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Life at a Photonics Startup: Meetings—the Good, the Bad and the Brand-Spanking New

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The quality of meetings is a constant topic of conversation in most organizations, and very much so in startups. We have all heard comments such as; meetings are a waste of time; meetings are too long and involve too many people; meetings are key to retaining our team culture; virtual meetings are great but make it easy to get distracted; and many more. All these comments have validity, of course.

A great many meetings do waste a great deal of everyone’s time and seem to be held for historical rather than practical reasons [1]–[3]. On the other hand, it is clear that organizations cannot function without meetings, as a means to communicate, discuss problems and opportunities and arrive at decisions. In addition, meetings fulfill a deep human need. Humans are a social species. In every organization and every culture, people come together in small groups at regular and frequent intervals, and in larger “tribal” gatherings from time to time. Face-to-face meetings in particular play an important role in developing people’s attachment to their company and to each other, a team spirit. If there are no face-to-face meetings in the places where they work, people’s attachment to the organizations they work for will be weak [3]. Thus, meetings perform many functions:

  • A meeting defines the team, the group, or the unit. Those present belong to it; those absent do not. Everyone can look around and perceive the whole group and sense the collective identity of which he or she forms a part [3]. 
  • A meeting is the place where the group revises, updates, and adds to what it knows as a group. Every group creates its own pool of shared knowledge, experience, judgment, and tradition [3].
  • A meeting is the place where problems and opportunities are discussed, and decisions are made regarding future action. Meetings can efficiently bring together ideas and opinions and allow people to do their jobs in a more coordinated and cooperative manner. By discussing and deciding as a group, this creates in all present a commitment to the decisions. Once something has been decided, even if you originally argued against it, your membership in the group entails an obligation to accept the decision. Real opposition to decisions within organizations usually consists of one part disagreement with the decision to nine parts resentment at not being consulted before the decision. For most people on most issues, it is sufficient to know that their views were heard and seriously considered. They may regret that they were not followed, but they accept the outcome [3].

As mentioned, meetings can have both positive and negative aspects. New meeting formats have both pros and cons. The question to be addressed in this article is how to make meetings mostly positive in a small business environment, where the consequences of poorly executed meetings can be very expensive, catastrophically expensive in some instances. It is straightforward to calculate the direct cost of holding a meeting and it is an illuminating exercise to determine whether there is enough value in the output of the meeting to justify the expense. A small meeting, involving only four or five people for an hour, can cost a thousand or more dollars in direct cost (salaries plus overhead). A meeting of ten or twelve people for an hour can cost several thousand dollars. This might be an excellent investment of company funds, but it is not always the case. Unfortunately, very often it is not the case. In addition to the direct cost of the meeting we should also consider the missed opportunity cost of holding an ineffective meeting. This cost can be orders of magnitude larger than the direct cost. It is imperative for all organizations and for small businesses in particular to ensure that their team members are trained on effective meeting techniques and that they are conscious of the balance between the meeting output value and the meeting cost.

Meetings come in all sizes, some include just a handful of people and others many thousands. The focus of this article is on meetings that happen in small startup companies, relatively small meetings from two people to a few tens, at most. For these meetings at small businesses, you should consider the following eight principles for effective meetings:

Define the Purpose of the Meeting The first question to ask yourself is: What is the purpose, the objective of the meeting?

What are the topics to be discussed? What is the desired output of the meeting? How do we know that the meeting objective has been achieved?

The second question to ask yourself is: Does a meeting provide the best mechanism to achieve these objectives?

Are there other paths to achieve the objectives that would be more appropriate, more efficient? Can an email discussion work better? Email is a powerful tool for a group to discuss issues and arrive at decisions in a time effective manner. It is not always appropriate though. It is time-efficient for each participant, but the time that it takes to reach a decision can be long. In addition, discussions via email require special attention given that all the non-verbal communication is lost, which leads to misunderstandings regarding intent and tone of the conversation. Face-to-face meetings give you the whole range of human communication paths and for some issues they really are the only possible way. Another option to consider is Management By Walking Around (MBWA). Rather than calling a meeting where the discussion will mostly consist of several one-on-one conversations, meet with each individual (or smaller groups of individuals) separately. This is more time-consuming on the meeting organizer but less so for the meeting attendees and, on the balance, can be more time effective for the whole group.

Think whether a virtual meeting would be more effective than a face-to-face discussion for the objective you want to achieve and the circumstances. For discussions involving people at different locations or in the middle of a pandemic, as we are now, there might not be another choice. Pay special attention that all participants are engaged, since the threshold to join in the discussion is higher in virtual meetings for many people. Virtual meetings also limit non-verbal communication and introduce several other challenges that we will discuss as we progress through this article.

