12 March 2020

Agile waste you might remove: Poorly run meetings


Bad meetings suck. they suck time and energy and motivation. And yet; it is so easy to run a good meeting and it in most instances takes very little time to prepare sufficiently.

You know you are in a bad meeting when;

  • You don't know the agenda
  • you don't know what your role in the meeting is
  • You don't know what the person talking is on about, or why it is relevant to you
  • You walk out of the meeting unclear about what was achieved
  • You walk out of a meeting not knowing what the next steps are going to be
  • You walk out more confused than when you walked in
  • The meeting's agenda or focus was not a priority, but you felt you had to attend anyway
  • The meeting is a tradition that has lost it's meaning or purpose
  • The meeting takes more time that is needed
  • People in the meeting are talking but nobody is listening
  • People in the room are talking about powerpoint pages, but there is no discussion
  • The content of the meeting would be better delivered in written form
  • The meeting comes up with no or little notice, interrupting you on something else
  • You spend all your time in meetings and have no time to stop, think or do the things that you said you would in a meeting
  • And I bet you can come up with plenty more.

Today let's look at what makes a good meeting.


Know why you are invited.
Often people will invite you to a meeting just because they don't want to exclude you. If you suspect this is the case (or even just as a default behaviour) ask the meeting organiser what contribution they expect from you. If their purpose isn't clear and doesn't align to your own goals, decline the meeting.

When I send out an invitation I will often give a run-sheet with names associated to specific parts of the planned discussion, or else I will list key people and explain their role; Craig is here to set the context. Jane is here to guide us on the customer perspective, etc.  I will be specific about who is invited in an FYI only capacity.

Know what the goal of the meeting is.
Read the meeting invitation. Does it explain it's purpose? Does it tell you how the meeting is going to move the team forward?  Is there a value proposition at all or is it just blank? If you can't see a clear purpose to the meeting ask for clarification.  My usual blunt approach is "What is this meeting about? What is the agenda?"

When I set up a meeting I usually open the meeting invitation with something like;
The purpose of this meeting is...
Be clear about the goal of the meeting.
Describe in advance what "done" looks like.  You can accomodate uncertainty, but having a clear goal helps direct people forward. If you are sitting in a meeting you could ask people to clarify their goals and expectations from the meeting. "Excuse me, what dos everyone expect to get out of this hour together?"

When I send an invitation to a meeting I try to be clear about the meetings goal. An example might be;
The goal of this meeting is to agree on the timeline of the new project
or, if you are in more of an exploratory mode;
The goal of this meeting is to figure out how to make sense of the boss's new strategy presentation. What does it mean for us? 
Define the format and timeline of the meeting
You don't have to keep to the time and you should focus on what is most important, but time-boxing parts of meetings is a great way to keep them moving forward.  Often you'll be in a meeting where people cover the same topic over and again (probably because they don't feel like anyone is listening.) Or you may be in a meeting which is actually two people talking and a bunch of other people watching.  These meetings are wasting time and energy. Help manage the discussion with a structure.

Lean Coffee is a great meeting format. Work to 8 minute increments. Co-create the agenda. nice work there.  Or set out the agenda in advance; nominating the topic, who is responsible for it, and a time-box or target duration. That way people can see their responsibility and constraints and prepare appropriately.

Open and close the meeting properly.
Bracket meetings with an introduction; setting context and goals and explaining the agenda. Close the meeting with a thanks to the participants and a summing up of the discussion. A clear contact removes ambiguity and help people focus on the job at hand. A good summing up helps poeple be clear about the next steps and their jobs.

Watch for appropriate contribution.
Many people attend meetings as passengers. Often people don't get the opportunity to speak up. Some meetings are actually two people having a conversation with a bunch of other people watching them.  Real meetings are an exchange of knowledge and ideas with an intent to resolve something. That something can be alignment, commitment to action, information exchange, or get a decision.  Based upon the intent of the meeting; watch for who is contributing and who is not.

If you see someone important not contributing to making a decision or committing to action, you know you are likely to be dealing with divergent agendas tomorrow.  best to have them voice their concerns in the meeting ... if that is what is needed.

Write things down as you go.
Discussions meander. people talk in circles. people don't listen. People let something they don't know slide by without resolving their questions.

A great trick shard to me by Paul and Kailash is to map the conversation as it happens. Diagramming the conversation using lines and boxes and maybe some more. Notations like question marks and so on, is a great way to help people follow the flow of what has been said and to also cut back on circular discussions.

If you are not up to dialogue mapping, you can do the next best thing, log the discussion in chat.  As you move through your carefully planned agenda, keep notes and keep posting them as you go. Make a note of new information, of questions that are asked and decisions that are made.

People watching the live chat will appreciate the written alternative to listing though bad connections, over background noise, while being distracted by their phone, and through other impediments to listening.  People will also appreciate the effort a few days later when they want to check something, and thank goodness, it is written down.

Special Agile cases:
I have labelled this series "Agile Waste" so I need to address some specific Agile/Scrum meetings that are often played poorly.

I still don't think I can do a better job that Jason Yip on Daily Scrums/Stand-ups. I have already covered  Sprint Review here. You would do well to read the Scrum Guide description of Sprint Plans which I think is pretty good, but eventually becomes overly formal as your team matures.  Lastly retrospectives, which are a special case of wasteful meetings.  I am writing a series on Retros and you should take a look at it. 

Whew!  I thought this was going to be a quick post but apparently I have a lot to say on the topic.

The common idea across all these meetings and Scrum ceremonies is that you should watch for your intent. Are you achieving what you set out to do? If not you are being wasteful. 

Think about what you need to correct. Often it means having hard conversations and pushing some conflict into your team to disrupt and then resolve a bad pattern. 

A general piece of advice is to prepare for the meeting with enough time. And to open it declaring the goal of the meeting and what success looks like from your point of view.  Start here and see what happens.

Bonus Video



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