May 23 2010

“Running” Effective Meetings

In theory, meetings are a good idea – a short period of time for a team to come together in order to review projects, set goals, and ultimately make decisions.  In practice, many meetings end up being a big waste of time, in large part due to the low expectation we’ve come to accept for how they are run and when they are called (everyone in the conference room in 5 minutes…).  The topic of how to make these meetings more efficient has been discussed before, by 37signals and others, but one thing that often gets overlooked is how unhealthy they are for you.

More often than not, meetings consist of two of the worst things for you: sitting and eating bad food (donuts, pizza, etc.).  Bad food isn’t good for you for obvious reasons, but the problems associated with sitting may be news to you – a recent NYTimes article quite bluntly tells us that the negative effects of sitting for the majority of the day outweigh the positive effects of our daily workouts.  Ways to get exercise throughout the workday can range from the simple: frequent walks to the water cooler, to the complex: a walking desk, but what about all the time we spend stuck in meetings?

Alan and I have been experimenting with the concept of a “Running Meeting” which consists of:

  1. Write agenda on hand – only as many topics as fits
  2. Run at leisurely pace for variable mileage as we discuss topics
  3. Recap & write notes when we return as we stretch

We’ve been doing this for about two months now, for a variety of meeting types.  Some lessons learned:

  1. We only meet when we really need to – By attempting to meet the requirement that all meetings must happen while on a run, each meeting must be deemed important enough to actually get ourselves out the door.  Generally, we’ve found that if it’s not important enough to do so, it’s probably not important enough to have (and can be handled via a more efficient avenue).  Note: One exception is the 5 minute “daily standup” meeting we have during development projects to keep everyone on the same page.
  2. Leads to great ideas – We seem to come up with some great ideas during the brainstorming parts of the run.  This may be subjective validation (because the idea of running meetings appeals to us), but there have been several studies that have shown that aerobic exercise leads to increased mental ability (a related benefit is that it helps combat depression).  The simple action of putting the physical part of your body into action, necessitates that the mental part of your body follows along.  I’m sure all of you can attest to being in many “sleepy” meetings.
  3. Better for high level topics – These meetings work better for strategy and brainstorming meetings than detailed project rundowns, because in the latter case, we find that we miss the ability to reference project docs or communication emails.  Though, one could make the argument that detailed project rundowns shouldn’t be a part of meetings at all, and are better handled via other communication channels.

Some people we’ve mentioned this idea to have expressed concerns about being able to think clearly enough while running to carry on a useful conversation.  I thought this would be an issue for me because I zone out when running by myself, but having someone to talk to makes a big difference in keeping me focused and engaged.  On the flip side, having a business meeting while running has actually helped me figure out and sustain a comfortable long distance pace.  If running’s not your thing, or not possible at your company, consider taking a leisurely walk outside instead, or even just holding your meetings standing up.

All in all, it has been a great experiment for Night Train so far, and we plan to continue the practice.  It really seems that adding a physical component to meetings 1) forces us to evaluate whether the meeting is necessary, 2) infuses more energy into the discussion, and 3) helps combat the effects of sitting in our chairs all day.  We realize that it’s not practical for everyone, but we hope that the idea of infusing exercise into the workplace, both generally and as tool for meetings, catches on so that we can all lead healthier and happer lives.

Check out our post-meeting picture from our strategy meeting last week that took us on quite the adventure along some trails in Maryland.  A post (or several) about the Vibram Five Fingers you see in the picture will be forthcoming…

Vibram Five Fingers after intense strategy meeting

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