Once you have decided that a meeting is needed to achieve your objective(s), communicate these objective(s) to the attendees through an Agenda. This is your plan for the meeting! You should ask others to suggest agenda items, which increases meeting relevance, ownership and engagement. For clarity, you can also add a statement explaining what the objective(s) are. Send the Agenda out before the meeting, but not too far ahead-people should have this information fresh in their minds. A few days ahead is ideal, but this depends on the nature of the meeting of course. It is good practice to identify Agenda items as being “For information” or “For decision,” so that those preparing for the meeting can better understand the nature of the objective(s).

In the case of regular, periodic meetings, you should ask yourself these questions for every meeting. If the answer is that the meeting is not necessary at that particular time simply cancel. Periodic meetings have an ability to self-perpetuate, so constantly question whether the meeting should take place at that given time and whether that series of meetings is still relevant. If it is not relevant any longer, redefine it or cancel the whole series of meetings. The proliferation of company meetings should be critically fought back. Have fewer but better meetings.

Make the Meeting as Small as Possible It is not possible to define an ideal number of attendees, of course. This will depend on the nature of the meeting. But there is evidence to suggest that keeping the meeting small is beneficial [1]. You are better able to notice body language when there are fewer people. Smaller meetings make it easier for everyone to participate. This is key: make sure that everyone participates, the chair should drive the discussion and involve in the discussion those that are remaining silent. Limiting attendees to a number somewhere between five and eight is recommended. Some meetings need fewer than five people, of course, and a few other meetings might need more than eight people, which should be the exception. Exceeding twelve people is highly discouraged. If you do need to go above twelve attendees, such as in an all-hands meeting, for example, the degree of planning and facilitation must go up to still achieve meeting effectiveness.

That said, you don’t want to pare the invite list down so much that necessary people aren’t present, or others end up feeling slighted [2]. The leader may have to leave out people who expect to come or who have always come. This needs tact to be communicated; but since people generally believe that they are overworked already and dislike going to meetings, it is not usually hard to get their consent to stay away.

The right balance of who attends and who doesn’t will depend on the nature of the meeting and the attendees. It is a subjective measure, but you need to be comfortable that you have reached the right balance. You might also consider a timed agenda, in which attendees join only the portions of the meeting pertinent to them, which is a powerful tool to improve meeting effectiveness.

Prepare All items should be thought of and thought about in advance if they are to be usefully discussed. If documents or presentations are produced at the meeting for discussion, they should be to the point, brief and simple. It is a supreme folly to bring a group of people together to read six pages of closely printed sheets to themselves [3].

Discussions that require significant preparation should be planned well ahead. Make clear, with the Agenda, what preparation is necessary for the attendees. Lack of preparation by the meeting chair and attendees is one of the main causes for ineffective meetings.

Be Present at the Meeting You have been invited to the meeting because your contributions are believed to be necessary. Make sure that reality supports this belief and that you contribute with your full capability. Some people think that they can multitask, that they can finish an e-mail or read through their Twitter feed while listening to someone in a meeting. But research shows that they really cannot. Recent neuroscience research makes the point quite clear on this issue [1]. Multitasking is simply a mythical activity. We can do simple tasks like walking and talking at the same time, but the brain cannot handle multitasking. In fact, studies show that a person who is attempting to multitask takes 50% longer to accomplish a task and makes 50% more mistakes. So, smartphones and other electronic devices should be discouraged at the meeting.

The second reason to limit the use of smartphones at the meeting is that they distract and annoy others. Surveys indicate that meeting participants using electronic devices during discussion can annoy other participants and this can have very negative consequences if the person annoyed is a potential customer with whom you are having a group meeting. People can feel insulted when someone reaches for the phone in a meeting, particularly if the meeting involves people from other companies.

Still, there are some good reasons to have electronic devices at a meeting. Perhaps you are waiting for an urgent and important message, business related or personal. If this is the case, the device can certainly be used, but make sure to indicate at the beginning of the meeting that this is the situation. If these circumstances do not apply, have everyone silence their devices and pay attention to the discussion.

Virtual meetings offer the opportunity of using smartphones or working on other tasks discreetly, without distracting others or upsetting customers. This should only be done if it will not affect the quality of your contribution to the quality of the meeting outcome, of course.

Maintain the Meeting Focus Through the duration of the meeting there will be constant pressure to move into other topics, whether related to the Agenda or not. This needs acute vigilance by the part of the chairperson. If the discussion starts to move into a tangent, it should be brought back to the main path to achieve the meeting objective within the allocated time. If the tangential topic deserves further discussion, action should be defined to address it separately. In some instances, a critical unforeseen item related to the meeting objective is uncovered in the discussion and in this particular case it should be allowed to take as much time as necessary, of course.

