The ingredients of meaningful meetings
Achieving the right meeting content, structure, and schedule is difficult, regardless of the nature of the organization. Meetings on topics related to R2O are sometimes even more onerous to plan, because the participants are diverse in their function. Yet they are necessary to ensure active communication throughout the process. But who should be invited? What should be talked about? How long should they last? Should participants present slides? While there are no simple answers for any of these questions, there are certain considerations that can contribute to better decisions about planning a meeting within the R2O community.
Establish the topic(s) first, attendees second, and length last. It is important not to position meetings for failure before they begin, and unfortunately, focusing on the attendees and length without a clear outline of what needs to be discussed or accomplished is an impediment to engagement. Meetings should have the least number of people participating as possible for their purpose. Meetings with more participants are more susceptible to “hijacking”. For that reason, once the agenda or outline of the meeting is established, attendees should be selected based on their ability to actively participate in the discussion and decision-making. This is different than selecting participants based on the meeting’s general relevancy to their work.
By their nature, stakeholders have something to passionately debate. And it is difficult to contain debate. So the length should be established based on the number of participants and its importance. If a meeting is engaging, no one should be looking at the clock anyway.
Separate strategic meetings from tactical meetings. Most people can remember a time when a meeting slid off topic, or even worse, two people started discussing a minor issue of limited or no importance to the remaining attendees (a period often described as “in the weeds”). There is a time and place for those detailed discussions or side conversations; however, organized meetings are generally not the place. Both strategic and tactical meetings should be held with the purpose of achieving a solution to a business issue.
That is not to say that there is no place for tactical meetings. The difference is that tactical meetings call people together to reach a conclusion on small issues of importance to at least a subset of the attendees, and the resolution is simple or previously proposed. Tactical meetings are effective if the agenda keeps moving. It is better than the participants reserving time to hold meetings on each of the topics individually.
Often times in R2O, tactical meetings can involve too many people. Representatives of the operational users do not need to know about the coding convention for a new algorithm that is under development; researchers do not need to provide input on the shift schedule for practitioners for participate in demonstrations. Research and operations can have their own tactical meetings without jeopardizing the R2O process. Tactical meetings are usually recurring, so if some participants are passive or do not attend regularly due to a conflict, their presence is probably not needed at all.
In contrast, strategic meetings require a longer discussion because the issues are large and complex and likely important to the broader organization(s) or community. Strategic discussions can include topics like deciding on a new set of R2O projects or organizing a new testbed. Necessary but not an excessive number of representatives from both research and operations should participate in such meetings to ensure diverse viewpoints are contemplated. New strategic directions require organizational support and likely material support, so senior leadership should participate in such meetings, or at least provide a representative or vehicle to elevate the outcomes of strategic meetings to the top of the organization.
Limit the use of text on slides. Regardless of the type of meeting, slides are often a crutch, especially when there is a lot of text. While in some circumstances slides are valuable as an easy way to summarize results, excessive text can cause the presenter to start reading from the screen. Eventually, the rest of the meeting participants start looking down at their smartphones, and the level of engagement in the meeting declines. Instead, participates should make presentations concise, complete, and captivating. Short stories with a humorous anecdote are a great complement to presentations that can highlight the bottom line.