How I manage meetings and agendas

People often moan about meetings, often for good reason. Here's how I deal with them.

I read an article recently about how GitLab automates engineering management. My interest was piqued by the title but watching the accompanying video left me wide-eyed. Using Google Docs, the script editor and copy/pasting long alphanumeric IDs doesn’t strike me as particularly fun or efficient. It seems like a very high barrier to entry, but I guess it works for them 🤷.

I’m not getting involved in the meetings versus no meetings culture war (you’re both right), but on the back of the GitLab article I thought I would write about a way to keep track of the meetings you run.

Unless you work at Gumroad, I’m assuming that you participate in some sort of meeting at some point each week. At the very least I would recommend having 1-1s with your manager/reports weekly (or thereabouts… but I do recommend weekly). Meetings work best when there’s an agenda prepared in advance (at least one working day or more) so that attendees can prepare themselves, and also so any reference materials that might be relevant can be shared with time for people to read it. Depending on the type of meeting (e.g. incident review), you might also want to take minutes, list attendees and note down action points.

Using a good tool like Notion (which is my current preference) for these agendas can make your life a lot easier. Here’s one way to do it.

A home page for your meetings

Notion is a wiki so works hierarchically. Create a new page to act as the root for all your meeting notes (in reality you’ll likely have multiple roots) then embed a database into this page. Here’s a contrived example:

Having all these pages/notes in a database is brilliant because as the number of pages grows, you can add filters and sorts and different views. It’s really powerful, but the UX is kept reasonably simple.

Create templates for different meeting types

The power of using Notion for this is that you can pre-define templates, which are essentially different page layouts. Once you’ve defined a template, you can create a new meeting agenda from it in a single click, and all the annoying boilerplate is pre-populated for you. No copy/pasting required.

Here’s what a 1-1 template might look like:

Templates can be used for weekly leadership meetings, team retrospectives, and they are extremely useful for incident response – both living incident docs as well as post-incident review meetings. When things are on fire, you want to create an incident doc without thinking about it at all – you certainly don’t want to resort to copy and pasting Google Docs.

(Note: I’ve included some example templates at the bottom of this article.)

A meeting manifesto

In many ways this is less about the tool and more about the process. A good tool (like Notion, but there are plenty of others!) can/should be intuitive and reduce cognitive load from repetitive tasks.

Regarding the process of meetings, what I’ve learned over the years is that meetings (when you absolutely must have them) should:

  • Be concise (always bear in mind Parkinson’s Law).
  • Have a very clear purpose and need. First ask yourself if you could just send email or another form of async discussion thread instead.
  • Have an agenda. For all the reasons described above (justification, consideration time, reference material etc).
  • Start and end on time. Ideally it will end before time!
  • Have an agreed, documented outcome. This might be a firm decision (e.g. “hire / no hire”) or some clear actions, each of which are owned by one person and clearly documented.
  • Have a chairperson. The chair owns the meeting and must make sure it runs like clockwork, ensure everyone who needs to be present is, and will follow up on any actions until they’re all complete.

I’ve found these to be really helpful guidelines over the years, but I’ve also found it very difficult to enact culturally however much ‘leading by example’ you try to do. Old habits die hard, and you have to over-communicate this stuff tirelessly. Thankfully, if you spend time reducing your meeting overhead as much as possible this won’t be a massive problem.

Links to my Notion templates: