There are times in many a web worker’s life when a group chat is the best way for a bunch of people working on a project to get together.
Recently, for example, I got together with a bunch of others about working on a collaborative project. A group chat was perfect: it didn’t require expensive long-distance calls, people could drop in or out as their time allowed, and people could monitor the chat while doing other work if they wanted. It was convenient for everyone.
However, if you’re not careful, a group chat can easily degenerate into a bull session or drag on for twice as long as it needs.
Group chats don’t have to be unproductive. Follow a few simple rules and you can keep that chat to a reasonable amount of time and actually accomplish the purposes of the chat.
Have a specific agenda and purpose. It’s important to send out an email before the group chat that clearly states a limited and specific agenda, and also contains some of the items below. That way the participants know the rules beforehand, and they can also prepare themselves to speak intelligently on the agenda. Without an agenda, the meeting will wander aimlessly.
The purpose should also be specific: you should have a defined desired outcome from the meeting, so that you know if the meeting has been successful, you have a direction you’re going in, and you know when the meeting is over (when the outcome has been reached).
Skip the small talk. Group chats have a tendency, as do real-world meetings, to start with small talk. That’s human nature. But if you have a moderator, he can open the meeting with introductions (if necessary) and then start on the first item in the agenda. The moderator should also state the purpose of the meeting and the rules.
Ask participants to stick to the agenda. The moderator (and the person who sends the email before the meeting) should ask participants to only discuss items on the agenda, in order if possible. There’s no need for Robert’s Rules of Order, or anything, but it’s still important that the meeting not stray off topic. I have no problem with jokes and fun stuff, but it should be kept to a minimum so the chat doesn’t last forever.
Note who you’re talking to. The confusing thing about a group chat is that people are all talking at once, responding to various previous comments, and often it’s not clear who someone is responding to. It’s best to note the person you’re talking to (“@Jim”, for example) or the topic you’re responding to (“re: revenues”, for example).
Set a time limit. People have other things to do besides the chat. So set a limit (1 hour, 90 minutes, etc.) and try to stick to it. When it’s getting close to the time limit, the moderator should note this (“15 minutes left!”) and ask people to finish up the agenda items. When the time limit comes, the meeting should be over, set to continue at another time if necessary, so that the time of all participants is respected.
Have someone note action steps. Someone should take note of action steps that come out of the discussion, that need to be done after the meeting is over, and also note who has committed to taking the action steps. If no action steps are noted, the meeting has been unproductive. Always wrap up the meeting by re-stating the action steps, so everyone’s clear what should be done.
Send out a follow-up email. Someone (perhaps the note taker?) should send out a follow-up email to all participants noting the action steps, who is responsible for them, and the deadlines for each step. Someone should also be in charge of following up on the action steps, to make sure they’re completed, unless a further meeting has been designated to follow up on the action steps.