is run with this core structure, which is quite simply:

  • Opening round - everyone has uninterrupted space to share how they’re doing
  • Recurring topics (metrics, project updates, etc)
  • Agenda building
  • Agenda processing
  • Closing round

Depending on the meeting purpose, the recurring topics differ. For a company-wide meeting, they may be announcements, founder thoughts, Q&A. For a smaller team meeting, we review team-specific metrics and review our Asana board to celebrate what we shipped last cycle.

To build our agenda, we also have different prompts. For a full company meeting, the agenda is generally important company announcements. For a team “collab” meeting, we encourage people to add demos of work in progress and product discussion topics.

You can check out this Check-in Meeting Templates doc for a more comprehensive sample of Range’s meetings, including templates and facilitation notes for each type of meeting.

A fork in the road

I recently re-connected with Harper Reed, and I found out that not only had he implemented these meetings at Modest, but in the 8 years that followed, he implemented them at every company he was ever at.

It was shocking to me that one hour of a tactical-ish meeting at FooCamp 8 years ago had led him down this path, and that we had spent the last 8 years on separate but somewhat parallel tracks of meeting evolution, meeting tooling, and meeting evangelist.

I was thrilled to have him join me for a Lead Time Chat, where we talked about the only obvious topic we could talk about — meetings. I generally keep the chats to 20-25 minutes, but well, we love meetings too much, so this one is a little bit longer.

“These meetings created an opportunity for access. More people could 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.” — Harper Reed

For more on Harper's journey with running these meetings, you can read Harper Reed on giving everyone a voice in team meetings, and also check out the full Lead Time Chat here.

What’s next

It’s been 9 years since I was first introduced to the earliest incarnation of this type of meeting. From tactical meetings to franken-meetings to check-in meetings, it’s been fascinating to watch the tweaks and evolution — and also how steadfastly the core of it has remained the same. The opening and closing rounds, the inclusive agenda-building, the absolute intolerance for one or two people completely dominating a meeting. Now I am thrilled to share everything I’ve learned about these meetings with you. I hope many more of you can have this Eureka! moment and forever change your relationship with meetings as well.

Maybe it sounds too good to be true, and so it also sounds like a lot of work. But I promise you, it’s not hard. If you facilitate, just keep a few handy phrases in your back pocket like, “I’m going to stop you there. That sounds like a separate agenda item. Would you like to add it to the agenda?” and “What do you need to resolve this agenda item?”

Once you’ve experienced it, you’ll smack yourself in the head at how much time you could have saved your teams. Maybe you already have a skilled facilitator on your team (maybe it’s you!) that naturally and intuitively does many of these things, so why change things? But by bringing in a structure, you can make it easier for others to facilitate, and have the meeting structure feel like something the team owns together (rather just that one person who runs the meeting).

At Range, our meeting structure is constantly evolving — no one takes it personally when someone suggests a change, it’s just part of the natural team process. Range's meeting tool also makes it super easy for anyone to jump in and facilitate the meeting.

Given how impactful that one session I ran 8 years ago was, I’ll also be hosting a few Efficient Meeting sessions in the coming weeks.

If you would like to experience the magic of these meetings, here’s what I recommend.

Feel free to email me at jean@range.co with any additional questions you may have about implementing Check-in meetings on your team!

Nine years of efficient meetings: Lessons learned from Range's VP of Engineering
  • Share with twitter
  • Share with linkedin
  • Share with facebook

Subscribe

The Lead Time newsletter delivers high quality content designed to help you build highly effective teams.

Learn More