Meeting enthusiast and Engineering Program Manager John Poelstra shares how to give your meetings a needed boost.
- When you do vs. don’t need a meeting
- How to “blame the agenda” to advance your agenda
- The CAT and WOOT frameworks for developing excellent meeting agendas
John Poelstra is a Manager on the Engineering Program team at Red Hat, Inc., the world’s most successful open source software company. John is passionate about facilitating the best project meetings and he wants to help you do the same. He gets great satisfaction from bringing order to chaos and clarity to confusion so that owners can thrive. John achieves this using tools from a variety of disciplines including a current favorite, Trello.
Items mentioned in the show:
- Website: johnpoelstra.com
- Open source platform: Red Hat Enterprise Linux
- Open source online editor: Etherpad
- Collaborative text editor: Gobby
- Business meeting platform: Lucid Meetings
- Cloud-based video conferencing: BlueJeans
- Book: Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin
John, thanks so much for being here on the how to be awesome at your job podcast.
Good to be here, thank you.
I’d love to hear a little bit of your story when it comes to working at the Red Hat. That’s kind of a
super famous open source brand. When it comes to that management, I got to believe that’s
pretty tricky with all kinds of volunteers who can sort of do whatever they want whenever they
want. I’d love to hear maybe any wild stories for how things got done in such an environment.
The company itself is not run by volunteers. Obviously in our, what we call, downstream
products a lot of the software and code that is there is written by people in various open source
communities. In terms of a funny story, I don’t know if I have one there for you, but what is
maybe the irony around all the stuff me is that I really cut my teeth as a program manager to
the Fedora Project. The Fedora Project is essentially an upstream distribution of Linux
distribution that eventually gets turned into Red Hat Enterprise Linux used to run the New York
stock exchange, and other bit enterprises.
In that environment, I had to learn how to, like you’re saying, work with volunteers to create
schedules, we had a lot of virtual meetings, a lot of times on IRC, which is today’s modern day
equivalent would be slack. Just over the process of time just kind of being thrown into this
environment I had to figure it out and make it work.
Yeah. Well I’d love to hear, then, some of the gems you’ve picked up along the way. Particularly,
I enjoyed, in your podcast you made some points associated with meetings as well as some
other shows. I’d like to maybe just frame it up right then right there. What’s the story with
meeting with regard to … First of all, we seem to have perhaps too many of them. Could you
orient us … How do you think about meetings?
I think I stole this idea from Tim Ferris, which was the idea that a meeting should be held to
discuss things and to make decisions. If those two things don’t need to happen, do you really
need to have a meeting?
Both, and. Both discussing things and making a decision.
Yeah. If there are no decisions to be made, okay, you’re there to discuss things but what are
those discussions leading towards? Are they leading towards a decision or… I guess it also kind
of depends on what kind of meeting you need to have, or do you want to have? That’s one thing
I’m really intentional about is what kind of meeting are we having, and maybe taking a step
backwards to say what kind of meeting do we need to have? What problem are we trying to
solve? Are we just meeting because this is a recurring invite on everyone’s calendar and we just
kind of come every week? Or is this leading towards something that we’re trying to accomplish,
or a product we’re trying to shift, or something like that?
That’s really nice. I would love to shine a brighter light then on the kinds of meetings that tend
to happen that just need not happen. Would you give us some examples there?
The one I really love to pick on is the status meeting.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been to this meeting. Typically it’s you and your peers and there’s, I
don’t know, depending how big your team or department is, could be 10-15 people. It’s that
meeting where each person, you kind of go around the table if you’re in a conference room or
virtually if some of you are on the phone, and each person talks for 5-10 minutes about “what
they’re working on.”
Usually those meetings tend to devolve into let me tell you what I’m working on so that you think that I’m busy, valuable to the team, and that I’m contributing something. Versus here’s the things that I’m working on and I really need help on this one thing. Could we figure this out together? Stuff that could be taken care of over email instead is just kind of done audibly while everyone else checks email and does other things.
Okay. Understood. Status meeting is one example of just a meeting that can probably go … It’s
funny. I think at times they make sense if, I don’t know, I’m thinking about client services. Like,
“Oh, each of you are talking with someone else for our client organization and it would probably
be helpful for us to all have a clue who you talked to and what you’ve asked whom for what, so
that we don’t repeat requests or look like fools by tripping over each other.”
Yeah. I would think of that as more of a sync meeting or a sync point.
