Finding a Good Meeting Time

The decision to call a meeting is separate from the decision of when to hold that meeting.  When calling a meeting, you usually have some idea who needs to be there.  Given this, you then go through a process to determine the best time for those people.   Here is how to do it in Weaver

Scenario

One group I work with had been meeting weekly for a couple years, but the need to do work dwindled as we were waiting for a different group to move on a related topic.  This is a meeting that ostensibly has about 20 people interested in it, but only 5 people regularly attend.   The 20 are members mainly for receiving the minutes which record what the group does.

After many months off, it is time to call a meeting again, but was not quite sure who would be attending, and whether the old time slot was suitable or not.  I wanted to figure out who would attend, as well as what the best time was.

Create Meeting Without a Start Time

The first step is to create the meeting record.  I can put a description on the meeting, and even include the Go To Meeting connection details. Everything you need to know about the meeting to decide if a person wants to attend or not.

But I leave the meeting with a “To Be Determined” time.

I then set up a number of proposed times.  In this case, the normal timeslot, an hour before, and hour later, and then one on the following Monday.   I then sent a message to the 20 people who have been associated with the meeting in the past.   I am pretty sure the most will not want to attend, but the goal here is to try and find that out.

People Record Their Preferences

The email message has a link in it which loads a page showing all the responses and allows someone to enter their preferred times: time that they can attend, might attend, or can not attend.  There are five choices for each timeslot for each person:

Wait 24 hours for some responses and it looks like this:

This shows me two things at once.   The columns that are filled in are people motivated enough to actually respond.  These five are the ones likely to attend.  The empty columns are important too:  I don’t need to worry too much about their desires since they are not that likely to attend.

The chart also shows me that the first two proposed times are better than the last two.  I will probably wait another day, and then call the meeting for one of the first two slots using the pull down menu on the left.  After that, people can still enter values, but those really only help indicate whether you will be able to attend the meeting as set or not.

You are never “done” with planning.

Details

Getting this to work well requires attention to a few details

  • People do NOT need to log in to record their preferred times.  The email contains a link that authenticates them just enough (for just this page) to see this meeting details and enter this information.   They have to log in to do other things, but saving them from logging prevents a lot of people from giving up.
  • You can see everyone else.  You might think that biases the result — and maybe it does but maybe that is a good thing.   If one person sees everyone on a particular time, they will consider more carefully their own ability to attend at that time.
  • Anyone can mark for anyone else.  This feels like a security flaw, but it is far more useful than it is a problem.  Some people don’t figure out the web page, and just send a text response, and anyone can then mark their time on the sheet as needed.   We have never had a problem with people spoofing other people’s times.
  • This runs on all browsers.
  • You can go back and change your availability at any time.  This allows people to fill in what they know now, and come back later to fill in the rest.
  • The default setting is “unknown” and nobody is forced to enter a different value.  You can fill in what you know, and leave the others empty.  You can even reset them to unknown if unexpected things happen to your schedule.  You can also enter “uncertain” which tells others that you actually considered the time, and don’t know that you are available, but don’t know that you are not available, and so picking that time is risky.
  • Good time and OK time are separate choices.  If a time slot is free and that would be a convenient time to meet, it is a good time.  There is a lower grade of time where maybe it is free, but inconvenient, like during lunch or something.   Or it might not be free at the moment, but the conflict could be moved.  What you are saying with the “OK” time is: “I prefer not to meet at this time, but I could do it if needed”.   The ability to express that is important.
  • The color help make the chart easily visible with lots of entries.  However, the icons are also distinct for colorblind, so you we don’t rely on only the color.
  • The meeting times are always presented in the time zone of the person viewing.  Above I am showing Los Angeles in all cases because that is the time zone I am in, but others see the appropriate date and time for that slot in their own time zone.

Conclusion

The ability to collect from a large group of people the time they are available really helps me a lot in my setting up and running meetings.


UPDATE – Why not just let the system ‘autopick’ a time

After posting I got this question in a different channel:  why not just let Outlook automatically pick a time slot that works for everyone.   This works for two, maybe three people, and for meeting that are rather routine. But there are many reason why this does not work.

