A Pluralistic Meeting

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Running a good meeting is the FizzBuzz of management – for a manager, it should be nearly effortless. Attendees should leave gratified that it was time well spent. In the context of servant leadership, it’s our job as managers to ensure that our time together meets this high bar.

Optimize for presence

Meetings are synchronous communication. In programming parlance, they are blocking, which is to say they prevent other work from being done. They are expensive in terms of both actual time and context switching. Therefore, meetings should be reserved for interactive communication that requires presence. This is especially true at Stack because our engineering team is majority remote and distributed across time zones. Reciting status while others listen is not good use of presence. A list of facts can be read just as easily as it can be heard. Can we do better?


My particular team (Careers) does something a little different. We update a status document ahead of time. We block out 5 minutes of silent reading at the beginning of the meeting. Then, we go to every team member and ask if anyone else in the meeting has a question for them. There is no status recital. A conversation must be prompted by a question. There are usually plenty. No questions? Great! Let’s get back to things that aren’t meetings.

Talk-show host

That said, we want to tease out conversations. When I run that meeting, I will do my research ahead of time and have questions in my back pocket if others aren’t forthcoming. I ask follow-ups. A bit like a talk-show host. Also? We like guest hosts. We pick a new team member to run the show every two weeks. Running a meeting is FizzBuzz, remember? Nice opportunity to broaden skills for future managers.

Managers like to talk

A further advantage of the question-prompted format is that we managers don’t get to talk in an open-ended way. Talking needs to be about something someone wants to know, and which is worthy of our valuable, synchronous time together. Managers set an example here, by deferring to the team to choose the direction of conversation.

Every team is different

To be clear, what I describe above is what my team does. Others at Stack share these principles but go about it their own way. The question-driven format has been good for us on Careers. We’re a big team (13 developers!) so it’s especially important to ensure that meetings are lively, informative, and time well spent.

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