We’re going to get a bunch of people together, we’re going to run through just kind of the state
of the project very briefly. What’s happening, very succinctly where we’re going. Then, this is
where I think the meeting become valuable, this is where we’ve been, this is where we’re going,
and here are the areas where we’re stuck and here at the problems we need to solve.
Okay. Understood. You’re seeing a massive distinction between a sync meeting and a status
Okay. That sounds tweetable by the way. Just saying. That’s good. What are some other
meetings that can go?
Those are the two big ones that come to mind.
Yeah I would say those are … Well, and then again the meeting with no purpose. I don’t know if
this happens to you, but it’s not unusual … You get involved in a project or a product, and it
started six months ago and originally there were 15 people invited and now there’s 30 people
invited that now only eight show up. You’re just kind of meeting because there’s sort of stuff to
talk about, but … I guess that would be that meeting that really doesn’t have a clear, defined
That would be another one that I would try to eliminate. A little tip there with the recurring
calendar invites, particularly if you’re the facilitator, what I’ve done a lot of times with those, is
I’ll time them out. If the meeting had kind of been effective, maybe I’ll talk about cancelling it or
maybe I’ve had trouble kind of getting the right invitees to the meeting. Either getting the right
ones in the invite or maybe some of the people don’t need to be there anymore, but that’s been
kind of difficult. Sometimes I’ll update the meeting invite to have an end date, so it’s not just
reoccurring forever. Then it’s kind of interesting to watch and see what happens. How many
people noticed that that meeting every Monday at 10am is no longer on their calendar?
Oh that’s fun.
Is it only one person that calls you and says, “I don’t have this meeting on my calendar. Are we
meeting today or is it …” Out of 20 people, one person noticed.
Or they’re all secretly relieved.
I’m just not going to bring this up.
Yeah. A lot of time when I set up a recurring meeting invite for a meeting, I’ll have it go for a
period of time and then end, and then I’ll set up a new one to re-calibrate or reset things or
even keep myself honest.
Okay. Very cool. We’ve figured out some meetings that can just go, like the status meeting or
one that does not really require discussion and decision and purpose and agenda, so when
those things are lacking, it can probably go, or kind of exchange information via another means
that’s more efficient for people’s time. Once you do have a meeting, and it’s on and it matters,
how do you make the most of that meeting?
I think agendas are key. Actually, when it comes to agendas, I have a cute little acronym called
CAT. The CAT stands for: Clarity around what needs to be discussed or decided, Anticipated
outcome, and then the Time allotted or planned. Clarity, I’ve kind of touched on that.
Anticipated outcome, sometimes I think it helps to kind of sit back and look at a topic and say,
“What’s the outcome that I really want from this topic? Do I want a clear decision? Do I want a
clear decision with certain direction? Do I need clarity on something?” Sometimes when you see
an agenda, it’s two or three words about a topic, but there’s really no context as to … The topic
could be release date. Well do we need to set a release date? Is the release date okay? Do we
need to check the release date with some other people? Does it need to be decided? Does it
need to be moved?
Oh that’s so good. That reminds me of David Allen. Episode 15, what? Who was saying on your
to do list, if it just says “mom,” that’s not really effectively out of your head.
John Poelstra: Yes.
What are we going to do about mom? Are we going to try to get her a birthday party planned?
Are we just going to give her a call because it’s been a while? It’s unclear. That’s perfect because
I have seen agendas that just say “release date,” and I think the agenda maker kind of has a
sense that, “Okay the release date is an important topic,” but maybe has not yet done that extra
dose of thinking to determine what is the anticipated outcome associated with the release date.
I often use the agenda as a way … I always send the agenda out 24 hours or so, 12 at the least, before a meeting to get people thinking. When they read the meeting agenda, they can kind of see where I’m going or what questions need to be answered. The other ulterior motive I have with the agenda is I turn the agenda into the minutes as the meeting is going.
Okay. That’s handy.
Using like Google Docs, or whatever shared collaboration tool you use inside your company, I’m
doing the minutes in real time, and I’m also … Tangent here. I’m doing the minutes in real time
using the agenda I created to begin with.
Okay. That’s handy, and that makes sense because it’s right there. Could you maybe give us an
example, we’re just going to get so detailed here, but that’s what you got to do. It’s what you
got to do. You have “release date” as the example of bad item to be printed up on an agenda.
What would be a couple examples associated with the actual text you would have on a meeting
where you’re discussing something important about the release date. What might you have in
that bullet or that outline numbered piece?
