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The Five Meetings – Kevin M. Hoffman

Jul 26, 2016 | An Event Apart 2016

Kevin runs ‘Seven Heads’ agency


Used to work at Happy Cog with Jeffrey and Jaimee and others.




He’s spent the last decade of his career examining meetings, what makes them go well, what makes them go bad, what makes them go really bad. He thinks it depends on the beliefs we carry into the meetings. So the question is do these beliefs help us or hurt us?


As a kid, he had lots of beliefs… some of which turned out to not be true. Unless these beliefs are challenged or something teaches you that belief isn’t true, we carry them through our lives and don’t revisit them.


Our beliefs about meetings come from somewhere, and usually, these beliefs come from our first few jobs after college. We learn some skills that help us ‘survive’ and get through meetings. These move with us through our lives as our jobs and careers change, and they drive the meetings we have.


Some beliefs he’s heard about meetings:

  • Meetings prevent work
  • More meetings is evidence of collaboration
  • Meetings don’t have agendas
  • Meetings are great at my company


These beliefs are a lot like what a fish believes about water. A fish doesn’t actually know much about water, but it grows up in water and it governs everything that’s possible for a fish. That’s how our beliefs about meetings govern us.


Let’s evolve our beliefs about meetings. Let’s DESIGN them to do what they’re actually supposed to do! To do this we need to look at them as a design problem.



  1. A solution shows intention
  2. A problem that has constraints


Both good and bad aspects of culture come up in meetings? Is discussion really loose and informal or rigid? Variations in workplace culture result in endless variations in meeting styles. And these place limits on behavior but they also tell you what you can push and what you may need to change. Time is another constraint. The number of ideas that are going to be talked about but also that can be understood and discussed are a constraint. The human brain is the last constraint. They’re amazing things but they have limits and can be decided.


The limitations:

  1. Culture
  2. Ideas
  3. Time
  4. The Brain


Meetings are…

  1. manifest or prevent intended outcomes
  2. are partially limited by culture, time, ideas & people


So why don’t we design for meetings?


We put limited forethought into agendas and into the experience we’re spending together. So as a result it feels like this is the time that slows our work down. Plus, once a meeting becomes a habit we don’t iterate on it and improve it, we just have the same kinds of meetings the same way!


The 5 meetings:

  1. Beginnings – initiating a process
  2. Presentations – trying to convey information
  3. Middles – middle of a project or process
  4. Explorations – trying to find something or understand a problem better
  5. Endings – when you’re trying to make meaning from what you’ve done





What Kevin has learned about Beginnings meetings:

  1. In order to manage assumptions, it’s best to remove them entirely or actively manage them by being explicit and saying what they mean.
  2. Visual anything and everything from the agenda to user flows and findings. Having a visual component to what you’re talking about makes a big difference.


Central Park runs on donations. The purpose of the Central Park Conservancy is to get donations to support the park, so they had a strategy to rank 1st in search engines for ‘Central Park’ and the landmarks in the park. It succeeded but they didn’t see any improvement in donations. The reason is because the strategy was tourist-centric, and tourists usually only go to the park ONCE.


So they decided they needed to research a new strategy that would reach people who visited the park frequently.


Seven Heads helped them with this, and came up with ‘personas.’ They developed story arcs, and each persona had their own story. They held a meeting to get to know the personas and then apply them in design decisions.


*Remove age, gender, ethnicity, the location from your personas. None of these things case behavior/thinking, but they cause assumptions* (tweet by @indiyoung)


What this tweet made Kevin realize is that if he’s going to present research, the more assumptions he can remove the better.


Our brains listen just as well if not better with our eyes than they do with our ears. Visual listening makes good meetings even better. This is why oftentimes meetings use a whiteboard for sketching / simplifying concepts.


There’s an A LIST APART article on ‘The Miseducation of the Doodle’ with a visual alphabet of 12 characters… if you master these 12 characters you can sketch almost anything you need to in a meeting.



Kevin does one big visual agenda and posts it somewhere public. A visual agenda forces people to look up and focus on the same point.

  1. Full circle represents the meeting length
  2. Time-on-task is scaled against that length




Where we tell the user’s story, not the designers’.


What Kevin believes about Presentations:
  1. Use good story structure to tell the user’s story
  2. Approach them (and any meetings) as a design problem


At one point he had a great presentation layout and would use it over and over but this wasn’t good for the meetings because he was never presenting the same thing to the same group of people!


The story structure is built on a simple XY access. What a good story experience does is it raises tension slowly, then quickly, then it lowers tension at the end. So many shows and stories use cliffhangers, and it works, because it invests us in the promise of a resolution.


Presentations are STORIES! However, we rarely take advantage of a good story structure.


A good presentation can include all the elements of a good story:

  1. beginnings
  2. middles
  3. endings
  4. actions
  5. motivations


Design Thinking Template (Tim Brown):

Research a problem and define a solution.

Consider multiple approaches.

Pick the best option and iterate on it.

