How To Run A Meeting That Doesn’t Suck

You want to be a game designer?  There will be meetings.  Oh yes, there will be meetings.

The chief job of the game designer is communication.  It is often convenient and useful to communicate or discuss something amongst a group of people rather than having individual conferences with the people you need to communicate with.  And that’s a meeting.

Or at least, that’s what a meeting should be.  A lot of meetings, especially at game companies, happen badly and for bad reasons.  This entry is dedicated to getting the most out of meetings.

1.  Should you have the meeting at all?

Many meetings simply happen because they’re on the calendar.  This can be an amazing waste of resources.  As a meeting organizer, you are in the position to save several people some of their time at the cost of a little bit of your own.  This tradeoff is totally worth it, especially if you credit the goodwill you earn by cancelling an unnecessary meeting!

Here are some questions you should ask yourself before you send out that meeting invite.

– Do I just need to notify people of something?  If so, send an email.  Much as game designers love to hear themselves talk, that opinion is sometimes not shared by one’s coworkers.  If you just need to give people a heads-up about an uncontroversial topic, send an email.  People will let you know if they have problems, and then a meeting might be in order.

– Do I need to tackle a variety of issues?  It may be convenient for you to get a bunch of people in the same place to address a series of your issues in a row, but it frequently means that for a significant part of that meeting, many of your invitees will be sitting there wasting their time.  A meeting should have a very concise purpose (more on this later), and if you’ve got a laundry list of items, then you should consider other ways to solve the problem.  A series of individual conversations is usually best.

– Do I need to get agreement on an issue from a group of people?  A meeting is usually best for that.  Email chains convey no context, and quickly spiral out of control.  Make sure you do your legwork ahead of time, though.  If there are key people you need to get on board, make sure you talk to them beforehand so that you’re not hearing any major objections for the first time during the meeting.

– Do I need to brainstorm a solution to a problem?  Might want to get a group of people together for that, but I strongly suggest that you make brainstorming meetings opt-in instead of opt-out.  Frequently, people invite anyone who they think might contribute to a brainstorm on a particular subject, and people that don’t have much of an interest show up out of obligation.  Brainstorming meetings should be exclusively people who are interested and engaged about a subject.  Go twist someone’s arm to attend if you think they’re crucial to the discussion, but don’t send out big blanket invites.

2.  Make use of optional attendees

If you’re using Outlook (or any other major scheduling system) you can mark someone as Required or Optional.  Use Optional a lot.  There are usually more people that you want to keep in the loop than people you absolutely must have in the room.  Marking someone as optional is great on a couple levels – it notifies them of the topic being discussed/decided, so if they decide to skip it, they can’t say they didn’t have a chance to offer their input.  It also gives them more agency in managing their own time.  They don’t have to go to the meeting.  But they can choose to.

3.  What is the win condition?

As soon as everyone gets in the room, make one thing absolutely clear:  What is the criteria for leaving the room?  Every meeting should have a win condition.  A point at which you can definitively say, “we have succeeded at this meeting’s purpose, and we should go back about our business.”  Write your win condition up on the whiteboard.

With that firmly in peoples’ minds, it will make it much easier to keep people focused on the purpose of the meeting, and make it easier to get back on topic when the meeting drifts.  Topic drift does not help people end the meeting.  Ending the meeting is good.

And once that win condition is met, end the meeting.  Don’t just mosey on to another subject just because you’ve got some of the right people and the room reserved.  If your thirty minute meeting is done in ten, then high-five the people that helped make that happen.

4.  Understand your company’s meeting culture.

This is going to touch on a much larger subject, so I’ll only skirt the edges here, but every company has a different set of cultural expectations when it comes to meetings.  In some companies, if you schedule a 1pm meeting, you should expect people to be a little irked and/or late, as they come back from lunch.  In some companies, a late Friday afternoon meeting is a deeply unpopular move.  In some departments, expect the come-in-late-stay-late types to miss anything before 10:30.  Your goal is to have the meeting once, and that means understanding the real constraints on the people and the time.

All that said, you are responsible for creating culture as much as you are for obeying it.  If you’re running the meeting, get into the room five minutes early and write your agenda and win condition up on the whiteboard before you begin.

Start on time.  Maybe give people five minutes to show if you lack a critical mass.  Your time doesn’t deserve to be wasted either – if people don’t show, and don’t notify you that they’re going to be running late, cancel and try again.  There’s a little bit of brinksmanship that goes on with this move – meetings generally try to address things in a timely fashion, and by cancelling, you may be slipping a decision or the start of work on something by a day or two.  But there’s accountability inherent in a well-run process, and you’ll often end up with a narrative like this:  “The story slipped because we started a day late because we didn’t review the doc because nobody showed up for the meeting.”  Hear that a couple times in sprint review, and I guarantee that people will be a little more conscientious about showing up to meetings.  Your meetings, at least.

 

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4 Responses to How To Run A Meeting That Doesn’t Suck

  1. Alex B says:

    Nice article Nik! Curious, are you on the IGDA Production SIG mailing list? We had a thread about this same topic a week or two ago. We discussed a lot of the same goals, as well as specific tactics to try and keep people on-topic.

    • Nik says:

      Alex,

      I’m not at present, but maybe I should be! I’m approaching the topic from a designer’s standpoint (though I have held producer roles in the past), and would love to know whether or not these tactics merge well with what our producer partners are looking for.

  2. ExoByte says:

    Another great way to keep from having the same meeting again is to have the person that likes taking detailed notes and sending out summaries. I don’t care if that’s their only job, hire that person.

  3. Katie says:

    I wish Outlook was a little more obvious in its way of notifying Optional attendees. I find that typically people just read the title, press Accept or Reject, and ignore all other information present on the meeting invite (including the text, which I use extensively to outline the agenda and win conditions ahead of time). I’ve had several Optional attendees give me excuses why they can’t make it as though they are critically important because they didn’t know they were Optional.

    You are definitely correct about the culture of meetings. In addition, if you want your meetings to start on time and have good attendance, make sure you’re doing the same to other meetings. Leading by example takes some time to permeate, but has long lasting effects.

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