Getting Things Done — in Meetings

Fig. 1: GTD Process for Meetings

I‘ve written before about David Allen’s Getting Things Done (GTD) methodology. I’m still using the GTD process fifteen months after I started, and it has significantly improved my productivity and organization, freed up my mind from worrying about what I have to do next, helped my prioritization of tasks, and reduced my personal anxiety level. I’m flattered that my graphic of the GTD process has popped up all over the Internet, and my articles on GTD have been among this weblog’s most popular.

I continue to use this abbreviated HTML table format to track my GTD ‘to dos’:

2006.03.22 We 17:00 /2 Appointment with RT
2006.03.23 Th 12:00 /6 Discuss book proposal with John

2006.03.24 Fr 09:00 /3 Discussion paper on Sustainability
ASAP MIC research

Recurring Activity x cumbersome (call G to discuss)
Innovation Project q not sure I want to do it (decide!)

My Genius is: Imagining Possibilities; My Purpose is: Provoking Change
7 Steps to dealing with any situation:
Sense, Self-control, Understand, Question, Imagine, Offer, Collaborate

Fig. 2: Dave’s GTD Table

Colour coding differentiates my various projects, and I use italics for urgent tasks and boldface for important ones. The urgent tasks still often push the important ones to the bottom of the priority list, but I’m getting better at resisting the temptation to do this. Each day I block out the parts of my day not already scheduled (i.e. where there is nothing for a timeslot in section A) by selecting and scheduling actions from section B. New tasks are added to the table each day. Each week I look at the Obstacles, and assign actions to deal with them. When I’m discouraged I look at the Inspirations. This works for me.

I had a meeting last week with friend and KM colleague Howard Deane, and at one point we got to talking about meetings and how unproductive they often are. He showed me a simple three-column sheet he uses to ensure he gets what he needs out of each meeting:

Need more info on RSS/Sharepoint integration Design integration approach, ID landmines to watch out for

Fig. 3: Howard’s Meeting GTD Table

I thought this was brilliant. It’s a GTD table for meetings! Know what you need going into the meeting, set objectives for a ‘successful’ (from your point of view) meeting, and document the relevant (to you) agreements that came out of the meeting, agreed-upon actions and what you personally need to do next on each point on this personal meeting ‘agenda’. These ‘need to do next’ points then become new Next Actions on your primary GTD list. This is precisely the kind of documentation that I was already using in meetings using mindmaps displayed on a screen at the front of the room, so that each meeting participant could see what the issues were, what information was being surfaced and what resolutions, consensus and follow-up actions were being agreed to (and get a printed copy as they walk out of the room).

Before we can integrate this into the overall GTD process, however, we need to think a bit about how meetings actually transpire (especially if they’re not under our control). I think there are actually three ‘kinds’ of meetings:

  • Conversations, usually with 2 or 3 people participating, usually initiated by one person with a need or obstacle to overcome;
  • Collaborative group meetings, usually with 4 or more people participating, where each participant expects to both give and receive (information, ideas, advice etc.) and where many of the objectives, outcomes and actions are collective; and
  • Hierarchical group meetings, with any number of people participating, where one person (call him/her the ‘manager’) usually schedules the meeting, controls it and sets the agenda (generally his/her own), where most of the objectives are those of the manager, where consensus is usually not sought, and where most of the follow-up actions are assigned by the manager to other participants.

There are exceptions and hybrids, of course. Sometimes participants in ‘committee’ meetings are asked to submit items for the agenda, and the result is that some sections of the meeting may be collaborative while others may be hierarchical, with the person suggesting each agenda item ‘managing’ that part of the meeting. Some meetings are information-seeking and persuasion events, where people looking for information can ask presenters to make presentations (these are hierarchical, ‘managed’ by the information-seekers), or where people with ideas can offer (or be ordered) to make a presentation to potential approvers (these, too, are hierarchical, ‘managed’ by the approvers). Some ‘management committees’ are genuinely collaborative; most are hierarchical, with members yielding to the executive who is de facto managing the session.

