How To Have More Efficient Meetings As An Engineering Team

September 18, 2021 - 7 minutes

Let’s be real, everyone hates meetings, especially online meetings. But due to the current pandemic situation, remote work is adopted more than ever in the engineering field. Meetings, whether online or not, are an integral part of our day-to-day working life.

Standups, sprint plannings, spring refinements, sprint retrospectives, 1-1 sessions, pair programming, discussing project requirements, discussing designs, huddles, and more. The list goes on with different types of meetings that developers have to attend on a daily, weekly, or whatever-the-length-of-your-sprints basis.

If there’s one thing that everyone hates more than having to attend an additional meeting, it would be having to attend an additional meeting that was inefficient, meaningless, and without results. Everyone will have experienced such a meeting in their career. The feeling of being in the meeting, staring into the abyss, while people are discussing irrelevant topics, and you are just waiting for it to be over while being fully aware that this meeting will not yield any positive results.

Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon occurrence. In all the engineering teams that I’ve worked for far, there was always at least one repeating meeting that nobody liked. That one meeting you just know will not only take 30 minutes, where people will just keep talking about irrelevant topics, where you’ll spend the first half reminding everyone of the meeting’s purpose, or any other result of a bad meeting. Hopefully, someone can’t make it and it will be cancelled.

Just letting those kinds of meetings happen and hoping that they’ll get better is one way to deal with them, although a very unrealistic one. Instead, it is the responsibility of the team to make sure those meetings don’t happen. To help engineering teams with this, this article will go over 5 ways to get rid of bad meetings and making them more efficient, meaningful, and even enjoyable.

Come Prepared

One of the most annoying things in meetings is having to hold it while all attendees are trying to make decisions and come up with ideas on the spot. The problem is that doing all these things in the middle of the meeting will rarely work out as there is a lot of time pressure.

In the end, having unprepared attendees leads to wasted time on reminding everyone of what the purpose of the meeting is, rushed decisions that will come back to bite you, wasting the time of all attendees in the meeting, and potentially having to schedule another follow-up meeting because this one wasn’t enough. Yay, more meetings.

The solution to this is relatively simple but rarely applied in reality, unfortunately. If every attendee would be prepared at the start of the meeting, all of these issues could be prevented. The things that you can do to help with this also aren’t super difficult but can make a real difference.

From the side of the meeting host, the meeting invite should also include information about the purpose of the meeting and also brief instructions on what to prepare if applicable. From the side of the attendees, they should obviously absorb that information and perform the proper preparations.

Sometimes, there won’t be action necessary from one side, but that doesn’t mean that the other side shouldn’t do their best for preparations. In the case of standup meetings, there’s no need for the host to keep repeating the purpose every day. Everyone should know it. But from the attendee’s perspective, the difference between coming prepared into standup or not can be felt significantly. While the time and effort to do so can be minimal.

Coming prepared into a meeting can make a significant difference and is one of the first steps towards having better meetings.

Clarify The Scope

One of the main reasons that a meeting turns out too long, meaningless, or bad is generally when people start to discuss irrelevant things that don’t contribute towards the purpose of the current discussion.

Very common examples are when people aren’t aware of the meeting’s purpose and just start talking about whatever comes to mind, go into way too many technical details, or don’t know when to stop. This doesn’t only lead to wasted time and effort, but also to meetings taking too long, to a majority of the attendees disconnecting, and in general to a very bad aftertaste when the meeting is finally over.

To address this issue, it’s therefore important to clarify the scope of the meeting to all attendees. This doesn’t only have to be done at the start of the meeting, but can also be done before and during the meeting. The most important thing is that everyone is on the same line of what the purpose of the meeting is. What are we discussing, what do we want to reach, how do we want to reach that goal, and what is in and outside of the scope?

Have Someone Lead The Meeting

Every engineering team will know the awkward silence when people are discussing whether to apply technical method X or Y, but there are no clear reasons to choose one over the other. The result is a long silence where every attendee doesn’t know what to do or say, and is basically waiting for someone else to make a decision. If you’re lucky, someone will come forward and break the silence. But more often than not, you’re stuck in this silence without any sense of clear directions.

Having someone in charge of the meeting will make a world of difference in these scenarios. Part of their responsibilities is to break this silence and ensure that the meeting doesn’t come to stagnation. It’s totally not about solving the issue specifically, but only about making sure that the meeting doesn’t come to a halt. But without a dedicated person having this responsibility, you’re basically just praying that someone will break the silence.

