How we finish meetings early

I work in a team consisting of engineers and designers distributed across several locations. We build an internal component library used by many teams within our company. Despite being a diverse bunch and separated by oceans, this team is one of the most productive I have worked with.

One specific quality of the team that stood out to me from day one was how meetings always finished on time. This was shocking to me. I was used to meetings that dragged on and on. I thought to myself that surely this was a one-off. But again and again, meetings consistently finished on time. Over the one year I have been on this team, I can count on one hand the times we did not finish on time.

I thought it would be beneficial to document the process and culture behind this remarkable consistency.

The mechanics of how we end our meetings

The 5-minute rule

The team has a rule to always finish meetings 5-minutes early. This isn’t a “1–5 minutes is enough” thing. When the 5-minute to mark is reached we drop everything, we put our hands out and do...

Thumbs

This is a quick ceremony where we hold up our hands and indicate using our thumbs how each member thought the meeting went. There are three options:

  1. Up (“Went great!”)
  2. Down (“Went terribly”)
  3. Sideways (“Okay, but could use improvements”)

If someone has their ‘thumbs’ sideways or down they explain briefly why they felt this and what they think we can improve. This ceremony is usually done in under a minute, and it gives us a mental break from the meeting we just had.

Also, we get a feedback loop to always improve our meetings through the quick feedback we get from this ceremony.

A culture of finishing meetings promptly

But, anyone can make rules. The problem is following them consistently.

I realised over-time that the 5-minute rule and thumbs was part of the answer but not the entire story. There was a more implicit but fundamental reason why our team of 15+ could consistently self enforce our meeting rules.

The answer was the culture of the team. Our team is tight knit and have several key anchor members who gently but steadily guides the team. The core of this team has been together a long time, and we have continually refined our practices to make processes that work for us.

For instance one supporting process is that the facilitator (we rotate in our team) of the sprint keeps an eye on the time and ensures that actions are discussed and noted down before ‘thumbs’ time is up. What is pleasantly ironic is that because we are restricted in the time we consistently ensure discussions on actions are done.

Why is it so important?

We have to work with several time-zones, and we have a very short window where we can all be in the same meeting. By keeping meetings consistent than we allow certainty that meetings will work for all.

Virtual hangout calls are not the most fun thing to be stuck in for hours and hours at a stretch with no prospect of ending. By finishing early and predictably we can ensure that team members can comfortably stretch their legs, get some coffee before heading off to their next task or meeting.

Sometimes long meetings are long for a reason. But as Parkinson’s law goes:

work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion

Our team hates long meetings, and what we hate more are meetings with no definite end, ‘thumbs’ and the 5-minute rule is our cure for this.

Consistency in meetings is important to us on so many levels.

Conclusion

‘Thumbs’ and the 5-minute early rule are a deceptively simple ways our team uses to keep meetings short. Of course, this may not work for everyone but I definitely recommend giving it a try. It has and continues to make a huge positive impact for our team.

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James Won

Software Engineer and history nerd from Wellington, New Zealand.