It is important to know which type of meeting it is because one’s personal expectations of what one can get done during, or as a result of, a meeting, depend on whose objectives the meeting is designed to address. There is no point going into a meeting armed with a Meeting GTD table full of needs and objectives if the true purpose of the session is to address the needs and objectives of someone else.

Figure 1 at the top of this page suggests an approach that I think could fit well with the overall GTD methodology, and which is suited to all three different types of meetings. Here is how it would work:

  1. On a regular basis, you would look at the Waiting For, Appointment and Next Action items in your GTD list/table, and identify: (a) for the Waiting For items, what exactly you are waiting for and from whom, (b) for the Appointment items, what you need in advance for that appointment to be effective, and (c) for the Next Action items, what issues, obstacles or needs are (or could soon be) delaying or adversely affecting effective completion of that action.
  2. From this, you would make a list of Issues, Obstacles and Needs, which would generally consist of some mix of needs for: information, clarification, ideas, advice, resources and/or agreements (approvals or consensus).
  3. You would add these Issues, Obstacles and Needs to your GTD list/table. If you use David Allen’s schema of items, this might be an additional item type (I – Issues, Obstacles & Needs). My adaptation of GTD (Figure 2) already has a table section (Section C) for obstacles, issues and needs, along with room for steps that might ‘unblock’ them. Whatever works for you.
  4. Now you would set up one of Howard’s ‘Meeting GTD’ tables (Figure 3) for each meeting that you are scheduled to attend (or need to set up to address some of these issues, obstacles and needs), and fill in the first column.
  5. Next you would fill in the second column (your personal Meeting Objectives) for each row of each Meeting GTD table (Figure 3) — setting your expectations on how that meeting could/should resolve your issues, obstacles and needs.
  6. What happens next depends on the type of meeting. 
    • If it’s a hierarchical meeting that someone else controls, manage your expectations accordingly: you should not expect the meeting to address and resolve issues, obstacles and needs, though you are not ruling out the possibility. 
    • If it’s a conversation with 2-3 people, probably impromptu, and you’re not the initiator, you will probably have to content yourself with helping the initiator address their issues, obstacles and needs. 
    • If you are the initiator of the conversation, you should prepare a Meeting GTD table for it — so you stay focused on your reasons for initiating it (for all participants’ sake), so you ensure it addresses your issues, obstacles and needs, and hence meets your Meeting Objectives, and so that you can simply document and acknowledge the assistance of the other participants who are giving you their time. 
    • If it’s a collaborative meeting, I’d suggest you try using a mindmap, displayed throughout the meeting by projector onto a screen at the front of the room. Set up ‘nodes’ of the meeting mindmap for each of the issues/obstacles/needs you personally hope to resolve, and your personal objectives and goals for resolving them. Invite other collaborators to add theirs (either before or at the start of the meeting), so that the issues and objectives now become collective, shared by all participants. As information is brought forward, and as resolutions and actions are agreed upon, post them up as well. At the end of the meeting, print and hand out the mindmap to all participants. Try this — it works!
  7. Either as the meeting proceeds, or by transcribing from the mindmap, post the Actions & Resolutions to column 3 of your personal Meeting GTD Table.
  8. Finally, as appropriate, re-post these Actions (as Next Actions) to your overall GTD list/table. File the Meeting GTD Table as backup documentation to support what you are doing (or in case you need to recall why you are doing it), and schedule these Next Actions.

I’ve been looking for a way to integrate my Meeting Mindmaps into my GTD process, and also for a way to get more out of small-group conversations by setting my specific purpose and objectives for them in advance. Howard’s table does both very elegantly, and also allows us to apply the principles of Getting Things Done to meetings (where they are often sorely needed). Bravo!

What do you think? Are their other situations where the ideas of GTD might be adapted to help us become more productive? How about GTD On the Road? Or GTD when you’re away from your computer? And what about GTD through more effective use of research, information andtechnology?

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1 Response to Getting Things Done — in Meetings

  1. says:

    this may help me, but I really think meetings are at best a distraction. I want to apply Sickafus engineering heuristics to them. There’s also Wu’s Rules for Time Management: 1) handle paper only once 2) make daily to-do list 3) DO IT NOW 4) unclutter space and thinking 5) DO IT NOW 6) … I forget the rest.

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