We’ve all been there — whether you’re a Product Manager or not, you’ve sat in a meeting that’s going far longer than it should, horribly off-agenda, listening to people bicker about some minor point that’s preventing anyone from moving forward and actually making an actionable decision. Usually what happens is the loudest person in the room wears down everyone else until they feel that they’ve achieved some perverted form of “victory” before either the meeting runs out of time, or (even worse) they think that their decision is that of the group and there’s nothing more to discuss. This is especially a problem if, as is the case in many smaller companies, the loudest voice in the room also just happens to belong to the CEO or COO of the organization. These meetings are the bane of everyone’s existence, not only because they’re ultimately pointless and a waste of everyone’s time, but because they contribute to a culture of direction from the top and not innovation from the ground up. If the CEO is always right, then there’s no point in anyone who’s not the CEO making decisions.
But that’s not how these meetings should happen, and it’s not how they have to happen. With a little bit of planning and preparation, any good Product Manager can run an effective meeting where people feel like their voice has been heard, their positions understood, and everyone leaves the room with a mutually-agreed plan in place.
Know Your Players
I like to think of a meeting as an opportunity to exercise my directorial skills — and I mean that in the theatrical sense. Every great director knows not just which parts his performers will play, but how they will play them. You don’t cast someone meek and quiet to play Sky Masterson in Guys & Dolls, and you don’t cast a loud, obnoxious diva to play Christine Daaé in Phantom of the Opera. You know the roles, and you know the players available to you — and it’s your job as a director to place the right people in the right role at the right time to see them shine onstage. Similar considerations need to be given when planning your meetings. Who’s the person on the exec team for whom nothing is ever good enough? Who’s the manager always looking to promote one of their team players over themselves? Who’s the director always looking for the next innovation to try out? By knowing the players in the meetings that you’re scheduling, you can predict to a high level of certainty how that meeting will play out, assuming that you structure it correctly, anticipate objections and concerns, and facilitate the shit out of that thing!
The Meeting’s Not the Meeting
Regardless of how well you know the players, you have to realize that the meeting isn’t actually the meeting. The meeting is the opportunity for everyone to get together and air their grievances — kind of like Festivus. But the real meeting happens outside the “meeting”. Any time you just get a large group of people into a room, you’re going to have chaos — sometimes it’s controlled chaos, but it’s chaos nonetheless. This is why we meet with every stakeholder who’s going to influence the decision before the meeting. This is where we do the heavy lifting, where we figure out what it’s going to take to move the person to a “yes” and to eke out all of the objections that they might be holding onto, waiting for the right opportunity to cast their die on the table. If we fail to meet ahead of the “meeting” we’re doing nothing but throwing our direction to chance. We don’t do that — as Product Managers we play the role of the House, and the House only gambles when they know they’re going to come out ahead.
Drive to Decision
It’s so easy to just give in when a meeting starts to go sideways — when you have your CEO staring at his phone, and your Director of Marketing writing emails to their subordinates, and your VP of Sales reviewing their weekly numbers. So don’t let them. Demonstrate to them that you value their time, and require that they value theirs. Focus the meeting, focus the discussion, pull people out of their laptops (by force, if necessary), but drive to a decision. Make outrageous statements, make a declaration that a decision has already been made, don’t show more than two options — one if at all possible. Structure your entire meeting, from beginning to end, around making a decision that matters and take the time after that meeting to confirm it and to plan the next steps. We had a rule at one company I worked at that if you walked out of the meeting, you walked out of the decision — a rule that our CEO tested once, probably inadvertently. Needless to say, he never left our meetings early again. Make rules, stick to them. Make an agenda, stick to it. Take only as long as you need to come to a decision — if everyone agrees in the first 5 minutes, that’s 55 minutes they have to go do real work.
If you can demonstrate to others that you’re dedicated to respecting them, respecting their time, and making actionable decisions, they’ll naturally follow. If you let them run roughshod over you every chance they get, they’ll happily do that as well. The decision is yours to make, so do the right thing.