A couple of months ago I prepared a meetup at work to discuss the state of the Technology team, try to understand the biggest pains and review our continuous improvement plan.

We didn’t have a lot of time to spend on the meetup, so it was short and intensive. Two days.

Although at Sketch we are fully remote, intense discussions like these are easier to handle in-person. We initially scheduled a gathering in Madrid (with some people living in Madrid and others coming from other countries). However, a couple of weeks before, the coronavirus cases in Madrid started to raise and we decided to change to a full-remote meetup.

In my experience, either if it’s an in-person meetup or remote, the challenges are similar for given kind of meetup. And always, the biggest concern is “is it going to be productive or are we about to waste 2 days of n people?”

Understand well what I want to achieve

I already know, at this point, what problem I want to solve (this is kind of basic). In this case, common engineering teams areas to discuss: development efficiency, communication, quality, etc.. Also, in this case, some changes had recently happened in the engineering team so it’s a good moment to re-evaluate.

So, the issues to discuss were clear, and the goal was to share everyone’s concerns, define the current team issues in detail and, from there, start setting up goals from less to more specific.

Although I’m talking about a remote meetup, in the past I prepared another one, in-person, with similar objectives, and the challenges of the meetup are pretty much the same.

Of course, you may organize a work meetup to solve another problem or make a decision about something. One colleague had to prepare an in-person meetup a couple of years ago with the goal of having the team to agree on the adoption of a new framework for future developments. The dynamics were different but the problem was perfectly clear and the goal was to end the meetup with a winner.

Define, describe and present the problem

Don’t begin a meetup if you are the only one knowing what it is about.

I usually test the waters first with the team. Maybe a meetup is not the right format to discuss something. So, I get ideas and feedback about it. The extra ball is that, at that point, everyone starts having in mind the future meetup. It’s like a placeholder in the future to park there any concern about the meetup topic that usually keep roaming around your brain. You can save it for later.

Once everyone agrees to move forward with the meetup, it’s time to prepare a formal agenda. Dates, times, and most importantly, the content of the meetup sessions. This is especially tricky if I have just 2 days. We need to be efficient and go straight to the point. I split the problem(s) in separate sessions. Depending on the meetup theme, some sessions may overlap slightly but that’s usually ok.

Each session has a clear definition of the problem to focus on, stressing how it affects the team or the organization. The more specific the examples, the better. And each session has, of course, specific goals.

Once the agenda is ready, the next step is to share with all the participants so they can assimilate it, ask questions and contribute in any way possible.

At this point, everyone is on the same page and has the right mindset to star handle the meetup, whenever it begins.

Have a meetup theme

The agenda is ready, but all sessions share the same general intention. It’s important to describe a general theme for the meetup that brings all the topics together. And, of course, besides a general theme, there’s also a general goal. This is like an OKR, the sessions goals need to be aligned with the general meetup goal. Last time, one of the tech leads even proposed, accidentally, a headline for the meetup, that made it even better :D

Logistics

If we are talking about an in-person meetup, there’s a big deal of logistics to work on. Look, in advance, for dates suitable for everyone. People have their personal life, that will be parking for some days, especially if they need to travel.

In-person meetups have nice advantages. First, you get to know better everyone and it’s a bit like a team building. Second, everyone is fully focused on the meetup. And, finally, intense discussions like these are easier to handle when in person. It’s easier to take the room temperature or other participant’s feelings, and adjust.

