Keeping meetings on track

A list of tips to help you keep meetings on track.

You organise a meeting to agree on use-cases for a new feature. It is going well, and then a colleague asks which database you plan to use.

You’re preparing a response (because you haven’t decided yet), but someone suggests MongoDB.

“But why not PostgreSQL?” another person counters. “We have a similar service, and it only needs one instance of PostgreSQL – I wonder why the same configuration wouldn’t work for you”.

It surprises a few people. ”One instance?! What is your load?”

“It’s not high at the moment. We may need to consider adding more capacity as we grow, but I think three or four instances will be enough”.

“Have you ever questioned why we have so many databases in the same company?”

And now you understand that the meeting went off-track.

How do you prevent it?

Should you ignore the question about databases?
Or stop on the MongoDB suggestion?
Or cut off the PostgreSQL-guy? And if yes, why him?

And what if their points are not as irrelevant as you think?

Here is a list of tips to help you keep meetings on track.

At the beginning of the meeting...

  • ... explicitly state the goals.
    Sometimes, people are unaware of the goals – an additional reminder will not harm. Plus, it will help you return the meeting on track later; you’ll need to remind everyone what you’re trying to achieve.
  • ... make people aware of time constraints.
    We have 60 minutes, and I need about 40 for the presentation – the rest is for the discussion and Q&A – something like that is enough to make everyone conscious of time.
  • ... share what exactly you plan to cover.
    When people know the order of topics, they won’t interrupt with questions you plan to handle later.

During the meeting...

  • ... watch out for side conversations.
    Irrelevant questions are usually not a problem because you choose how much time to spend answering them. Irrelevant comments are fine either – you can acknowledge it and follow up later.
    Most of the time waste is caused by side conversations – when several people are engaged in a dialogue about something that does not contribute to the goal. But yes, they usually start from irrelevant questions or irrelevant comments.
  • ... timebox side conversations.
    It is hard to assess whether a conversation goes off-track or someone just needs more time to make a point. Decide how much time you should wait before stopping it.
  • ... treat irrelevant conversations equally no matter how they start.
    It is common to say something like “it is probably irrelevant but …” before making a point that is indeed irrelevant. If you have limited time and something does not contribute to the discussion – stop it.

After the meeting...

  • ... follow up on what was left undiscussed.
    Irrelevant ≠ not valuable. You may need to stop some conversations during the meeting, but people still have ideas worth discussing. Reach out to the people whose comments or questions didn’t get proper attention for a follow-up conversation.