Make Meetings Less Awful

Meetings are the worst. I mean, my God, they suck. The vast majority of meetings are simply awful. 

But they don’t have to be!

If you’ve ever been in a meeting where you felt like your soul was being sucked out of your body through your eyes, I have a few tips that will make future meetings more tolerable. If you implement them correctly, they might even make some of your meetings useful! Imagine that. 

Write It Down Ahead of Time

Agendas. You should have one. Well, this seems painfully obvious, doesn’t it? But seriously. How many meetings do you attend where there isn’t a single person who knows exactly what you’ll be talking about in the meeting beforehand? 

Here’s a simple solution for making meetings wildly more productive. The person who is in charge of the meeting needs to make an agenda and send it out to all the attendees before the meeting. A full day is great, especially if there are things that people might want to research in preparation for the meeting. Even a few hours is helpful. It’s best if the person in charge reaches out to attendees early to see if they have anything they’d like to see on the agenda. 

The corollary to this is that the meeting attendees must actually read the agenda, understand what will be discussed, and come to the meeting prepared to discuss and make a decision on any of the agenda items they care about. 

And, of course, if they don’t care about any of the agenda items, they probably shouldn’t attend the meeting. 

Another, slightly more spontaneous, method is the box on the whiteboard. We used to do this in engineering meetings at IMVU. Before the weekly eng meeting started, people could add topics they wanted to discuss to a list on the whiteboard. Once the meeting started, someone drew a box around the list. Nothing could be added to the list once we started, and nothing was discussed that wasn’t in the box. As a bonus, it encouraged people to get to the meeting early if they had a topic to discuss. 

Everything Has a Next Step 

Meetings are not open ended discussion forums. They’re not group therapy sessions. Meetings are for making decisions. Every single thing you discuss in a meeting should have an decision and a deliverable. 

Here’s an example. Once, I was in a meeting to talk about a change somebody wanted to make to a product’s design. We sat together for half an hour discussing the types of research she could do to figure out whether the design would work or whether it was small enough just to ship. At the end of about 30 minutes, she announced, “Well, I don’t think we’re going to decide this now.” To which I responded, “Why the hell not?”

Stop having discussions just to have discussions. Refusing to make a decision in this meeting just ensures that you need to have another meeting later, and nobody wants that. Make sure that all agenda items at meetings have outcomes. Sometimes the outcome will be, “Susan is going to go off and investigate these three questions and report back so that we can make a more informed decision.” Sometimes the outcome will be, “Laura is in charge of building a prototype and will pull in whomever she needs to help.” Sometimes the outcome will be, “We’re shipping this damned thing as soon as we leave the room.” I kind of wish that were always the outcome.

The outcome will never be, “Well, we need to think more about this.” The problem with this statement is that it’s too vague. There is nothing actionable about this. Nobody is assigned to do anything, so nothing will really get done, and the next time the point comes up, you’ll have to have the whole conversation over again. Everything from a meeting needs a specific next step and somebody who is assigned to take it. 

Fewer Attendees

Meetings become far less productive after about four people, so whenever possible, keep meetings as small as you can. Obviously you sometimes need to have more folks, but really ask yourself whether everybody needs to be in the meeting, or if somebody would do just as well with a quick report after the fact.

If there are people who routinely aren’t contributing to the meeting in any way - no agenda items, no adding to the discussion, no making decisions, no deliverables after the fact - then they are great candidates for not getting an invitation next time. Presumably you’re paying these people, and I have to imagine there is something more productive they could be doing than sitting in a meeting checking their email.

Every Meeting Has a Leader

Someone has to be in charge of the meeting. Always. 

The person in charge of the meeting has a lot of responsibilities. The leader must make the agenda, keep everybody on track, mediate disputes, ensure that everybody who has a contribution gets to make that contribution, make sure that all the deliverables and next steps are being captured, and follow up on the things that come out of the meetings. 

I was in a meeting once that was led by a particularly ineffective PM. We were discussing what the priorities would be for her product (don’t even get me started on why engineers and designers were discussing this when it was so clearly her job). We were each giving our opinions about what should be done first, and the discussion began to get heated. 

