Remember that scene in the last episode of the Star Wars movies where Darth Vader, the very embodiment of evil and the ultimate villain, is desperately trying to help the Emperor destroy all that is good and virtuous, and Luke says to Vader, “There is still good in you.” That pretty much sums up how I feel about meetings. Every time I have to sit through an ineffective meeting, I think, “There is still good in you.”

As a developer myself, I understand and share the developer's dread of meetings. As a manager, I appreciate how painful it is to suspend the productivity of a room full of expensive resources to convey the smallest bits of useful information. Meetings don't have to be that way; they just often end up that way. Meetings are necessary and, if done well, can make projects drastically better. In this issue, I'm going to tell you what I know about making meetings productive and positive.

First off, don't have meetings you don't need. I'm referring mostly to recurring meetings like the daily scrums or the “Wednesday Status Meeting”, etc., but it could be any meeting. Meetings are very valuable, especially at the beginning and often the end of a project and at various times throughout the project. However, sometimes, they're completely unnecessary.

If you feel the meeting will be a boring, non-enlightening waste of time, cancel it and get some work done! Ask the team members to email the team if they have any roadblocks, and let them get back to work. Pick it up again next time, when it might be worthwhile to have a meeting. The team will be much happier being given the chance to get some work done. You'll probably even get a few thank-yous. Never hold meetings just because they're on the schedule. Only have meetings that benefit the project.

Prepare for your meetings and have the attendees prepare too. As the manager, it's your responsibility to have the agenda ready and to be prepared for a productive meeting. If there's some information that needs to be looked up or researched in order to be discussed, don't save it for the meeting. Have someone find the information before the meeting. Make a good agenda with a tangible list of items to address, make sure attendees are prepared, and make sure you hit all of those items in the meeting.

Capture to-do items during the meeting. Write them down; pinpoint what needs to be done, when it needs to be done, and who is responsible for doing it. At the end of the meeting, have each person who's assigned a task read back the deliverables and due dates they are responsible for so that there's no confusion. As a manager, there's no excuse for something not getting done because the what, when, and who wasn't clear. Nobody likes a meeting where they feel nothing got done. Everybody likes a meeting that informs them and gives them direction.

Meetings should not be discussions with an audience. If two people are having a discussion and seven others are wondering how to sneak a peek at Facebook, you're wasting time. Memorize the phrase, “Let's take this offline,” and use it often. Meetings should bring up things that need to be discussed and that's especially true for developer meetings, but the moment a discussion starts to exclude the majority of the group, it needs to be shelved. Ask the participants if they need any feedback from anyone else in the group and then end it. These shelved topics are to-do items and should be assigned and reviewed with all other to-do items.

If you have a team member who likes to hear himself talk, cut it short: “That's a good point, let's take that offline.”

Find ways to replace meetings that don't require face time. Face-time is invaluable early in a project and I'll even go so far as to say that even ineffective meetings can be extremely valuable, if solely for the face time. But face time is only a plus a few times a year. Beyond that, ineffective meetings just suck time out of everyone's day and people don't like them because they WANT to be productive.

Status updates are a must in projects of any length, but status meetings are particularly unproductive. At CODE, our finely tuned Agile-based process eliminates status update meetings almost completely. Instead, our lead business analyst (BA) on each project creates a three minute Status Update Video at the end of each sprint. Their job is to put the list of items from the sprint into a logical order for presentation along with the list of items slated for the next sprint. They print them out and then open the app and run through each item that was completed. If there are questions, the BA discusses them with the developers. After the practice run, the BA records the video and makes a three-minute (never more than five-minute) run through the completed features and the upcoming features.

No editing is done, if the video becomes a train wreck, they start over and do it in a single take… because starting over on a three minute video is faster than editing. The entire process usually takes 30-45 minutes of the BA's time and 0 developer time.

We post the video on a private site and send the link to the client contact(s). They often have several people review it and even use the videos for progress reports within their own organizations. Along with the link, we add a note saying that we're happy to have a meeting to discuss the project further once the client has reviewed the video. They almost never take us up on it. Nobody misses those meetings.

Brainstorming meetings are not exempt. I often hear that brainstorming meetings should be treated in some special way. Nothing could be further from the truth. While brainstorming sessions should give participants a lot more leeway in the discussion, the goals should be just as clear. It's not very helpful to invite people to brainstorm about “anything and everything.” Although it may be allowed to drift in pursuit of interesting ideas, brainstorming meetings should start with some focus. If someone has an idea to throw out, they should do a little research on it first. To-do items should be captured and assigned. The purpose of the meeting is to come up with ideas and they will always need to be researched further. Just coming up with an idea is of little value if the idea is never pursued.

There is good in you! Meetings are excellent tools in the right hands. If you don't need one, cancel it. If you can find a better way to accomplish the goals, take it. When a meeting is the best way to go, keep it as short as possible, but no shorter. Be prepared, cut soliloquies short, assign tasks, be on the lookout for people who didn't benefit from it and figure out how to do it better next time. It works for me. Take what works for you and leave the rest.