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Topic-first meeting principle

Last Updated: August 17, 2021

Topic-first is the principle of scheduling a single-topic meeting only after a topic that warrants a verbal discussion has surfaced. This is the reverse of a more traditional approach of first scheduling a standing meeting and then soliciting agenda topics.

Here’s why it matters

While this is the first time we are introducing the topic-first meeting, it’s likely you’ve been unknowingly scheduling or joining topic-first meetings yourself. Naming these particular meetings helps separate them from the baggage the word “meeting” carries–the dread of meeting fatigue and wasted time. Drawing attention to topic-first meetings can also help you avoid bad advice like agendas or 100% async that do not address the root causes of meeting dysfunction.

How do our meeting calendars evolve into hell?

The path to what you see in the illustration is almost identical at every startup.

meeting hell

Starting point: You start with a small and highly energetic team with a healthy mix of spontaneous and topic-first meetings. This works great for a while. You are so efficient that you don’t even call your interactions as meetings so as not to awaken bad memories of the past big corp meeting experiences. Those who joined the company at this stage will always remember this time with nostalgia.

Level 1: As your company grows the number of things that need to be discussed verbally every week is growing as well, so scheduling topic-first discussions requires more effort and spontaneous meetings start causing distraction. A common and easy fix for both problems is to schedule one or a couple of weekly meetings with an open agenda where everyone contributes topics and then discusses them together. This often provides a nice productivity boost. This is a seemingly minor and positive event with dire consequences. You have unknowingly started playing a game that can’t be won.

Level 2: As your company succeeds, those meetings start becoming too big, with over-broad topics, making them a less and less valuable use of time. Solution? You split them by group or by a theme (e.g. weekly planning meeting, weekly tech meeting, weekly leadership meeting, weekly project meeting, etc.), all with smaller and different subsets of people. This helps, for a little bit.

The Parkinson law (work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion) deludes everyone into thinking that all those meetings are an integral part of your company. Attending them becomes work on its own, and you start seeing people whose main work is to organize and attend meetings. It even starts to feel like the most important work.

Level 3: Fast forward, your company has amassed enough weekly meetings that scheduling on-demand, topic-first meetings with more than two people becomes almost impossible. This is when the number of weekly meetings really starts to explode for the worst possible reason: “Otherwise, we won’t be able to find time on our busy calendars when we need it.” Scarcity becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy as people reserve time just in case, rather than because they actually need it.

Endgame: Topic-first meetings are outnumbered and many calendars are pretty much booked forever. You start fixing things by eliminating/shortening some of the weekly meetings, introducing more processes, making teams more independent, adding more hierarchy, prioritizing async communication. You may even get creative with no-meeting days or even no-meeting weeks. You may even feel like you are winning your calendar again. Until you are not.

Game over: You realize that all the efforts are just as helpful as winning a few more minutes in a Tetris game. You lost this game when you started playing it by scheduling your first weekly meeting with an agenda. Now all you can do is delay the inevitable.

You can tell yourself that this is normal for a big company like yours, or you can choose not to play this game.

Commit to the topic-first meeting principle

Extreme views on almost any topic are on the rise these days, and the async vs sync debate is no exception. You may have already entertained the extreme idea of replacing all meetings with asynchronous communication or maybe even tried async weeks. Our advice to you: don’t take that route.

Committing to the topic-first meetings principle will help you to find the right balance between individual deep work, efficient asynchronous communication, and well-dosed synchronous communication. It will help eliminate the most wasteful and most expensive meetings, and open space for more efficient ones. Great meetings are like oxygen for the fire. Your 🚀 needs 🔥. 100% async will make your team 🥶.

Eliminate all recurring meetings. No exceptions. Everything can be scheduled on-demand based on actual necessity and availability. This will be a lot less disruptive than a whole async week. You shouldn’t be afraid of this.

Don’t look back. For every problem you encounter with topic-first meetings, look for a solution other than reverting to traditional recurring meetings with agendas. You’ll always find a far better alternative.

Some practical tips on implementing topic-first meetings

You may not need to worry about introducing any of the recommendations below from the start. Eliminating recurring meetings and enforcing the topic-first meeting principle alone will greatly improve the situation. The calendar you’ll see and problems you’ll experience will be different from your past experiences, and you may want to live with it for some time before taking the next step.

Maintain working hours on the calendar so that your availability is always clear. This is especially important if you are all in different time zones or have different work schedules. Ideally people shouldn’t have to ask for permission/availability for meetings. Just schedule when everyone is available and expect everyone to join unless they reply with a reason they can’t or shouldn’t.

Make topic-first meetings transparent by default by opening your calendar, posting notes and sharing recordings. This will reduce the number of people who have to be invited just to keep them in the loop or to avoid FOMO. Instead they can join other meetings where they are really needed and check the recordings of other meetings later.

Agree on a limited time window for all topic-first meetings to minimize distractions. For example, you can start by ceasing afternoon meetings unless they are urgent. You may have to clearly define what “urgent” means to your team so it’s not overused. Eventually you may be able to compress all the meetings into just a couple of focused hours, or even potentially into less than one.

Make 15 minutes the default duration for every topic-first meeting. Standing meetings usually cover 4 or more topics in a single hour, which means 15 minutes on a single topic is a lot of time. People are a lot more likely to stay focused and engaged, as they no longer have to join semi-purposeful meetings that compel them to multitask. You may even eventually be able to reduce 15 minutes to 10, but there’s no need to rush that.

Try not to schedule low-priority discussions too far in advance. You are likely using a mainstream calendar that can’t re-prioritize your meetings, and booking far in advance could make it harder to schedule more pressing discussions when needed.

Common not topic-first meetings

Just to clarify, here’s how topic-first meetings differ from more familiar meeting types.

The topic-first approach is contrary to standing meetings (aka traditional meetings, aka structured meetings, aka weekly meetings about X). These meetings are often scheduled on a recurring basis with a broad group of people and an open agenda to facilitate many potential discussion topics. Standing meetings are scheduled for various reasons, both good and bad. For example, to reduce calendar fragmentation, to prompt the group to come up with discussion topics to foster collaboration, to share progress, to address a continuous problem that’s not well defined, or because it’s easier to pre-reserve time on the calendar than to find it when you really need it. These types of meetings tend to dominate the calendars for people in leadership roles and waste huge amounts of time for everyone, as most agenda topics are only relevant to a small subset of the meeting participants. The side effects of those standing meetings include multitasking, low engagement, difficulty staying focused, FOMO, meeting fatigue, low productivity, poor morale, and others.

The topic-first approach is also different from spontaneous meetings that start right away with whoever is around at the moment. The meeting might start casually, with or without a particular topic, and that topic may or may not require a verbal discussion, and this discussion may or may not be relevant to all the participants. Spontaneous meetings can be helpful but only in very limited amounts, as they are inherently unscalable.

Share your #topicfirst thoughts

This principle is at the very core of the Remeet product. While working with dozens of teams on optimizing their meetings, we started seeing that committing to the topic-first principle at the team/company level makes most of the meeting-related problems and their side effects vanish.

We now believe that the topic-first meeting principle can be successfully implemented even without Remeet.

Some of the ideas above are fairly new, and we’re curious to learn more about the experiences of the companies who have given it a try. If yours has, please share your thoughts and experiences with with #topicfirst hashtag.

Thanks to Christoph Strasen, Gabe Stein and Henning Emmrich for reading early drafts and helping to improve this article.

Special thanks to Gabe Stein for being the first user who pointed out how consequential it’s to stick with topic-first meeting principle while introducing Remeet.