How to hold successful meetings (in academia)

I recently read Eric Schmidt’s and Jonathan Rosenberg’s book about How Google Works. While most content does not necessarily translate to academia, I think their list of rules for successful meetings does. In this post, I will reiterate the list and comment on their applicability in academia. In general, all rules are also valid for non-academic meetings, but since I haven’t worked in industry for quite a while, I feel more comfortable taking the academic (PhD student) point of view. As you will see, I believe it’s the PhD student’s/junior researcher’s responsibility to make a meeting successful, and therefore, I want to stress that my/our meeting culture is by no means perfect, and I myself sometimes struggle to adhere to these rules.

Even though decision making is more and more outsourced to *your favorite communication platform* messages, in-person meetings (even virtual ones) are a much better tool to meet on an equal footing and reach mutual decisions. A proper meeting culture is therefore indispensable.

*rage on*
My main concern with instant messengers is that we frequently begin to write in a tone in which we would not talk in-person, or worse: our communication partner “hears” a destructive tone in our messages that was not intended to be there. We all know this, yet we are quick in dismissing doubts about the language we chose; after all, only the content counts. I can assure you that it is impossible to read only the content; we will always question the motifs behind a message, which can be a problem if they are not clearly communicated. Humans love to “read between the lines”.
*rage off*

Don’t get me wrong, I think Slack et al. are great tools that increase efficiency, but when it comes to important or potentially sensitive topics, meetings should be preferred, and the following rules might help to make them more successful1:

Rule 1: Have an agenda

The first rule is actually not part of E&J’s list; it is a no-brainer to have an agenda in industry. In academia, this is not always the case (e.g., ad-hoc meetings to “discuss an idea”). Even if it is just 3 bullet points in your head, know the meeting’s objective and communicate it to the attendees. Objectives are critical to keep the meeting on track and determine whether the meeting was successful. Sometimes the goal of a meeting is just to update others. For such meetings, I like to have two main threads: 1) I did this, and these are the results, and 2) This is where I got stuck, and need help with. I think the objective of an “update meeting” is never only to update others but always to also get help with the challenges you’re facing.

Rule 2: Meetings should have a single decision-maker/owner

Eric and Jonathan argue that there should be one person whose butt is on the line for making a decision, typically a person of high seniority. This is very tricky in academia, as sometimes the more senior person is not the one whose butt is on the line. Imagine you’re a PhD student, and you meet with your PI. While your PI comes up with 10 new ideas on improving your paper, which is 90% finished, it is your missed opportunity if you fail to include the 10 new aspects in time. In this case, the decision-maker should be the PhD student. Naturally, a decision should be reached together, and there are plenty of situations in which it makes sense to adhere to a “top-down” decision. However, Rule 5 underlines my reasoning.

Rule 3: If you attend a meeting, attend the meeting

Close your laptop2. Be attentive. Otherwise, don’t be there at all. If you have the feeling you are not needed, then the decision-maker should not have invited you. If you have the urge to be on the phone or laptop, ask yourself: “Is my time really better spent doing task X, or am I doing someone a disservice by not properly attending this meeting?”. If you are the instigator of the meeting and have the feeling that people are not attentive, tell them. Also, ask them why they are not attentive (do this offline). You might also rethink your decision of whom to include next time.

Rule 4: Meetings are not like government agencies – they should be easy to kill

This is a very important one: If the meeting’s purpose can’t be achieved, the decision-maker has to ask the hard question: Does it make sense to continue the meeting? This is true for recurring meetings (e.g., in 1-on-1s, we can ask: is it beneficial to continue the weekly schedule, or would a bi-weekly meeting be enough, or does this format not work at all?) and ongoing meetings (e.g., is everyone present we need to reach a decision?)

Rule 5: The decision-maker should be hands on

More often than not, the PhD student is the one who does the dirty work. She is the one who thinks and ruminates about one specific problem for hours and days. She comes up with ideas, trashes them, gets frustrated, and tries again. This is why she should “[…] call the meeting, ensure the content is good, set the objectives, determine the participants, and share the agenda (if possible)” to quote E&J. Unfortunately, the last point is rare in academia; see Rule 1.

Rule 6: Even if a meeting is not a decision-making meeting it should have a clear owner

In academia, the majority of our meetings are to update or brainstorm. I argue that in both scenarios, the PhD student should be the owner who takes care that there is a clear agenda, and all participants were able to prepare for the meeting. Ideally, the objectives of the meeting are shared a couple hours before the meeting takes place.

Rule 7: Meetings should be manageable in size

E&J recommend not more than eight people and ten at a stretch, and everyone should give their input. In big collaborations, this can be hard and makes the following even more important: Have proper communication channels for people who should know the meeting results but were not crucial to reaching a decision.

Rule 8: Attendance at meetings is not a badge of importance

If you are not needed, don’t participate. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done since, often, politics still play a significant role in academia. Some scholars think it is essential to “show presence” even though their involvement in the project is negligible. I am convinced that you can spend your time more productively than by participating in meetings for projects you’re not actively involved in. Technically, Rule 7 should take care of this issue.

Rule 9: Timekeeping matters

A problem I observed a lot in meetings, is that they get into “overtime” before the core problems were solved. This is because scholars love to discuss details, and every itsy bitsy issue needs to be completely solved before we can continue. However, we should not only start our meetings on time but also end them with a proper summary of the findings. Of course, this requires to have a reasonable agenda and maybe even a time assignment for each topic. I would also recommend having a “rabbit hole watcher” who drags us out of the rabbit holes that our attention to detail digs for us.

In summary, there are a lot of crucial factors that determine the success of a meeting. If I had to pick a single rule, I’d go for Rule 2. If the owner of the meeting is genuinely interested in a positive outcome, she will naturally think about the majority of the other rules herself, and importantly will set objectives which make the success measurable.

1. Eric and Jonathan did not order their rules, I tried to order them by importance based on my (limited) experience.
2. Unless you need it for note taking.