Sync time is expensive, optimize it by starting with outcomes

I don’t know how many tech workers will be headed back to an office, or how many companies will decide that they’d prefer to concentrate their hiring locally. 

I am fairly confident, though, that 18 months of Zoom fatigue has made us all recognize how expensive sync time is.  Time zones limit the window when meetings are humane, calendars are full, people spend the first few minutes dealing with audio or connectivity issues and the next few minutes context-switching from the meeting they just came from.  Then (hopefully) the meeting organizer shares a clear agenda and desired outcomes and then productive collaboration can begin.

Shouldn’t we try to “skip to the good part”?

Here’s how I’ve been trying to make sync time better and shorter by starting with outcomes:

  • Be explicit about desired outcome(s)
  • tl;dr the context, problem, known issues, open questions in <5 bullet points
  • Link to/attach whatever docs or decks have more info about the context
  • List some assumptions or questions for people to think about in advance
  • Read what I’ve written for all of the above out loud to find and fix where it’s unclear
  • Make the above at least 50% shorter

What does all this ‘starting with outcomes’ get you?

Very simply: work moves forward. 

When you set expectations around outcomes, it’s a lot easier to reset when the conversation goes off the rails and it’s a lot easier to use time checks.  Providing people with outcomes and context sets them up to ask questions and share information and offer recommendations. 

Also: meetings shrink. 

Even as we complain about too many meetings, we don’t want to be excluded from a meeting where we think an important decision or discussion may happen.  A write-up like this keeps everyone in the loop. It allows someone to say “all I care about is that people know [information] – now that I shared that with you I don’t need to attend”.

How long does this ‘starting with outcomes’ work take?

It’s not short!  It took me almost 30 minutes to write this up last night for a meeting that took around 45 minutes today.   

I know what you’re thinking – that sounds like a ridiculous amount of overhead.  You don’t have an extra 30 minutes to write meeting agendas that people won’t even read! 

Let me show you how the math makes more sense.

First – the initial meeting was scheduled for 60 minutes, but we finished everything needed in 45.  The prep work shaved off 15 minutes.  That’s been pretty consistent in my experience – you immediately get back about half of that prep time.

Next – the prep work can fit into odd pockets of time.  I’ll write some thoughts while I’m waiting for the kid’s bus drop-off, some more in a few odd minutes between meetings, the rest in the evening.

Finally – the attendees get context via osmosis.   Most people don’t set aside time to read your linked docs, but even a quick glance at the tl;dr and questions puts it in their head. In the back of their brain, they’re thinking about those pre-work assumptions and questions even if they didn’t plan to.  That leads to them being ready with answers and reactions when the meeting starts.

Sometimes you even get to skip the meeting altogether!

The best outcome of all: sometimes the attendees reply with “here’s the info you needed – I think we can finish collaborating async?”