Nearly every product manager I’ve ever spoken with has the exact same situation - calendars filled entirely with meetings.
There’s a reason why we have so many meetings as product managers. Meetings can be one of the most effective ways to debate topics, make decisions, and create action plans across diverse stakeholders.
Since meetings take up so much of our time, let’s discuss best practices for how to run effective meetings, to ensure that we get the most value for our time.
Principle #1: Define a meeting owner
Every meeting needs a single owner. After all, multiple psychological studies have shown that in situations of unclear or shared ownership, responsibility becomes diluted, which leads to less effectiveness across the organization.
In most scenarios, you will own the meeting. As the meeting owner, you are ultimately responsible for ensuring that the meeting is productive and well-documented.
The meeting owner must come up with the agenda, the attendees, and the duration of the meeting. Furthermore, you must determine whether attendees are expected to read anything beforehand, the way in which the meeting is run, and what defines meeting success.
Without a clearly-defined meeting owner, you’ll find that meetings will have unclear agendas, and that folks will be less motivated to protect each other’s time.
Principle #2: Craft a clear agenda beforehand
As the meeting owner, you are responsible for determining the goals of the meeting. What do you want to achieve with this expensive use of people’s time?
As a side note, meetings are incredibly expensive because each attendee who is in your meeting is unable to tackle their other responsibilities during your meeting. Therefore, you need to crisply define the goal of the meeting.
If you can’t create more value with this meeting versus the value lost by people attending your meeting, then you need to rethink having the meeting in the first place.
Here are examples of meeting goals:
- Gain approval from key stakeholders for your proposed design
- Determine the best response to a competitor’s recent actions
- Ask for additional resources to launch a new feature
- Ensure that all attendees have the same understanding of a customer’s workflow
Once you have a clear goal, use your goal to craft an agenda.
A goal holds three distinct components - a starting point, an ending point, and a path in between. Therefore, your agenda should reflect these three distinct components as well.
The first item on your agenda should be to clearly discuss what the ending point is, and why it matters. If you’re not driving towards a compelling future, your meeting isn’t providing value.
Then, discuss what the starting point is. Ensure that everyone has the same context that you do when it comes to your starting point.
For some meetings, the starting point can be as simple as “we don’t know what our customers want.” For other meetings, the starting point can be as complex as an entire slide deck full of charts and graphs.
The majority of your meeting should be centered around how to get from your starting point to your ending point. What strategies, tactics, and resource allocation will you use to get from point A to point B? Be sure to allocate the bulk of the meeting time to this component.
Furthermore, as part of your agenda, you also need to clearly identify the decision-making mechanism for this meeting.
Will decisions be made by vote? By consensus? By executive decision of one of your invitees? Or are you considering multiple perspectives, and you’ll get the final say?
Let’s discuss a concrete example of a meeting agenda. In our article on product review meetings, we break down a quarterly meeting where the goal is to gain approval from executives on the product roadmap.
We can break this goal down into its three separate components of starting point, ending point, and path.
The starting point is: “how is the product currently doing?” Therefore, this meeting must cover the performance and health of the product as it stands today.
The ending point is: “we want to reach a particular outcome,” whether that outcome is market share, user engagement, or some other set of metrics. Therefore, this meeting must cover why these future milestones are so important, and why resources should be allocated to achieving these milestones instead of elsewhere.
The path is: “what are the strategies, tactics, and resources we should use to achieve this outcome?” This segment constitutes the bulk of the meeting, and dives into debates around tradeoffs as well as discussions around risks and mitigations.
With these three components, we can then craft the agenda to address the ending point upfront, then the starting point, then the path to take.
Furthermore, the decision-making mechanism is “approval from each executive to devote resources to the plan.” Therefore, the meeting should focus on winning approval and on dismantling objections.
With product review meetings, you could imagine a totally different decision-making mechanism where executives have already provided resources and are simply providing perspectives in the meeting, with the product manager making the final call.