Instead of stepping in and guiding the discussion or just deciding what order we’d build things in, the PM sat back and let everybody scream at each other. The meeting ended with someone in tears (unsurprisingly, this person wasn’t me) and no decision made about prioritization. 

Unless somebody is in charge, meetings just meander and go on for three times as long as they need to with nobody who is willing or able to say, “Right. We’re done here. Let’s go do something productive.” Having someone whose job it is to end discussion and assign tasks makes things go much more smoothly and quickly. 

Besides, if we actually expected some work from the people who call all those meetings, maybe they’d call fewer damned meetings. 

No Broadcast Meetings

I’m going to assume that everybody working for your company is literate. If this is true, please stop having meetings where you read things to them. You’re not in kindergarten. This is not story time. 

I have been to too many meetings where a PM or CEO or somebody else who should know better shows a slide deck and then proceeds to read all the slides to the audience for an hour. 

Here’s an idea: send the deck out the day before. Tell people to read it for themselves and come up with questions. At the meeting, spend no more than five minutes summarizing the most important things about the slide deck (“We made more money this month than last month! Yay!”), then take questions from the audience about the rest of the deck. 

If you are concerned that people will miss critical information because they are failing to read important emails, that’s really something that you need to address separately. I’ve found that reducing meeting times by a few hours a week gives people far more time to read their email or to do something actually productive. 

More Discussions, More Working Sessions, Fewer Meetings

You know what I like more than meetings (besides everything)? I like discussions. Discussions are things that happen between two or three people who are all interested in and informed about a particular topic. They tend to happen in hallways and they often help disseminate important information to the people who need it. 

I also like working sessions, in which a few people all work together on something like a design or code. Working sessions generally involve a lot of writing on whiteboards or pair programming or gathering around somebody’s screen to try different variations of a particular wireframe. Working sessions are better than even good meetings because by the end of the working session, you’re often done with whatever it was you were going to just talk about in the meeting. 

And maybe that’s the most important point here. Meetings are not conducive to DOING. They are conducive to TALKING. Talking is the enemy of doing. By making a few small changes in the way you conduct your meetings, you can turn them into places where things get done rather than just talked about. And that will make meetings suck a whole lot less. I promise. 

Expect More From Product Managers

I talk to a lot of startups, and I've noticed a really troubling trend at some of them. A huge percentage of Product Managers at startups suck.

Not you, obviously. I mean, you're a product manager at a startup, and you're the exception. Good for you. I mean all the other ones.

I mean the Product Managers who are failing to do the following obvious things:

Understand their Users

I was visiting a company, and I asked about what sort of ongoing user research they were doing. It turned out that they had an intern for a few weeks who was doing a giant research study to try to understand how people viewed the product. The Product Managers would occasionally attend a session, but basically they seemed uninvolved in the research. They knew nothing about the planning. They didn't monitor to see how things were going.

The research involved talking to a lot of people who had heard about the product but who had never used it before to see why they weren't using it. The Product Managers' main job with regard to research seemed to be to read a report produced by the intern at the end of the few weeks.

Meanwhile, nobody was doing targeted usability research on whether people were confused by the product. Nobody was doing any sort of inquiry into how big customers were using the product. Nobody was calling people who had stopped using the product to find out why. Nobody was following up with new users to understand their initial experiences.

Unsurprisingly, none of the PMs in charge of deciding what to build next had any real idea about usability problems, what separated their biggest customers from everybody else, or why people tried the service once and never returned. And that meant that they weren't very good at figuring out how to build their product, so when they did add a feature, it very rarely improved any of their key metrics.

The single most important thing you can do as a Product Manager is understand your users. This is the foundation for making every single decision about your product that you will ever have to make. If you don't know who your customers are and what motivates them, you can't consistently deliver features that will make them happy. It really is that simple.

Know Exactly How their Product Works

I was talking to a different startup about their onboarding flow, and I asked the product manager to explain how it currently worked for certain types of users under specific circumstances. The product manager said he'd have to check with the designer to get all the details.