I might have topic number three says, “Current release date is scheduled for August 1st, 2016,”
and then I might have some sub-bullets that says, “Development is behind schedule by two
weeks, quality engineering needs and extra week to finish their test automation, and
documentation is behind three days. Team needs to decide whether current date is still viable,
or how much we should move out the current date.”
Okay. There you go.
Then all three teams … In other words, it’s informing all the other people, “Oh this is the
situation. Here are the details, so when I come to the meeting I’ve got that in the back of my
head. Now we can actually discuss the topic and make a decision.”
The other thing I’ll sneak in around there sometimes, too, is I’ll put a time estimate. If I have an
hour meeting, I might break out the topics to say, “We’re going to spend five minutes here, 10
minutes there, 20 minutes there, 15 here.” They’re approximate, but they often kind of help
guide the meeting. It’s all about setting expectations. Setting expectations for people as to this is
how much time we’re hopefully going to spend here. Or this is how important this topic is.
We’ve allotted 30 minutes to this topic. Wow, must be really important.
Absolutely. That’s great. You’re not kind of, with iron-clad rigor …
… Sticking with those. You’re offering a signal, and then working accordingly.
It’s also a useful thing to blame.
In other words, if you get 10 minutes in, or you get 15 or 20 minutes in, you can say, “You know,
I only allocated 10 minutes to this topic, we’ve spent 20 minutes on it, I’m concerned we’re not
going to be able to cover the rest of the topics. Is this topic so important that we should throw
away the other topics and cover them at a future meeting? Or what should we all do?”
That is handy. That is handy. Then it makes you seem like less of a jerk for cutting people off.
Yes, exactly. I say the agenda is always the absolutely perfect thing to blame in terms of
facilitating and moving a meeting on and not being a jerk. Yeah, it’s the agenda’s fault.
Oh, that’s good. All right. We’ve got the agenda, we’ve got the specific elements that get folks
oriented and the time there. Any other kind of pro tips when it comes to forming that agenda
and sending it in advance?
No I think that’s … Sending it in advance, and like I said I like to send it in a collaborative text
editor, where people can actually look at it and add to it. I’ll have a section … In terms of
collecting … To our earlier conversation on status, I will have section in there that say,
“Development status. Quality engineering status. Release engineering status.” People can come
into that document before the meeting and actually type their status. Then when we get to the
meeting, I might glance through it. We might not even need to talk about it because it’s there
and we move on. It’s not collecting the information audibly and then recording it. That can also
save time in a meeting.
Oh, very good. Tell me a little bit about the minutes. What are your practices? Part of it is that
you just add it right to the document that had the agenda, what are some other key take-aways
in terms of making the minutes optimal?
Sure. I have a little acronym here called WOOT. What got discussed and decided? Capturing that
is very important. The Outcome, the next steps or actions. You mentioned David Allen. I totally
stole this from David Allen years ago. What is the next action? If there’s any question as a
meeting facilitator or a project manager, you can make money all day long just asking that
question. What’s the next action here? What’s the next action? It gets people thinking. It also
kind of focuses and prioritizes what needs to happen, so that’s a great one.
The second O is and Owner for the next steps or action. Nothing is worse than, “So who’s going
to make sure that this agreement is taken care of?. Oh, legal needs to handle that,” and your
legal department is 25 people. It’s like, “Well who in legal is going to handle it?” “Oh, that’s
Fred.” “Okay, and Fred agrees that you can do this by next Friday?” “Yeah, no problem.” You’ve
got an actionable owner, someone that you know you can go back to to follow up to make sure
it’s going to get done, or just check in with. Nothing’s worse than not having it and you come to
the next meeting and it’s like, “Hey, how’s the legal agreement?” It’s like, “Oh, it wasn’t legal,
and we don’t really know who to talk to.”
The last one, the T is Time those actions will be completed by. A pro tip here is use an actual
date. An actual date, maybe even a time. I see a lot of discussions where maybe it’s Tuesday and
I say, “So when will this be done?” “Probably middle to the end of the week.” You get to the
next meeting to follow up and you’re like, “Hey, when was this supposed to be done. It says
middle to end of last week. Let me get out my calendar.” Just save yourself the hassle and give it
a date. It also just makes it easy and really clear when you’re following up with people to say,
“Hey, how’d this go? Did it get done? What do we need to know?”
