HOWTO Run a meeting like Google

BusinessWeek has a nice feature on Google's vice-president of search products, Marissa Mayer, who holds 70+ (apparently productive) meetings a week. I loathe meetings, to an entirely dysfunctional extent (as those who've worked with me can attest), but even I would consider attending one of Mayer's meetings. But not 70 of them.
1. Set a firm agenda.
Mayer requests a meeting agenda ahead of time that outlines what the participants want to discuss and the best way of using the allotted time. Agendas need to have flexibility, of course, but Mayer finds that agendas act as tools that force individuals to think about what they want to accomplish in meetings. It helps all those involved to focus on what they are really trying to achieve and how best to reach that goal.

2. Assign a note-taker.
A Google meeting features a lot of displays. On one wall, a projector displays the presentation, while right next to it, another projector shows the transcription of the meeting. (Yet another displays a 4-foot image of a ticking stopwatch.) Google executives are big believers in capturing an official set of notes, so inaccuracies and inconsistencies can be caught immediately.

Those who missed the meetings receive a copy of the notes. When people are trying to remember what decisions were made, in what direction the team is going, and what actions need to be taken, they can simply review the notes.

How to Run a Meeting Like Google (via O'Reilly Radar)


  1. No wonder they can’t fix their search engine.

    Google meeting agenda notes:

    Pagerank – hacked to death, check
    Search Results – littered with useless commercial information, check

    next meeting!

    1. Don’t forget super intelligent and very successful.

      I would mostly like to attend her meetings because she knows what she’s talking about. The fact that she’s nice to look at is, perhaps, incentive to pay closer attention.

  2. I can’t find a source for this but I recall reading that the general contractors of the WTC had a strict rule: All meetings were over after 17 minutes. No exceptions.

    I once spent forty five minutes in a meeting watching a debate over whether to use Montreal or Montréal in english TV graphics. I’m an IT guy!

  3. I’m amazed that anyone thinks these are new ideas. My first encounter with this style was believe it or not in the Junior League some 30 years ago. Since then I’ve been on the boards of a variety of non-profits and all have functioned pretty much like this.

    In addition to what’s mentioned here I have a few more suggestions. Make the agenda time specific – a few minutes for presentation and x minutes for discussion/debate. And remember that not all items on the agenda require discussion! The other crucial item is to specify actions items and assign a specific person to be accountable, all of which goes into the notes of the meeting.

  4. 1. Have an agenda
    That’s only half of it.
    Define the purpose and the expected deliverables of the meeting
    Start on time
    If a quorum of key participants isn’t present, the meeting stops.
    If it’s apparent that the meeting is not going to be productive, the meeting stops, tasks are assigned and the meting reconvened when it has a chance of success.

    Document results and decisions, not “A said this, B said that”

    3. Give 50% and 75% wtime warnings an

    4. Stop on time

  5. People do stupid stuff because they fall into magical thinking. For example, people wear neckties because Louis XIV had a goiter on his neck; if I wear a silk necktie I will be rich and powerful like Louis (in real life, if you wear a silk necktie you increase your chances of suffering a broken neck). Similarly, people think using powerpoint makes their presentation more likely to succeed (in real life, your presentation is not improved by powerpoint, and bad powerpoint decreases the chance of success).

  6. Maybe because it is hard to take notes for things you yourself say, but I find that if you have a note taker, that they themselves don’t contribute anything to the meeting (besides notes that is).

    I also find that if people both hear and see the same words at the same time, that they end up absorbing neither. There was some research about the phenomenon a while back. I wonder if having notes displayed on the wall has the same effect.

  7. I used to work at Google. I left Google. Here’s the *real* version of how they run a meeting:

    1. Schedule lots of them – particularly for early in the morning and late in the day. If you can have a meeting about planning more meetings, this is even better.

    2. Meetings should be long – at least two hours. Preferably off-site at another Google office location. Yes, we know we’re the technology leaders and there are multiple ways of doing this that don’t involve leaving your home and hauling your carcass cross-country, but we’ll say it’s in the name of “team building” and you probably shouldn’t question it.

    3. Senior staff talks. Everyone else listens.

    4. After the meeting, you must send glowing remarks and/or notes about said meeting to your immediate supervisor to demonstrate both your attendance and understanding. Since you’ll be going to an average of 5+ meetings a day, this may interfere with your regular work. Don’t worry. We’ll buy dinner so you can cancel your evening plans and make it up later.