The designer, of course, knew exactly how the product worked, since she was the one who had designed it. She also knew all about the user needs and the issues with the current flow and what she wanted to try next. All of this led me to wonder why on earth she wasn't the one in charge of the product.

When I attended meetings with both of them, the product manager constantly had to refer to the designer when talking aout what things they had tried, what had worked, and what users were currently seeing. Whenever an engineer asked a question about how something was supposed to be built, the PM would simply pass the question along to the designer and then relay the answer back to the engineers.

As far as I could tell, the PM was nothing more than a buffer between the engineers and the designer. Once the designer started working directly with the engineers, the PM had almost nothing to do except track the project schedule.

If you don't know everything about how your product works and why it works that way, how are you supposed to make good decisions about it? The role of a product manager isn't to be a passive conduit for information. A great PM needs to understand the product well enough to make important decisions about how to change it.

Validate Assumptions Before Building

I'm not going to tell a specific story about this one, because I've seen it happen absolutely everywhere.

Essentially, Product Managers seem to fall in love with ideas. Maybe they get the ideas from meetings or from their bosses or the ideas appear to them in a flash of light one morning in the shower. But regardless of how it happens, today's idea is always the Big Idea that is going to change everything.

Once they've got the idea, of course, they jump straight to the question of how to get it built. Typically, they get the feature on the schedule, break it down, get a designer in to mock it up, and get the engineers working on it. At no time before all this happens do they stop and ask the question, "How can I tell if this idea is any good before I spend a lot of time and money on it?"

No matter how good your instincts are, you don't really know that adding this new feature is going to be an enormous hit with your users. Sometimes you're right, and the feature is a game changer, but just as often, an unvalidated feature has a negative ROI.

Good product managers do as much work as possible ahead of time to figure out if they're spending their resources on the right stuff. Maybe they devise a small experiment to test whether people will use the feature. Maybe they do a very small version of the feature first. Maybe they do a concierge version of the feature. Hell, maybe they even sell the feature before they build it.

Whatever their strategy, good product managers validate their features before they build them, and that's why their ideas are so much more likely to improve the bottom line of the company. They don't necessarily have better ideas. They just kill the bad ones before spending too much time on them.

Prioritize Changes Based on Business and Customer Needs

Everything can't be a top priority. That's not how priority works. But you'd never know that to talk to some product managers. I can't tell you how often I've seen product managers try to build everything at once, because they simply couldn't make the decision about what was most important to either the business or to users.

Unfortunately, this tends to cause problems as engineering gets spread too thin and the team gets confused about what they should be working on.

Without clear prioritization, nothing really gets done well or quickly. Everybody ends up working on different projects, and all the projects move much more slowly than they would if everybody worked together.

A good product manager can make priorities clear without micromanaging. She makes the decision about what to work on based on things like expected ROI and the outcome of early validation tests. She balances features that are great for the business with features that are great for the users, and she always tries to find features that are good for everybody. She looks at things like long term vs short term pay off and makes sure that features are delivering value to all the different types of customers - new users, power users, business users, etc.

She clearly says that the entire team's goal is to improve a particular key metric and then makes sure that the team understands what that means. She then prioritizes which features should be delivered first while monitoring the metrics, and she keeps the team motivated to follow up by making progress toward the goal very clear.

Keep Engineers from Getting Jerked Around

How many of you have been working on something when a product manager has suddenly told you to stop working on that and work on something entirely different? How often does that have to happen before you become completely unmotivated? Not very often, right?

Of course, sometimes things change. Bugs are found that need to be dealt with. Business people make new deals. Company priorities get shifted around. Organizations get shuffled.

A good product manager protects her team from as much of this as she possibly can. She does this by pushing back on pressure from above to change priorities midstream. She does this by making sure that what her team is working on is important enough that she has a good reason to keep them on it, even if her boss suddenly wants something new and shiny. Sometimes she does it by making sure that there is somebody who can triage high priority bugs in order to keep the whole team from getting pulled off their work in the event of an emergency.