Okay. Very cool. The WOOT there, do you have those in separate sections, or in integrated sort
of by topic? Is that just like a mental framework you’re using to …
It’s kind of a mental framework. It’s just kind of an approach. Everyone has different styles when
it comes to agenda. I tend to be very topic based versus team based. In the software context,
you have your development team, you have your testing team. Sometimes I’ll go in the context
of the team. More often than not I’m going in the context of topics. Within that topic … The
release date, so around the release date, what did we decide? We decided we need to add two
weeks to the schedule. What’s the next outcome or step? I’m going to update the schedule, I’m
going to publish it, I’m going to send it to the team, and I’m going to ask for everyone’s approval
when they get the email. When am I going to do it? I’m going to do it by tomorrow.
Yeah, I would tend to capture around that particular topic of discussion. Or if it is around the
team, then around that team.
Okay, so there’s not like a separate section for the next steps, but rather the next steps are
integrated within each topic?
That’s how I do it. Now some people, what they’ll do, is they’ll abstract those after the meeting.
They’ll have like one section that just has all the action items for all the people. I don’t know if
that’s helpful for people. I don’t tend to do it, but I have seen, I do work with people that do
format their minutes that way.
All right. Now you also had a recent podcast episode about watching out for energy drains in
What are some of those real-time the meeting’s unfolding things to bear in mind?
I guess an immediate one would be that person that maybe dominates the discussion. This
sometimes calls for being somewhat of a fearless meeting facilitator. I realize that this can be
difficult with politics and personalities and different dynamics of your company. People that
dominate the conversation, as a facilitatorI think it’s always important to give that person some
air space, and then open it up to the rest of the team. “Thanks, Susan, for that input. I’d like to
hear from some of the other people here to get their perspectives on what they think that we
should do about this release date.”
In terms of other energy drains … In my experience, any meeting that lasts more than an hour …
There’s something that seems to happen around the hour point in terms of energy, focus,
intensity. My guideline there is to venture to keep your meetings to an hour or less.
Related to that in also structuring the agenda, sometimes I think you can be strategic about how
you place topics. I’ll often do a few easy topics for kind of an easy win to kind of get the
momentum rolling at the beginning of the meeting. Then maybe save some of the more volatile
topics for the middle, towards the end of the meeting. If it’s a really volatile topic and you want
to give it a hard ending, put it up against the end of the meeting so that it’s time boxed and it
doesn’t drag on forever.
Sometimes that doesn’t work. In companies or cultures where there’s no hard end to meetings,
that one can be a little more difficult. Yeah, those would be a few that come to mind.
Well thank you. What’s your take when it comes to alternatives to in person meetings
themselves, like virtual tools. I know you’re loving Trello.
Tell us what do you like about that and what are some other good tools you enjoy using for
Virtual collaborations? It’s been interesting. All of my collaborations are virtual. I live in Portland,
Oregon, the teams I work with, they’re all over the world. Our kind of primary office that I deal
with are North Carolina or Massachusetts. I also have a lot of people I work with in Bangalore,
India. Collaborative text editing, we use video conferencing, Trello. I like Trello in terms of
managing smaller projects, just in terms of work flow and kind of knowing where things are at. I
find that really useful. Then just not overlooking, just picking up the phone. Sometimes I find a
lot of time and energy is wasted trying to solve problems over email and there’s kind of that rule
out there, after the third email, pick up the phone. There’s a lot of wisdom in that, and
something that I don’t always do.
Okay, so when you say collaborative text editing, I’m just thinking about the Google Doc …
Google Docs, yeah.
Is there other stuff that’s even cooler?
From an open source … Google Docs is kind of an interesting one. We use Google Docs at Red
Hat. There are a number of companies out there that don’t use Google Docs or don’t allow it for,
I don’t know exactly what their concerns are, whether it’s security or stuff being in the cloud or
whatever. There’s a few open source tools. One is called Etherpad. We have some of those
servers set up inside of our company, so some of us still use that. I like that tool in particular
because it has line numbers. There’s nothing worse than being at the presentation or that
meeting where you can’t figure out where people are at. That presentation that doesn’t have
page numbers, or the meeting agenda in the collaborative document where it’s like, someone
comes late and they’re like, “Where are we?” Etherpad has line numbers.
