I'm an E5 at a Big Tech company. My team's working on a very ambiguous project. 3 opinionated, vocal engineers (2 E6, 1 E5) tend to sidetrack our brainstorming discussions by playing devil's advocate to shoot down ideas. How do I drive these meetings forward with this dynamic? We often rehash the same discussions over and over. When we're close to reaching a decision, oftentimes someone would throw a wrench into things. Moreover, some engineers require upfront planning and want to finalize all the details before committing, while others prefer to defer the details to future milestones. Both my manager and team are getting frustrated, but are unsure how to fix this.
Sorry to hear this - It seems very, well, frustrating.
There's a lot of excellent resources in Taro already around driving meetings effectively; here's 2 of my favorites:
I also highly recommend my series on Effective Communication, which covers a lot of tactics like body language, delivering feedback, and that will be relevant for you "protecting" the sanctity of your meetings.
We often rehash the same discussions over and over.
Playing Devil's Advocate is fine (often healthy), but this is objectively a waste of time. When you see this happening, just call it out: "I appreciate the discussion here, but we have already talked about this before and we reached X conclusion. We have other topics on the agenda, so let's move forward. If new information surfaces for this particular discussion, we can follow up offline." It leaves the door open for people who just really love this topic for whatever reason while politely pushing everyone forward.
Moreover, some engineers require upfront planning and want to finalize all the details before committing, while others prefer to defer the details to future milestones.
If you're at a Big Tech company, the former is far preferable to the latter. Of course, you can't plan 100% of things upfront (there are always surprises), but in general, you should try to follow the 80/20 rule. When starting any major project at Big Tech, come up with the high-level details to get that 80% clarity on overall strategy like what I did in my System Design Series.
Be opinionated here. If vital stakeholders aren't leaving feedback on your technical design docs earlier and more proactively (especially if they're derailing your meetings too), nudge them and use your manager for support. Point out that doing things more "on the fly" has led to thrash and slower delivery in the past, and this is something the team has to get better at in order to ship impact on time.
Another vibe I'm getting from this post is you're focusing a lot on level. Level is important, but don't let it intimidate you. An E6 can have terrible ideas. An E4 can have a great idea that really improves your system design. Be equally open to input from everyone: Be warm and welcoming of good ideas and politely (but firmly) push back against flimsier ones.
Lastly, I just want to say that this all does get easier over time. Being a confident force leading meetings is something where the first time is the hardest. Once you start projecting that confidence, people will respect you more and more and it should form a positive snowball effect from there.
Side note: As I usually mention on issues like these, I would have an honest discussion with your manager about this. It seems like they're already aware of this - You just need to follow up in your next 1 on 1 meeting. Don't pull punches as the manager 1 on 1 is meant to be a confidential, safe space to share real feedback. Of course, don't say anything blatantly offensive about your colleagues (and assume good intent), but be frank about how their behavior is really not constructive.
Something that may help here is to reconstruct a really thorough "play by play" of one of these inefficient meetings (e.g. "10 minutes in, we talked about X. 20 minutes in, we talked about X again. 30 minutes in, we talked about Y which isn't even related to the project. Person B was the commonality across all these scenarios..."). This will help you and your manager create a targeted plan to resolve this as opposed to your 1 on 1 about this being pure venting.
There's a good chance that your manager will need to have a crucial conversation with these peers and deliver some very frank feedback. Your goal is to help them deliver that feedback by making it objective, clear, and actionable.
It's pretty annoying when engineers are more interested in their own strongly held opinions than what's good for the company. I found that sometimes discussions are a form of procrastination since it's quite difficult and demanding to tackle hard problems. Similar to the strategy of overcoming inertia, sometimes you just have to get started, build momentum, and then make critical decisions later—rather than spinning your wheels rehashing what to do.
Another idea may be to have more individual 1:1 discussions with these individual engineers. Larger meetings with lots of strong voices tend to lead to chaos, and is costly for everyone involved.
Focus these 1:1 meetings on (1) building trust between you and the individual, and (2) figuring out what is negotiable about their position and what is not. Do this for every strong opinionated stakeholder.
Then figure out if there's a compromise in the middle. Pitch this to each person as your idea, priming them with "It's important we find a common solution" or something of the sort to remind them that you are all here to figure out a path forward, and refine it. Then finally bring people together at a bigger meeting to have this proposal approved.