Meetings and Communication Structures

Posted on June 14, 2015
Filed Under Business, Critical Thinking |

The interesting thing about really small companies is that they like to boast about how much better they are than big companies. I did it too. When Backupify was 8 people and we never had any meetings, I talked about how cool we were and how much smarter we were than all those boring big companies with their meetings and structure and process, and how we would never have that crap. But that’s mainly because I was an idiot.

It turns out, big companies usually work the way they do for a reason. Think of it like a basketball team. If you are playing 2 on 2, you don’t need much of a strategy. One guy has the ball and the other moves around. You can run some simple plays like give-and-go, but mostly its improv. As you add players, it gets more complex. Say you were playing basketball with 10 guys on each side. Now there is no room on the court to move, particularly if everyone is running all over the place improvising. You either need to run coordinated plays, or you need to at least have a general philosophy about how the offense should work and where people should move based on what is happening.

The parallel in business is that only way to get big, really, is to master the processes and structures that make it easy for people to know what to do, and to get the context they need for their work.

It’s usually around 15 employees that you start to realize not everyone knows everything that is going on. Prior to that, you all sit around two or three tables all day, close together, and hear everything that everyone says. Around 15 people, for at least a few key hours a week, someone is always out - sick, vacation, travel, whatever. So you realize you need a way to recap all the key points for people. Most companies start having a weekly or monthly “all hands” meeting about this time. The All Hands Meeting becomes important, so people try not to miss it, and its not too hard to find some time every week or two that everyone can make it.

After 15 people, every time you double, you face this same problem. Your communication architecture breaks down again because the channels you use to communicate no longer reach everyone, so you have to add more channels. But, you don’t want to add so much overhead that it slows everything down. I know some companies that at 50+ employees, still meet every single day for a few minutes in the morning. I think that’s tough.

What I want to share in this post is what Backupify looked like at 80 people. There are probably lots of right ways to do this, so don’t take this as gospel, but this structure worked for us, so I am sharing it in case you find it helpful. This doesn’t include every meeting we had, by any means, but instead, is all the key meetings that I drove, or was deeply involved in as CEO.

Keep in mind that we were highly experimental with meeting and communications structures, and every quarter we tried new meetings (some stuck, some didn’t), new formats for existing meetings, and new configurations of attendees. What you read below is just where we were at exit.

1. Weekly Reports
Each executive emailed the group a weekly report. We had no standard format across teams. Everyone developed a format that worked for them. It was supposed to take no more than 10 minutes to put together. It basically tracked the progress of their group that week. Some execs used their quarterly goals, and tracked progress against them. Others were more detailed. These went out between 3pm Friday and 9am Monday. We never had “status” meetings because I think having a meeting just so people can report on status is inefficient. It’s easier to just read it.

2. Weekly Management Meeting
This was a 90 minute meeting that happened every Monday at 1pm. The first 45 minutes were the senior team, and the second 45 minutes alternated each week between either Sales/Marketing or Product/Engineering/Support. Junior executives and key individual contributors joined in the second half of the meeting if it was relevant.

We shared a Google Doc every Monday morning that had the following headings:

- Questions on Weekly Reports: This was anything that an exec wanted to discuss from someone else’s report.

- Customers: This was anything having to do with getting and keeping customers - things that impacted them.

- Product: This was new releases, problems, changes to scope or schedule, etc

- Team: This covered new hires, demotivated team members, HR issues, etc

- Stakeholders: This covered key partnerships, investors, funding, Board of Directors, etc

- What’s Not Working: I think this is self explanatory

- Other: A catch-all heading

Each week, executives went in before the meeting and put topics under each area, with their initials beside their topics. I would then choose which topics we covered at the meeting, based on what I thought was most important on the list. The format was one we stole from another company, and what I liked about it was that it forced us to look at the business through different lenses in each section. Sometimes issues would bleed across sections, and this forced us to acknowledge that Customers and Team might have different perspectives with a certain issue.

The “What’s Not Working” section was also useful because it encouraged people to bring up broken processes or problems that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

3. Weekly Coffees
Once a week we had a 15 minute optional meeting in our main open office area where we quickly introduced new hires and covered any key topics that might be of interest to the team. It was mainly announcements.

4. Monthly All Hands Meeting
These meetings started around 4:30pm and ran about an hour. Every month we started by highlighting our goals for the year and our progress against them. We covered key metrics, new hires, product launches, etc. Sometimes an executive would give a 10 minute talk about a key topic. It could be a topic related to the business, or something more general about careers or whatever. For example, our VP of Engineering gave a talk called “Managing Up” which was all about how to make your boss successful, and it was one of the most popular talks we ever had. We usually went out to the bar for an hour after this.

5. Monthly Communications Course
I realized about two years in that many problems arise in companies because people don’t know how to talk to each other. So every month I personally taught a Communications Course that every employee had to take once a year. Usually it was filled with whoever started that month. The focus was on concepts like: how to have difficult conversations, or driving to clarity in your conversations, or how to sell ideas internally, etc.

6. Monthly Management Deep Dives
As the company grew, we inevitably had problems that required more than 45 minutes of management discussion. But, it was very difficult to block out 2-3 hours of time on the calendars of 5-8 busy executives on short notice. So we start putting placeholders in far in advance for monthly deep dives. We would hold 3 hours on a Tues or Wed afternoon. A few days before, we would decide what we would actually talk about at that meeting. Occasionally we would cancel them because we didn’t have any key issues to discuss, but that was rare.

7. Quarter Operating Reviews
We only started these our last year, but I really liked them. We blocked out one and a half days per quarter and had each department come in and present last quarter’s results, progress this quarter, and next quarter’s plan. It was a rolling quarterly thing. The exec team would be in all sections, and then each section also had key individual contributors come in from that team. It was a great meeting to get people in alignment, and helped me a ton as CEO. For example, knowing that once a quarter I got to take a Marketing deep dive and look at things like detailed analysis of PPC campaigns and leads from events we ran and landing page A/B testing results meant that I got to learn, and give my input, without having to nag the marketing team all the time about the details of what they were doing.

8. Twice a year management offsites
We did two offsites a year. The spring offsite in April was 2 days and was focused on whether or not the plan for the year was working, and also on executive development. The executive team would do presentations on areas where they had some expertise, and we talked a lot about team and culture. The fall offsite was 3 days and was focused on strategic planning. We started on the first day with a refresher about “what is strategy” and reviews of the business performance, market changes, and technology changes. Day two was all about taking that analysis and building some ideas for the next year, and Day three was all about finalizing that information into a formal plan.

The only other thing I will add to this is that we had an email address alignment@, and we used it to have important discussions that were far reaching, or send out key information about changes in the market, news, etc. All the execs were on it, as were about 15 key individual contributors. It was a good channel for debate and discussion.

The purpose of all this was to accomplish a few things. First of all, I was always trying to get lots of cross functional discussion going, because it was amazing to me how small a business can be and still have teams in silos. Secondly, I wanted to make sure there was ample opportunity to discuss key issues and problems in the business. One of the hardest things about being CEO is getting people to share bad news, so, you have to create forums where they can do that openly without being punished. Otherwise, problems fester and just get worse.

Over my time running Backupify I became fascinated with organizational structure and communications architecture for companies, and how to use it to get the best performance out of people. I’ve given it a lot of thought, and so, if you are interested in it too, or want to talk more about this, drop me a note and I’m always happy to chat.


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