A good product manager manages up as much as she manages down.

Do Jobs that Aren't Technically Product Management

Just because the word manager is in the title doesn't mean you're off the hook for actually building things yourself. This is especially true at startups, where there are very few people trying to do a whole lot of work.

When I was working as a product manager, I frequently wrote copy, answered customer support questions, touched up images, built prototypes, consulted with the CEO on strategy, ran scrums, responded to people on Twitter, and made user research calls. Oh, and about hundred other jobs that had nothing to do with management.

I did those things because they had to be done, and there was nobody else to do them, but I also did them because the act of doing them made me a better product manager. By answering customer support questions, I learned how users felt about the product and where they got confused. By touching up images, I learned how much time it took to do the job so that I could gauge how efficient other people were when they were doing it. By monitoring Twitter, I learned who was talking about my product and what they were saying. These things were all critical to doing my job well, plus it meant that we didn't have to hire a bunch of specialists to do these things.

If you're not doing things outside of your normal job description, take a good hard look at whether you're really doing the most important parts of the job. I'll give you a hint, if what you're doing involves hours of meetings every week, there are more important things you could be doing.

This Sounds Hard

This sounds hard because it IS hard. Product Management should be hard. You're in charge of creating something. You have to make important decision affecting a huge number of people all the time. If you think it's all just going to meetings and making schedules for other people to stick to, you're doing it wrong.

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Startups Shouldn't Hire User Researchers

Everybody seems to think I'm a user researcher, which is not strictly true.

It's true, I write a lot about user research, and I've certainly done my share of it over the course of my career. But I don't really consider myself a user researcher. I do enough user research to be extremely effective at being an interaction designer and product manager.

There are lots of actual user researchers with degrees in psychology and specialized training who are doing much more interesting and complicated research than I do. I respect those people. They are scientists in many cases. But I don't think that most of them should work for startups. In fact, I don't think that small startups should ever hire a user researcher just to do research.

Don't get me wrong. User research is critical to startups. How else are they supposed to understand their potential customers and find product market fit?

No, the reason people shouldn't hire people to do their user research is that learning about your customer is the single most important part of your startup. If you're outsourcing that to a person who isn't directly responsible for making critical product decisions, then you are making a horrible mistake.

I see startups do this over and over. They hire a consultant, or even a regular employee, to come in and get to know their users for them. That person goes out and runs a lot of tests and then prepares a report and hands it over to the people in charge of making product decisions. Half the time the product owners ignore the research or fail to understand the real implications of it.

And why wouldn't they? The product managers weren't there for the process of talking to users, so they almost certainly haven't bought into the results. It's really easy to ignore a bunch of bad things somebody else wrote about your idea in a Powerpoint presentation. It's a lot harder to ignore half a dozen real users saying those things to your face and showing you problems that they're having in real life.

The right way to do research in a startup is to have the people who are responsible for making decisions about your product intimately involved in the research itself. That means that product owners and UX people are designing and running the tests. Even the engineers should watch some of the sessions and hear first hand what their users are going through.

The reason I talk so much about user research is that I want you, the entrepreneurs, to learn enough about it so that you can DO IT YOURSELVES. You're welcome to hire people like me, or even real user researchers, to teach you what you need to do. But having somebody else do the research for you is not an option. At least, it's not one that you should use if you're still trying to find product market fit or learn anything actionable about your customers.

Stop thinking of user researchers as people you hire to get to know your users, and start thinking of yourself as a user researcher. At startups, you should all be user researchers, especially if what you really are is a designer or product manager.

STFU About What Women Want

In a recent post on TechCrunch, Penelope Trunk tells us (again) that most women don’t want to do startups.

First, I’d like to extend that to Asians, African Americans, Gays, and Latinos. Oh, and white men. Most of them don’t want to do startups either, because most people don’t want to do startups for a whole host of reasons.

Penelope tells us that women are different though, because women don’t want to join startups because women want to have babies. As evidence, she points out that most women downshift their careers as soon as they have babies, which of course makes startups impossible.