    5. PowerPoint is your friend. Please make all presentations in this format. You make break the mold every once in a while and talk off-the-cuff if you are a senior member of management, but be sure to refrain from any and all efforts to make it visually interesting and/or dynamic.

  8. Best technique to keep the proceedings short and on topic: conduct the meeting with everyone standing.

  9. Detailed notes on 70 meetings a week sounds like a sure fire way to information overload. Sure, a decision was made somewhere, but where and when? Perhaps easier for a search company to solve, but difficult for the average business.

  10. NOTHING has killed more software companies than the inability to hold proper meetings. Most of the meetings I’ve been at during my career have been all too like the examples of what not to do from John Cleese’s excellent video series on the subject.

    A few more necessary roles:

    Sergeant-at-arms: Just before the meeting go around and get the bodies into the meeting room. Unless you pull the plug of their computer out of the wall ten minutes before the meeting no programmer will arrive on time or even arrive at all. Also lets you know if you don’t have quorum right away.

    Traffic cop: make sure that no one monopolises the whole meeting with pet peeves – with a “talking stick” if necessary; kick all sidebar discussions – like parking spot allocations and the One True style of using brackets in code – as vital and interesting as they might be, out to other meetings; forbid recaps for late-comers (I have literally been at meetings where the first 1/2 hour [of many] is spent on recaps of the first 5 minutes for the five late-comers who have arrived at 5 minute intervals. “Oh sorry! Can you catch me up?”)

    Task master – once a decision has finally been made (Hallelujah!) about something someone has to assign a specific task to a specific set of people to do something about the decision and give them a specific set of reporting deadlines and reporting methodologies. Decisions without meeting action items are simply mental masturbation. The Recording Angel sends out action items to those tasked with them via e-mail or whatever your work tracking system is.

    Meeting organiser – lots of work to do before the meeting: is this meeting really necessary? (Probably not.) What constitutes “quorum”? (Make sure that confirming this is the first item on the agenda.) Tell everyone in the quorum about the meeting far enough in advance so that they have time to prepare; thus avoiding a meeting that has to end after 10 minutes because no one knows anything about the topic at hand. Figure out how to get meeting on everyone’s schedule with the least disruption to said schedules. (See previous Boing-Boing posts on Maker time vs. Manager time.)

    Remember, no one’s tombstone will ever read “I wish I’d spent more time in meetings!”

  11. …He forgot the most important step to take to make sure people want to attend your meetings: Have them in a closed room and make sure that the whiteboard is used constantly. The Dry-Erase Markers will keep everyone high, and your meetings will be SRO and legendary.

  12. The fact that Google’s No.1 is “Set an Agenda” and not “Why-the-hell-do-we-need-a-meeting?” worries me.
    I tend to believe the ex-Google Anonymous#12 – because published ‘theory’ on meetings (not that this is particularly illuminating or comprehensive) is different to practice.
    The first question (in life?) when somebody wants a meeting is “why?”, and then, “Why me?”. The rest is obvious – agenda, only have people who have direct influence/benefit on/from the meeting, competent minute taker, everyone turn up on time, set time for meeting, action agenda and tasks set, good coffee and biscuits, etc.

    Good point raised about powerpoint – so much time wasted on visual presentations (and the lack of emphasis on clear oral presentation skills) can be the death of many a meeting (and company).

  13. Do you really need to hold that many meetings? Seems to me that it interferes with productivity instead…

  14. 1. I wonder if they put all meeting transcripts into a searchable database, or if they’re all locked up in individual document “silos”?

    2. I think instead of a clock, meetings should have a ‘taxi meter’: when the meeting is scheduled, sum the hourly rates of all “required” attendees, divide by 60. As the meeting progresses, the meter shows just how much money it’s costing. If a meeting ends with NO decisions on the agenda topics, and NO action items on agenda topics (and you can’t count “return next week with the actual information you should have had this week” as an action item), dock everyone in attendance for 25% of the cost.

  15. Wow… that’s… totally obvious. It doesn’t take some kind of guru to figure out that if you make people stay on topic, and know what you want to accomplish, your meetings will not be interminable.

    The British House of Lords used to (still does?) meet standing up. This seems to me to be the single most effective way of keeping meetings short.

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