  • Assumes that all things that you care about are in the calendar, even casual commitments like meeting over coffee or being available so someone can borrow a book. 
  • Assumes that all time slots on the calendar are equally available, starting hour to end of day are the same, and that all of it equally bookable.
  • Assumes that all booked time slots are unavailable.  An important regularly scheduled team meeting looks just the same as an appointment you made to be able to run to the store for supplies.
  • Assumes that the day has very hard begin and end times.  There is no possibility for coming in half hour early, nor staying late, for an important meeting.
  • Assumes that all meetings are equally important.  A casual status check with an employee can block an important meeting called by the president to review an emerging situation.
  • No way to express a preference that is not a hard black or white rule.  For instance I might normally take lunch at noon, but if that slot is the only one for a majority of the team members, then I can easily shift lunch earlier or later.
  • Assumes that all attendees are of exactly equal importance.  The intern who is just observing can block a meeting time on equal footing with the project manager who is running the project meeting.  The algorithm has no insight into who is the most important person to be there.
  • Automatic means that the decision is made without any visibility or explanation about why it picked a particular slot.  Say it finds a slot at 8 in the morning, there is no visibility into other slots that were “mostly” available.
  • Automatic means that if a time slot is not chosen, it does not communicate why it didn’t pick that time.  Was it because Jones the chairman was not available, or was it because the intern scheduled an errand then.
  • Automatic simply fails if it can not find a slot for everyone without giving any kind of overview of the slots that are almost available.
  • Automatic prevents any possibility for shifting other things around.  For example, maybe a slot is available for all but one.   That person might be persuaded to move the other meeting for the benefit of the others.  The algorithm will not come back with suggestions on how the meeting might be at a better time if one or two people shifted other things.
  • There is no ability to plan and shift around multiple conflicting things.  For example, the decision on whether to travel for a set of meetings might depend on whether several meetings can be scheduled for the same afternoon.
  • There is no ability to communicate anything to anyone else about being unsure about a time slot.  Either you have a meeting scheduled, or you do not.
  • Assumes that everyone is using the same calendaring system making this approach useless when you are planning cross-company meetings.  Every if everyone is using Outlook, most companies keep their calendars securely closed from outside inquiries for obvious security reasons, and that makes it impossible to auto schedule.
  • Once the decision is made, there is no ability to tune and adjust, no visibility into what might have been almost chosen.  No visibility into other time slots that are equally available.
  • When automatic fails to find a slot, then it simply fails, and there is no information available to the users to find a solution for most of the people.  If all time slots are available for only 9 out of 10 attendees, it simply gives up.  Leader must force a time, but does not have any input from the members to support deciding the best compromise.
Automatically finding a common time slot is very binary, black and white, without any option to take care of the difficult cases.  The weaver approach performs a completely different function than just finding a time slot that a set of people have in common.
  • Everyone’s availability for that meeting is visible to all the others.
  • Slots that would be a favorite, but where a number of people have conflicts are visibly displayed so that everyone can see how impossible it is to meet then.
  • Slots that are almost available are visible to everyone so that those couple of people who have conflicts have an opportunity to move and accommodate the schedule of others.
  • You can express five different levels of availability:
    • Good says you are available and prefer those times
    • OK allows you say you can attend, but some times are better than others, and you would prefer to avoid these slots if possible.
    • Hard conflict say that even if you are the only one not able to make it, you really can’t make it.
    • The soft conflict says that you have a plan, but could move it if that slot is the only one that most other people can make.
    • There is also an option for “I don’t know” leaving it available without any commitment to attend.
  • It is designed for people to come back multiple times to update according to what they see in others.   For example a 6am slot might be initially marked as conflict, but later changed to be available when it appears that other important attendees are only available then.
  • Proposed times are automatically entered by the leader based on many factors other than simply being
  • It allows the leader to choose a time based on whether the important people are available.  Maybe from 10 people, there are 5 core members who are important, and the leader might consider their responses quite a bit more important.  Similarly, courtesy invites, and people who rarely attend the meeting, can be ignored.  There is no algorithm to replace this because the rating for how important people are is simply not tracked in the system.
  • When a time slot is picked, all the supporting information about who was and was not available is clearly visible.  A meeting might be chosen when someone is not available, and you already know that they probably will not make the meeting, and so some special effort might be needed to get their input.
  • If an important person schedule changes, you can go back to the entries made by others, and make a new decision.
  • Weaver is available to anyone with an email address.  There is no requirement that every person enter their entire calendar in a particular system.
I find that people who think that auto-schedule will work generally do not have a lot of experience trying to run larger, cross company meetings and are not really aware of all the simplistic assumptions that the algorithm depends on.
 

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