Striving for greatness

Thoughts on emerging tech, open source, and life

How to run an effective meeting on IRC

Since my election to the Gentoo Council, I’ve become the de facto meeting chair and secretary. Over the past 6 months or so, I’ve learned a lot about what works well in online meetings (often by virtue of doing the opposite). By no means have I mastered this, but here’s some of my discoveries along the way.

What works well:

  • Send out a draft agenda in advance (say, 1 week). This helps avoid confusion and disorganization at the meeting, and it also allows you to have no “open floor” section at all, because all topics should have come up when you posted the draft. Settle on a final agenda a couple of days in advance.
  • On the draft, say who should attend the meeting to discuss each topic.
  • Be specific about the topic, so you stay focused during the meeting.
  • For each topic, have a very specific goal of what will be accomplished at that meeting. If it’s a decision, exactly what will the vote be? If it’s a discussion, what points do we want to get out of it, and why is it happening during the meeting instead of on mailing lists?
  • Prepare. All of the information needed to make a decision should be readily available by the time the meeting comes along. To aid this, say on the draft agenda what information will be needed.
  • Stay relentlessly on topic. Cut off diverging threads early on, before everyone gets involved.
  • During the meeting, get an action plan for each topic: What’s the next step? Who’s responsible for it? When will they have it ready? Make sure the person responsible personally commits to this–don’t just assign it to them.
  • Take notes, and post a public summary. This summary informs and reminds people of the progress made and what progress needs to be made next. By being posted publicly, it also allows for discussion, clarification and correction.
  • Keep track of unresolved topics, and keep bringing them up over and over so they can’t slip through the cracks.

What works poorly:

  • Request topics on a mailing list, but don’t collate them into an agenda until after the meeting’s started.
  • Do your best to ensure that people relevant to a topic don’t even know it’s going to be discussed, or don’t tell them what information you need from them.
  • Have vague topics, so nobody’s really sure what you’re supposed to be talking about or what you want to get out of it. Feel free to branch out into anything that seems related, or really anything at all.
  • If a topic isn’t resolved by the end of the meeting, forget about it. If it’s important, it’ll come up again, right?
  • Don’t tell anyone what the results of the meeting were. If you have to release something, make it as hard to comprehend as possible, like an IRC log instead of a summary.

It took a lot of pain and wasted time for me to figure out the value of doing things right, and I’m still working on getting some of the above points right, so I want to save you that same pain.

Do you have any more points to add? Please do so in the comments. Thanks!

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Written by Donnie Berkholz

May 13, 2008 at 1:41 am

Posted in Blog

Tagged with , , ,

10 Responses

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  1. Effective? But you never decide anything…

    Ciaran McCreesh

    May 13, 2008 at 3:29 am

  2. Gentoo Council meetings are some of the most ineffective meetings I can think of. I’m sure you do all of the above and that your points are important but the council meetings still ends up consisting of several hours of talk and no decisions month after month.

    I guess that’s due to having the wrong people on the council and dragging down every discussion with lots of irrelevant details or details that should already be obvious to council members and everything ending up in a lot of insecurity and being postponed to next meeting.

    I have no idea how to fix that but it’s an important issue and I hope you’ll figure out how to fix it eventually.

    Bryan Østergaard

    May 13, 2008 at 3:38 am

  3. Either the chairman should not be the secretary or he shouldn’t take notes until after the meeting. Way too frequently five minutes or more passes without anyone saying anything because you’re busy taking notes and apparently everyone else just waits… This combined with the lack of any non-controversial decisions having been made kind of brings me to the conclusion that none of the council members want to achieve anything… i.e. the council lacks any sign of visions…

    zlin

    May 13, 2008 at 3:54 am

  4. In XMMS2’s meetings, we have participants prepare a statement with TODO, BLOCKING, DISCUSS, and DONE fields. When the meeting starts, participants paste their statements and everyone is brought up-to-date on what everyone else is doing.
    TODO represents what is to be done, DONE, what the participant has accomplished since last meeting, BLOCKING, what’s preventing TODO from being accomplished, and DISCUSS is anything the participant would like to discuss during the meeting. If the DISCUSS items are not already on the official agenda, they are usually discussed after the official agenda items are exhausted.
    With this layout, XMMS2 developers are almost never duplicating each others’ work or submitting conflicting work.

    Daniel Chokola

    May 13, 2008 at 4:02 am

  5. Related to being relentlessly on topic:

    It’s good to have a set time length, and someone to act as time keeper. They might chime in periodically to say how much time is left, like “We only have 30 more minutes, and haven’t gotten through half the agenda.”

    Josh Nichols

    May 13, 2008 at 6:18 am

  6. Great summary!

    Stuff I’d add / refine:

    * Unresolved topics go into a “bin list” that is reviewed at the end of the meeting for next actions, discarding, or postponement to next meeting. Tell people their idea or issue went on to the bin list to help the group move on.
    * Use a collaborative document like Google Docs during the meeting (or insert your favorite multi-user collaborative editing environment here) – adding notes, putting things on the bin list, and letting everyone view (and – depending on the type of meeting, edit!) helps keep things on track. SubEthaEdit is a fun one. Would like to hear from others about what tools they use!
    * Come up with a snappy phrase for letting people know they’re going off topic or maybe too mired in details that don’t matter at the moment – “rathole!” is a common one. Using the same phrase that everyone understands helps prevent having a meta-discussion about whether something is off-topic or not.

    -selena

    Selena Deckelmann

    May 13, 2008 at 9:43 am

  7. Bryan,
    Thanks for chipping in. As I mentioned, I’ve learned much of the above from watching the council (including me) fail to do it consistently. What I’ve noticed is that in the meetings where we do successfully do some of the above steps, things move a lot more smoothly. There hasn’t yet been a meeting where all of the council members have done all of the steps.

    Donnie Berkholz

    May 13, 2008 at 10:15 am

  8. Bo (zlin),
    You raised an interesting point — it hadn’t occurred to me that other people might be waiting for me to take notes, because I don’t spend any additional time writing them. My interpretation was that other people weren’t paying enough attention to that IRC channel because it’s either the middle of the workday for Americans or late night for much of Europe.

    Donnie Berkholz

    May 13, 2008 at 10:50 am

  9. Ciaran,
    That’s definitely a larger issue — however well a meeting goes, if everything the group met about is unimportant, it doesn’t have a big impact. Within Gentoo, that may mean that we need a way to decide whether topics are important enough to talk about during a council meeting instead of just adding everything brought up by everyone.

    Donnie Berkholz

    May 13, 2008 at 12:16 pm

  10. Hey Donnie,

    I’m flrichar in the #LJ channel on freenode. I think you’re right on target, even for meetings that don’t happen in IRC-space. I’m not a developer, but I am a sr network engineer for a consultant and ASP. Too many of our meetings are inefficient! Not only that, we like to have them on lunch, so it ends up being one person standing in front of everyone else, kinda barking, while everyone else is eating.

    For the engineering types obsessed with efficiency, this kinda stuff drives me crazy. Some of the best meetings we’ve ever had consisted of the following:

    – everone contributed
    – everyone /stood up/ (ie was not seated)
    – everyone had a clear idea of what they were bringing to the table and their roles and responsiblities

    Plenty of these were “lightning meetings” that happened very quickly, but were extremely efficient.

    Fred Richards

    May 13, 2008 at 1:54 pm


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