Principle #3: Refer to the agenda consistently
Now that you have an agenda, refer to it consistently and repeatedly.
For truly effective meetings, ensure that your agenda is in the body of the calendar invite itself - that way, attendees are aware of the objectives upfront and prepare themselves accordingly.
When you begin your meeting, display your agenda on screen and verbally run through the agenda with all attendees, and ensure that folks are ready to tackle what you’d like them to tackle.
When you close your meeting and send out meeting notes (more about that in just a bit!), ensure that the agenda is part of those notes, so that you can measure the effectiveness of the meeting on how thoroughly the team completed agenda items.
Principle #4: Get to key takeaways, action items, owners, and deadlines
So you’ve discussed the starting point and the ending point, and all of the attendees agree about the path to take from A to B.
Consensus is not enough. Heck, even a decision is not enough. You need people to take action against the decision.
First, summarize the key takeaways from the major discussions that happened. For example, why did you collectively decide to set a particular price point? Why wasn’t it at a higher price or a lower price?
By summarizing these key takeaways within the meeting, you ensure that all participants are on the same page. Be sure to ask the room, “am I missing something from this summary?”
Oftentimes, you’ll find that various stakeholders wound up with incompatible conclusions at the end of the meeting, and that you need some additional time to bring them back to the same conclusion. That’s why asking “am I missing something?” is incredibly valuable.
Note that if your attendees don’t agree on the key takeaways, they won’t agree on the decision, and therefore they won’t agree to taking action.
Once you’ve summarized the meeting verbally, talk through action items and note each one down on paper or on a whiteboard. Once every action item is covered, ask “am I missing something?” You don’t want to call another meeting later just to figure out a missing action item!
Finally, assign ownership for each action item, and ask each owner to provide a deadline for their deliverable.
As the meeting owner, you assume final responsibility for these deadlines - if people don’t meet them, you need to go after them to ensure that they do it. Therefore, it’s critical that you discuss action items, and place owners and deadlines against each action item.
Repeat back to each action item owner what actions they’ve committed to taking, and when they expect to complete the action. Again, repetition helps ensure clarity and helps solidify commitment.
Principle #5: Document the meeting
Write up your meeting notes as soon as you possibly can, to minimize the information that you forget. Ideally, you’ve been taking notes throughout the meeting and can simply flesh out your outline.
While some folks feel that meeting notes are overkill, I’ve personally found that having a paper trail provides alignment and transparency to the entire organization.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back to past meetings that were missing meeting notes. Every single time, I haven’t been able to figure out who attended, what the decision was, and what the status of each associated action item was.
Once your notes are complete, send out an email to your attendees with only the action items, owners, and deadlines in the body - this keeps your email crisp, memorable, and actionable.
In your email, attach a copy of the notes, whether it’s a physical attachment or a link to a shared space such as Confluence or Google Drive.
Here’s an example email:
Thanks for discussing our proposed pricing model today. We decided to raise prices by X%. Next steps:
- Betty to run financial model by next Friday to confirm findings
- Janet to provide updated marketing collateral with new prices by Sept 15
- Annie to mock up new product plan option selector by Sept 8
Full meeting notes are here: notes.org.com/notes-08-12-2018
Note that the email is short and sweet, even though the meeting likely lasted many hours as we held multiple debates on pricing strategies and downstream impacts.
The point of this email is to drive action, not to summarize the meeting - that's what your notes are for!
Designate a meeting owner. Craft an agenda and refer to it repeatedly. In the meeting, get to takeaways, action items, owners, and deadlines. Document the meeting.
By following these principles, you’ll get a lot more out of your meetings, and hopefully reduce the of meetings that you need to make progress on your product.
Every time you increase transparency and alignment, you reduce the need for additional meetings past the first one - which means everyone can be more productive!
Have thoughts that you'd like to contribute around effective meetings? Chat with other product leaders around the world in our PMHQ Community!
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