It’s not that women don’t join startups because of lack of opportunity or sexism or doing what’s expected of them or anything else. Now that we have completed defeated bias, all women can choose to do anything they want, and they are choosing to have babies rather than go to startups. Case closed!

Here’s the problem: Penelope, and other people who say things like this, are making my life a whole lot harder, and I’d like them to knock it the fuck off.

I’m not going to argue that most women don’t want to stay home with their children. Frankly, I don’t care what most women want to do.

I know what I want to do, and what I want to do is to work at startups. I don’t want to have children. I’ve never wanted children. I never will want children, and I certainly wouldn’t want to give up working at startups for them.

So, when a publication like TechCrunch spews some nonsense about what women want, it means that the next time I go into an interview with a male founder (and they are overwhelmingly male for some reason that I’m not going to address here, but that Penelope assures us has nothing to do with bias) who has read that nonsense, he may be thinking, consciously or subconsciously, “she doesn’t really want to work at this startup because she wants to have a baby.”

And frankly, that sucks for me and all the other women like me. Oh, did I mention that there are lots of other women like me? There are.

But let’s just look for a moment at what all of these other women, the ones with babies and without startups, are choosing to do. They are choosing to stay home because of...I don’t know what the current argument is. Hormones? Biology? Bad government policy? Nature?

It couldn’t possibly be bias or lack of opportunity because, of course, some women are choosing to work at startups, so it would be trivially easy for all women to choose to work at startups, right?

Except that my father’s law school class of 1963 had 3 women in it. That’s right. Three. Now, clearly more women could have joined the class. His law school didn’t have a 3 woman quota or anything.

But the women of 1963 chose not to go to law school. And I’m positive that there were all sorts of blowhards opining that women didn’t go to law school because they were too busy having babies, and this was perfectly normal, and we shouldn’t do a damn thing to promote more women going to law school because WON’T SOMEBODY PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN.

After all, we weren’t actively STOPPING women from going to law school (any longer). It was their choice! Except that, as Penelope points out, more than 50% of the law school graduates now are women.

So, far more women are now choosing to be lawyers. You know, despite the fact that they still have babies. What women wanted, with regard to law school attendance, somehow changed between 1963 and today.

Similarly, long before women had the right to vote in the US, many women didn’t actually want the right to vote. Some even felt that women were biologically not capable of voting well. And for years after they had the right to vote, many people still felt that it was the wrong decision.

How many women in the US do you know who don’t care about voting? Fewer than felt that way a hundred years ago, right?

The point is that “what women want” changes over time. What people want changes over time. Because what we want is hugely driven by social norms and massive cultural shifts and all sorts of things that may seem biological at the time but turn out not to be.

In other words, if suddenly there are a ton of women at startups kicking ass and being awesome, it might turn out that more young women want to join startups in the future. And 25 years from now, we’ll all be laughing at the idiots who said things like “women don’t want to to law school...I mean...join startups!”

Penelope, do you vote? Do you know women who went to law school? I do. And I am forever grateful to the women who fought not just for the right to do these things but to make them seem like totally normal things to do.

I salute the women who said, “Hey, wait a minute. Maybe having a vagina doesn’t determine what I have to want from life! Just because a lot of women want something, doesn’t mean that I have to want the exact same thing!

And I’m still a little annoyed at the women who said, “Oh, women don’t WANT to vote. Voting is for men!” I take that back. I’m a lot annoyed at them. They sucked.

So stop doing it. Stop assuming other women want to make the same choices you do, especially when society has such an enormous and invisible impact on your choices. Stop assuming a young woman just starting her career knows everything about all of the wonderful, exciting career choices she could make.

And mostly, stop making it ok for other people to assume that I want what you want. That’s clearly not true, since what I want most right at this moment is to punch you in the face.

I am a woman. I want to work at a startup. I don’t want to have children. I want to vote. I want to wear stiletto heels and write jQuery, sometimes at the same time. In other words, I am an individual, and I have all sorts of wants that are neither determined nor predicted by my gender.

I am a woman, Penelope, but you don’t have any idea what I want. So, kindly shut the fuck up about it.