Ship and repeat if necessary.


This sounds like a lot of work but it really isn’t.




Meetings that keep people moving forward. Status meetings, oxygen meetings.


Kevin believes that:

  1. Explore asynchronous approaches to daily check-ins, even if you work in the same office
  2. Lean coffee is a great approach


There’s been a change in these meetings that have been brought about by technology like Basecamp, SuperFriendly…


18F is a government agency that is fully distributed. One of the criticisms often mentioned with distributed teams is because they aren’t colocated they don’t have the same level of collaboration. How do they stay aware and aligned on a project?? Kevin’s company is distributed as well.


  1. Daily team asynchronous check-in (this is not a meeting) – They have a pattern where somewhere between 8 and 11 in the timezone of the project everyone posts information about YESTERDAY, TODAY, and BLOCKERS.
    1. Yesterday I worked on this
    2. Today I’m working on this
    3. But I won’t be able to work on ____ until I get ____
    4. Doing this has taken the place of regular check-in meetings for us!
  2. Weekly team check-in meeting – entirely optional
  3. Weekly client check-in meeting – entirely optional
    1. Optional
    2. As Long As Necessary
    3. Lean Coffee (
      1. This is a process that came out of meetups in the Northwest. it’s a process for structuring conversation that works well for distributed teams, and meetings without an agenda.
      2. You have some questions (up to 5) that everyone in the meeting has the ability to answer in the first 5 minutes of the meeting. Ex: What are your goals for this presentation, what could go wrong during this workshop, what outcomes can we have as a result of this?
      3. You then take these answers and can even create the agenda out of them.
      4. This works because it deals with the constraint of ideas.
      5. This process moves us towards making decisions in a group.


Shared whiteboarding tool:





Kevin believes:

  1. These should be 90 minutes long
  2. 6 ideas every 10 minutes, plus 10 minutes for reflection
  3. No more than 6 people per group


The 90/6/6 Rule: 

  1. 90 minutes at a time exploring any given topic
  2. 6 ideas at a time / at a stretch
  3. 6 people in a group discussion


This works so well because of the brain. Meetings are all about sharing ideas. If we do our job in a meeting, those ideas should become memories and then turn into action.


4 Types of Memory:

  1. Sensory Memory
  2. Working Memory – we care about this in meetings. Lasts for 30 seconds, capacity varies between individuals. Tied to AD/DH. Has two distinct processes: a phonological loop and the visual spatial sketchpad. Brain damage research demonstrates how these work independently but also combine.
  3. Intermediate Memory – longer memories that last 2-3 hours. Biochemical changes in proteins in your brain actually happen. These are memories you can walk away from a meeting with.
  4. Long Term Memory


So it’s our goal to turn working memories into intermediate memories during meetings.


Why 6 ideas? We can keep 5-7 distinct concepts in our brain at any given moment. In a 10 minute chunk, share up to 6 ideas so they can be retained, and then reflect/discuss for 10 minutes after that. Then you could move onto 6 more ideas. This allows you to cover a lot in a 90 minute meeting.


Keeping a meeting to 6 people or less has to do also with ideas. We are trying to get everyone in agreement, so limiting the number of people limits the number of ‘alignment lines’ you have in that group that need to be reached. With 6 people, there are 15 points of agreements.




Meetings that help us find (and learn from) closure.


Kevin believes:

  1. If you follow a + / Delta pattern it creates the space to overcome the biases we have and become truly creative
  2. Follow a ‘blameless’ approach to what went wrong. This creates a ‘just culture’ focused more on personal growth than accountability.


This kind of meeting rarely happens, because of The Creativity Bias – that thing where we encourage creativity, but then we get scared by TOO creative of an idea. We fear change and the risk of being removed from a group instinctually.


Part of us fears having a meeting devoted to telling us to do things differently. We also fear getting fired! If we have a meeting focused on what was done wrong we fear we’ll get blamed for it and reprimanded.


+ / Delta

We acknowledge that some things work, and that some things need to change. By acknowledging that you make a safe space to address the creativity bias.


Agile meetings are much more intentional than traditional meetings. One of the common misconceptions about agile is that it equates to faster. It’s not – it changes the distribution of how we make decisions over time. What that means for meetings is that there are a lot more, than they’re a lot smaller, because we break up big decisions into little decisions, and distributing them over the process. The basic recipe of an agile process is a beginning, middle and end meeting. The job of the end meeting is to continue the cycle. So without a retrospective in agile you can’t define the next sprint and it feels like you started from scratch! In these meetings you list wins, list problems, list changes, and discuss.


ETSY has taken a unique approach to Ending meetings, called “Blameless” meetings. The personal aspect is removed!

  1. Actions taken
  2. Outcomes observed
  3. Results expected
  4. Assumptions made
  5. Events observed (what actually happened)



I believe that everyone in the room believes they are doing the right thing. That belief will go a long way to having more successful meetings. It goes a long way to helping come to an understanding.






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