But the responsibilities of the person being in charge of the meeting goes beyond that. During a meeting, they could be responsible for planning, time management, breaking silences, or setting priorities. But it could also be before the meeting, like scheduling or preparing a location, or after the meeting, like summarising the results or inventorizing follow-ups.

Being in charge of the meeting means that you’ll do everything to achieve one goal, namely making sure that the meeting can be held meaningfully.

Keep Each Other In Check

This next piece of advice builds on top of clarifying the scope of the meeting, namely making sure that everyone stays on that path and doesn’t go side-tracking. Defining the scope of a meeting doesn’t entirely fix the issue with people holding irrelevant discussions, but it does lay a foundation for it.

The main thing about sidetracking is that involved attendees are most likely not aware that they’re sidetracking or they’re (incorrectly) assuming that the subject is relevant to the meeting’s scope. The problem is when the other attendees have a different opinion about the relevance. When unaddressed, there’s a high chance that this will lead to the other attendees feeling like their time is wasted, disconnecting from the meeting, and not participating properly anymore. This is how you end up with a bad feeling meeting.

In those scenarios, a small nudge to keep each other in check can have a significant impact. After they’re done making their point, halt the discussion and direct the following question to all attendees: is the point of this discussion relevant to the overall goal of this meeting?

Based on personal experience, this does several things:

  • Everyone that disconnected from the current discussion will connect back again. The question is directed towards everyone and they will be very quick to voice their opinion. Especially those that agree with you.
  • Instead of committing to taking the discussion in a specific direction and potentially wasting a lot of time and effort, you’re discussing as a team whether it makes sense to continue in this direction or not.
  • Either you’ll find out that it’s a relevant topic and keep going, or you’ll find out that it’s not and drop it. The most important thing is that this happens as a team and that everyone is on the same page.

To ensure good meetings, everyone in a team should feel allowed to keep each other in check by asking this simple question.

Stop Inviting Everyone

In certain events, having more people is beneficial, more fun, and more efficient. But meetings are definitely not one of those. The more people there are in a meeting, the harder it is to keep it organized and have everyone on the same page, and the more likely it is to have attendees only physically present in the meeting while being mentally disconnected.

But so often have I seen meetings where as many people as possible were invited. Or meetings that required so much effort to schedule because we had to work around all the busy people’s schedules. Or where that one person was invited because there was a chance that their expertise would be useful when potentially discussing one part of the issue that could lead to an issue.

In the end, their expertise was either left totally unused or only necessary for a brief moment in the grand scheme of the meeting. What you end up with is a lot of wasted time and effort. Wasted time from all the unnecessary attendees as they had to sit through a full meeting just to answer one question and wasted effort to schedule the meeting around everyone’s schedule.

The next time before you decide to invite another person to the meeting, stop and think for a moment whether it’s really necessary for them to be present. If they can contribute towards the overall goal of the meeting throughout the whole duration, then they should be invited. But if you’re only inviting them just in case an issue comes up during the meeting that they could solve, then please don’t invite them. You’re not only wasting their time but also decreasing the effectiveness of your team’s meetings for no reason at all.

If you really come across an issue that you need them for, just send them a Slack message.

Final Thoughts

Nobody likes bad and ineffective meetings, but unfortunately, a lot of engineering teams still have a lot of them. Based on personal experience, this article shares 5 tips on how to create more effective meetings.

First, coming prepared and clarifying the scope of the meeting to all attendees are great steps to start enhancing the quality of meetings. Then, having someone lead the meetings and allowing them to keep each other in check can enhance the effectiveness even further. Lastly, it’s not always necessary to invite everyone and will even hurt you in the long run.

These tips are don’t require a lot of effort but will have a significant impact on the effectiveness of your meetings.

After graduation, my career is entirely centered around learning and improving as a developer. I’ve began working full time as a React developer and I’ll be blogging about everything that I encounter and learn during this journey. This will range from improving communicational skills in a technical environment, becoming a better developer, improving technical skills in React and JavaScript, and discussing career related topics. In all of my posts, the focus will be on my personal experiences, learnings, difficulties, solutions (if present), and also flaws.

If you’re either interested in these topics, more personalised technical stories, or the perspective of a learning developer, you can follow me either on Twitter or at Dev to stay up to date with my blogposts. I’m always learning, so stay tuned for more stories! 🎉