An article on how and when to schedule meetings may seem an odd solution architecture topic, but like it or not, solution architecture requires meetings. Plenty of meetings. In fact, solution architecture is primarily a facilitation role, so any solution architect must coordinate extensive discussions in order to learn, validate, or share information. If you design solution architecture in your cube (or living room) by yourself, you are doing it wrong!
I have been coordinating meetings for a very long time, and have done it well enough that I am at times hired but for my ability to design and run a meeting efficiently and not for my solution architecture skills. So... welcome to my series on improving your meeting judo. I am going to start with the first crucial step toward running an effective meeting and cover when and how to schedule a meeting.
The answer is "don't." The single most transformative thing you can do to improve the effectiveness of your meetings is not to have them. I realize that sounds contradictory, but if you can sort things out in a more direct and efficient manner, you should. Any meeting uses multiple people's time, takes effort and structure to run correctly, and as a result is not the most efficient way to get many answers. Alternatively, doing research, having one-on-one discussions, using quick instant messaging chats, or a even (shudder) sending emails are often a more efficient way to get what you need.
That having been said, there are times you do have to hold a meeting.
My focus is on meetings where you are gathering initial information to create a solution design, gathering feedback on the design, gaining approval for a design, and presenting the design to inform people. Those are the three archetypes of sensible meetings:
People spend a significant amount of meeting time in status meetings. While that can loosely fit my criteria for meetings that make sense, I think status is often better handled through other mechanisms than meetings.
When you schedule meetings, you need to give people plenty of advanced notice. Calendars are packed at most organizations - people have very busy schedules. Your best bet to not annoy people and reduce stress for everyone, including yourself, is to give people lead time and schedule meetings when people are actually available, which I’ll get to in a minute.
Scheduling in advance enables better calendar availability, allows people more time to prepare for the meeting, and finally, can even be used as an strategy to force you to wrap something up. If I am struggling to complete producing something that will require a meeting, it can be very effective to throw a meeting two weeks out on the calendar to review what I will have produced for feedback. If nothing else, it forces me to get it done in time. If you have better self-motivating techniques, feel free to go with them, but that usually works for me.
Don’t schedule meetings over other meetings people already have, and check with them if you need to before scheduling over their meeting. I think it’s really a frustration for almost everybody with a keyboard when they are careful about maintaining their calendar and keeping up to date and some annoying meeting scheduler just ignores that to schedule meetings right over other meetings. This just creates stress for the recipient because then they must sort out the priority of the multiple meetings on their calendar.
This may be neck-in-neck with the same-day lunchtime meeting scheduling!
I will also add something about the participant side of meetings - it is a two party coordination game! Part of scheduling is the act of scheduling a date and time for the meeting and sending out an invite, while the other side of the dance is accepting those meetings. On the side of accepting, it is your responsibility to either decline or accept a meeting when you receive it, and if you accept it, it is your responsibility to attend the meeting.
If you ignore the meeting request, you create a lot of extra work and stress for the person trying to coordinate it. And if you accept and don’t attend you create wasted time for everybody that was diligent about following through on the commitment they made to accept the meeting. So, these are also important things to pay attention to.
When you schedule meetings, invite as few people as possible to them.
When facilitating conversations to design a solution architecture, I recommend starting with smaller meetings to gather information and perspectives and draft a design. They you can open up the discussion to more opinions and larger meetings. You will have had time to produce something worth discussing that is less likely to waste peoples time.
I have clients where you schedule meetings, and everyone and their uncle wants to be included in them. Either you are asked, or you invite takes a never ending trip across email forwards. I try to get ahead of this and assure everyone that they will absolutely get their chance to provide their input and feedback on the topic, but to let me get a little bit of legwork done first and get a story together as not to waste their time. Once that is done, they can give me feedback. It will be quicker for me to get that together with a smaller group, and it will be a better use of their time to not have to hang out on the phone while the small group figures it out. This strategy sometimes works to keep meeting rosters reasonable.
When you schedule meetings, it is important to highlight who is required for the meeting, and who is optional for the meeting, if there are attendees that are optional. I then include a note in the meeting invite that alerts the people who are required for the meeting to let me know if they are not able to attend and cannot send a suitable representative, so I can move the meeting. Granted, that is sort of built into the fact that I marked them as required on the invite, but the additional note can help elicit a response. Additionally, puts a little extra responsibility on the recipient of the invite to understand that if they do just blow it off and not respond, I may end up having to reschedule, which will delay the overall timeline.
As you schedule meetings, make sure your invite has a clear subject line that explains at a glance to anyone who sees it on their calendar what the meeting is for. In the body of the message, build on that as necessary. Always show up at your meetings with a draft or some sort of work product to guide or structure the discussion. If it is a meeting long enough that it needs an agenda, include one, but at the very least have your description and clearly state the goal.
Believe it or not, as formal as I am around most work products, I have never been a fan of meeting templates. I understand the concept of a meeting template to drive the right behaviors because on the architecture side I am a proponent using standard documents to drive process behavior. However, I think a meeting template adds unnecessary overhead to meeting coordination. If you include the right people, include the subject, make sure the goal and what will be happening in the meeting are clear, then that is enough.
When following the best practices listed in this article, you can leave your meeting template at home. That being said, when I am at an organization that has a standard meeting template, I use their standard meeting template. #wheninrome
My final comment is that I like to own my own meeting coordination and scheduling. I know a lot of times when I’m an architect on a larger project I’ll be asked, “do you want me to have the project manager coordinate that meeting?” I almost always refuse this offer, possibly because I am a control freak, possibly because I support multiple clients and making my calendar available to everyone isn’t always easy, but definitely because I think that to follow the best practices referenced in this article, I need to control the process.
If I am scheduling meetings myself, I can do that. I tend to take the lead on sending my own meeting invites. I think it saves someone else from having to schedule them, and it is easier for me to do them that way. I am certainly not saying I never lean on additional support to get them scheduled, but most times I find it's easier to handle it myself.
Avoid keeping an unnecessary meeting. If you schedule meetings, get them all coordinated, and then happen to figure something out before the meeting or you are just not prepared for it, then cancel it or move it. Under no circumstances should you make people get on the phone with you if you don't have productive event ready to go while they're on the phone with you. You know what is worse than a meeting cancelled 5 minutes before it is supposed to start? A useless meeting that is not cancelled and proceeds unnecessarily.
Alright, I think that is all I have to say for now on this topic, but be warned I will be back. I have plenty more to share on this topic so I plan drop a few more articles on meetings. I don't think I have ever run into anyone who said, "I have a full calendar of meetings today and boy and, wow, am I excited!" Unfortunately, facilitating discussions amongst groups of people is a critical necessity in most roles, but especially enterprise and solution architecture roles, to gather, discuss, and share information.
If you are going to have to do it often, you might as well be good at it. Go forth and schedule meetings! Or even better, don't...