Encourage the clash of ideas, provide an environment where creativity can be unleashed and at the same time have clear boundaries in your head as to when the conversation has diverged too far and should be brought back to the center, so that the group does not lose sight of the meeting objective.

Start on Time and Finish on Time (or Earlier) There is only one way to ensure that a meeting starts on time, and that is to start it on time. Latecomers who find that the meeting has begun without them soon learn the lesson. The alternative is that the prompt and punctual members will soon realize that a meeting never starts until ten minutes after the advertised time, and they will also learn the lesson [3]. Starting and finishing meetings on time (or earlier) should be part of the company culture of reaching deadlines on time. The opposite, starting and/or finishing late, particularly in meetings chaired by top management, sends the message that timeliness might not be that important in the company. Meeting attendees might also have other commitments following the scheduled end time and the delay will then have a domino effect for activities later in the day.

You might consider stand-up meetings to improve time efficiency. There is empirical data that proves they work. Allen Bluedorn from the University of Missouri and his colleagues concluded that stand-up meetings were about 34% shorter than sit-down meetings, yet they produced the same solutions [1]. Going for a walk, rather than standing up in a room, is a good solution in many instances. But do not let the format distract you from what really matters, running an effective meeting.

An important role of the meeting chair is to ensure that the participants are aware of time and control those that take an unnecessarily long time in their participation. It is hard to provide guidelines on how long a meeting should be, this depends on its nature of course, but you should think carefully to justify to yourself meetings longer than an hour. Very few business meetings achieve anything of value after an hour and a half or two hours and an hour is enough time to allocate for most purposes. Attendees’ attention and decision-making power starts waning if the meeting extends for much longer than an hour. In fact, think whether a meeting lasting 45 minutes or 30 minutes would suffice. If it is necessary to meet for periods longer than an hour, make sure to provide adequate breaks so that the attendees can recharge.

Capture Decisions and Action Items The output of the meeting should be captured in the form of a list of decisions and action items. A good practice is to have a person at the meeting, other than the chair, assigned to capture these. You should reserve a short time at the end to review them and make sure that all participants agree. An action item is properly described by a brief sentence that includes a verb, a person responsible to complete it and a completion date. That is, it should describe: What are we going to do? Who is responsible? When should it be completed?

It is not strictly necessary to describe How will we do it? This question might need one or more separate meetings to define, but if there already are some ideas relating to this, they can be added as a comment. The review at the end of the meeting is a good time to ensure that all action items include all their elements. The person responsible for the action item should be someone present at the meeting. If the assigned responsible person is not present at the meeting, someone present should be tasked with communicating this with the absent responsible person.

Get Feedback Start from the premise that it is not easy to be a meeting chair or a meeting attendee. Develop your meeting skills collectively, relying on the insight and wisdom of all. Whether you are the meeting chair or a meeting attendee, spend some time getting feedback on your meeting effectiveness and what can be done to improve it. In general, not enough time is spent improving meeting skills, to the detriment of the whole organization. Face-to-face meetings lend themselves better than virtual meetings to provide feedback and discuss meeting improvements. A special effort should be applied to generate feedback when virtual meetings are the dominant format. As you finish reading these eight principles for effective meetings you might say that this is all obvious, that it is “common sense”. The question though is, if it is “common sense,” why are these principles not commonly followed? They are “common sense” but they are not “common behavior.” They are not part of our built-in DNA, they are an acquired skill, thus education and training are needed. I encourage you to make these principles part of your set of skills. You will not be disappointed.

References [1] “HBR Guide to Making Every Meeting Matter,” Harvard Business Review Press, 2016. [2] Steven G. Rogelberg, “Why Your Meetings Stink – and What to Do About It,” Harvard Business Review, January-February 2019. [3] Anthony Jay, “How To Run a Meeting,” Harvard Business Review, March 1976.

About the Column This is a regular column that explores business aspects of technology-oriented companies and in particular, the demanding business aspects of photonics startups. The column touches on topics such as financing, business plan, product development methodology, program management, hiring and retention, sales methodology and risk management. That is to say, we include all the pains and successes of living the photonics startup life.

This column is written sometimes by me (Daniel Renner) and sometimes by invited participants, so that we can share multiple points of view coming from the full spectrum of individuals that have something to say on this topic. At the same time, this is a conversation with you, the reader. We welcome questions, other opinions and suggestions for specific topics to be addressed in the future. If you have any questions or comments please contact us here.

The expectation is that this column will turn into a useful source of business-related information for those who intend to start, join, improve the operation, fund, acquire or sell a photonic startup. A fascinating area that I have been one of those lucky to enjoy as a way of living for a long time.