There’s another one called Gobby. G-O-B-B-Y. I don’t know if it’s around. That’s the one that I
started out using years ago. I think beyond that, there are a few other collaborative … There’s a
few other cloud based ones. One’s called Lucid Meetings. It looks really slick. I haven’t used it,
but in terms of a resource on meetings, they have a lot of really good blog posts. I’ve gone to
some really good webinars. They have basically a whole online platform around agendas,
meeting minutes, and that kind of thing.
Intriguing. Thank you. I’d also like to get your take, while we’re on the topic, where do you come
out on the WebEx, Citrix, GoToMeeting, Zoom …
Yeah those are all solid.
You dig them all? Is there any one you like better and why?
The one we use is BlueJeans. BlueJeans works pretty good. In my own personal experience, I’ll
use Skype, Google Hang Outs. For whatever reason, I tend to find, at least for personal stuff, I
tend to find Skype to be the most reliable in terms of solid audio and video. Yeah, we use
All right. Well, any other sort of final thoughts about meetings and making them fantastic before
we shift gears into the fast faves?
I guess my encouragement here would be to, especially if you’re a meeting facilitator, is to see
what you can get away with.
Whether it be asking someone to own an action item that’s theirs, or maybe not attending the
meeting because it doesn’t have an agenda, or declining a meeting because you look at the topic
in the meeting invitee list and you say, “You know what, I don’t think this is a good use of my
time.” I have some friends that all they do is attend meetings all day long. They all complain. It’s
like, “When am I going to do my work? All I do is go to meetings.” Being bold about declining
some of those meetings. Maybe you don’t need to be there. Maybe there’s some other way
those problems can be solved.
Okay. Thank you. All right, well then, could you kick us off by sharing a favorite quote?
Something you find inspiring.
Yes. Podcast movement 2014. Chris Brogan was speaking, and he has a whole business, it’s
called Owner Fuel, and this quote is something I wrote down and it’s something that really
resonates with me. He said, “An owner is the kind of person that decides they’re going to own
their life. They own their choices, they own their business, and thus they own their future.” This
idea of ownership and not being a victim of your circumstances is a real key to showing up and
making progress in the world.
Well thank you. How about a favorite book?
Favorite book? Kind of along the same lines is a book I read recently. It’s called Extreme
By Jacko Willink and Leif Babin. This is the real catchy part of it. Extreme Ownership: How U.S.
Navy Seals Lead and Win. This book is really, it really reinforced some ideas and things that I’d
heard in other places. Again, coming back to the whole idea of owning everything in your life.
Good leaders own everything.
Cool, thank you. How about a favorite tool? Something you use repeatedly?
My favorite tool right now, it’s kind of funny, is, well there’s two of them. Four by four post-it
notes and a sharpee.
Four by four? That is …
The four inch …
Oh, post-it. Not note card. I’m with you.
Yeah, the little … In terms of prioritization, recently, I have gotten into making … I don’t know I
have a little collection of them, but the night before it taking what are the four or five things I
absolutely need to get done tomorrow, and putting them in a column down the edge of my
desk. When I wake up in the morning, I sit down and I need to get down to business, it’s like
“What is at the top of the list? That’s the thing I got to get done.”
Connected with that is Commodore Timers. Setting a little 25 minute timer app to really focus
and get that number one thing done. A lot of times the things on that list are not like, “Oh I can’t
wait to do this.” They’re the, “Oh yeah, that tedious release schedule that I can’t quite figure out
that I need to spend a good block of time on.” Anyway, I find the timer’s really helpful in terms
of grinding out those things I don’t want to do that I’m procrastinating on and just saying, “Okay,
for this 25 minutes, I am fully focused on this number one priority.”
Okay, and you’re saying each task gets its own post-it note?
I would do like … Let me see what’s on my desk right now.
When you said a column, I’m imaging they’re queuing up.
Yeah I’ve got like four or five of them …
Top to bottom. The first one says update release schedule. Second one coordinate next release.
These are more like mini projects I would say as opposed to … Sometimes they’re tasks,
sometimes they’re specific projects.
Mm-hmm. Okay. Thank you. What would you say is the best way to find you if folks want to
learn more and check your stuff out?
All right. A favorite challenge or parting call to action for those seeking to be more awesome at
I guess it would just come back to a couple minutes ago. Being really intentional about the
meetings that you run, the meetings you facilitate, and then the meeting that you attend. How
are you spending your time? Is it an effective and good use of your time?
Mm-hmm. Excellent. Well John, thanks so much for this. It was a lot of fun, and I wish you tons
of luck at Red Hat and with your podcast and all you’re up to.
Thank you very much.