If you are a remote company and/or there’s any difficulty to do an in-person meetup (budget, a world pandemic, …) don’t worry, a remote meetup is still possible. To succeed keep some important points in mind:

  • Complete focus on the meetup during the day. Everyone must move their meetings, delegate (or postpone) responsibilities, etc.. Also, assuming you will use a video call, consider email, slack, etc.. off-limits. Checking the chat even during a pause may distract you for the rest of the day. Everyone should prepare their teams or collaborators about this in advance and be called only under extraordinary circumstances.
  • Test the remote setup with everyone. See that everyone has an account on every tool you will use and everything works fine like the audio, microphone, etc.. If you need to record the sessions, of course, test it in advance, … Also, for example, I love using whiteboards. Many conference tools have whiteboard capabilities and if not, there are many collaborative tools with similar capabilities.
  • Remove or minimize distractions. Someone in the group may not have the right environment to focus (noises, distractions, uncomfortable chair, …) during the sessions. In a case like that, you can, for example, try to pay a meeting room for this person (not during a pandemic probably). If they have many noises noise (a construction work nearby), maybe you can buy her/him a good pair of headphones/microphone to reduce noise. Or maybe you can simply try to adapt with the group the session hours to avoid the moments where the noise or distractions are higher.

Moderate

I always struggle to synthesize my thoughts, which frequently leads me to use more time than expected to talk about something. I’m aware of it and always try to control it, but it may happen to me or another person in the group. Also, many people (especially in technical roles) tend to deviate easily from a conversation and lose track of the main point.

Having an agenda with clear sessions helps a lot. Again, everyone is the same page. But of course, this is no guarantee. Make sure you are not the only moderator. The entire group can be responsible for raising the hand if one discussion is derailing. Also, everyone can keep an eye of remaining time, etc..

Set up clear ground rules and expectations

Feel free to define the right rules for your meetup. Ask your team to share some ideas about it. Besides rules about logistics, focus, etc.. there’s one rule I always use:

The meetup and the discussions about to happen are not personal. Everybody in the group is part of the problem and part of the solution. Be extremely respectful, positive and proactive, but also be bold about the problems to solve.

“Record” everything

The work doesn’t end when the meetup has finished. During every session, everyone (and especially me, as coordinator) writes down, in a shared live document, every relevant comment that anyone makes. This is key. Two sessions later it’s really hard to remember every single detail of a discussion. Even worse, two days later…

Don’t worry too much about the format. Just make sure everything is, somehow recorded. I haven’t recorded video calls and I prefer to take notes, since reviewing every video would be very time-consuming. But, depending on the situation, it may be interesting. Test the recording in advance ;D

Summaries and follow-ups

The “easy” part is done. Everything has been discussed. Next thing is to make sense those discussions are worth it. I usually have some different levels of summaries and follow-ups:

  • One summary per session. Usually, at the end of each day, I re-read the notes of all sessions and write a synthesized summary with some clear outcomes. It makes easier to identify early if something important was left out of the session and needs a short session to clarify it before the meetup ends.
  • Follow up the next day. Next day in the morning, the first thing I do is to share with the rest of the group the outcomes of the previous day and check if everyone is comfortable with the level of the detail of that outcome. It also serves as a context for the day sessions.
  • If this is a 2 days meetup, it’s great if I can do a “breakfast” on the third day and share the general outcomes of the meetup. If it’s not possible, for any reason, I try to do it during the next week. However, “leaving” with a general conclusion is really satisfying
  • After the meetup, it’s time to analyze well its outcomes and prepare an improvement plan. That improvement plan may have many different shapes (meetings, new documentation, new projects, changes in the organization, …). I usually set up a meeting with the team and get aligned on the roadmap and how to do next follow-ups.

Conclusion when remote

It’s possible to do an “intensive” work meetup with just a couple of days either if it’s in-person or remote. However, when remote pay special attention to:

  • Being extra sure everyone has the same mindset once the meetup begins and for each session.
  • Making pauses between sessions and don’t overwork. Sessions like this are much heavier in remote that in person. Finish early every day
  • Making sure everyone has a comfortable environment that allows them to keep focused for the entire day without ending with a headache

All these are rules that I find useful and try to apply on meetups like the one described. Each meetup may have different goals and different amount of people. Make sure everyone has the same idea in mind and adapt the meetup to whatever you need to reach your goal. A group of people will invest time on this, so better to make sure it’s worth it.