A few years ago, I did something weird. I fell in love with a concept. I was studying Business Process Management, and one of the key aspects is defining processes. If I had to describe this concept in three bullet points, it would be:
- You cannot improve a process that you cannot control
- You cannot control a process that you cannot map
- You cannot map a process that you cannot describe
W. Edwards Deming stated, “If you cannot define what you are doing as a process, you do not understand what you are doing.” I typically take it a step further, as I believe that if you cannot define what you are doing, you should probably stop doing it. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been in a lot of meetings where I didn’t know what I was doing there.
Meetings are the reason that I hated Monday mornings for most of my 20’s. Well, one of the reasons. After working for a few people that enjoyed the manufactured self-importance that comes with mandating attendance and occupying 90 minutes of my life, I developed a deep disdain for meetings. I reasoned that wasting 90 minutes, almost 4% of the time most people spend at work for an entire week, was quite counterproductive.
This rationale led me to, for years, avoid calling meetings unless absolutely necessary. However, in the years since, I think that I have come up with a pretty good system for managing meetings. It blends the PMBoK view of three basic meeting types with how Scrum ceremonies are conducted.
We have all spent time in this type of meeting. The danger increases as more people are invited, because the number of participants seems to unfortunately have no negative correlation with individual desire to “contribute” to the discussion. More people, more to say, longer meetings. A few ideas on how to more effective run these meetings:
- First order of business is to establish a time box, such as a 30 minute maximum for the meeting. The meeting may take less time than allotted, but it will not take more. Set a timer, or state a time out loud (e.g., “This meeting will end at 9:45 am”). This creates a sense of urgency, and allows people to recommend taking off-topic items to be continued afterwards or placed ‘in the parking lot‘.
- If you are running a meeting and you’re not sure why someone is in there, ask them if there is a reason for their attendance. If all they need is an update, they can get a copy of the meeting’s notes e-mailed to them afterwards – and not waste a half hour in a conference room.
- Have a specific agenda, and stick to it. It is impossible to adhere to a time box if you allow topic drift. It isn’t necessary to use Robert’s Rules for every meeting, but order should be maintained.
- Have someone take notes for dissemination after the meeting, and be sure to follow up on any items that were left open.
Meetings that result in a decision can often be difficult to manage, because people should disagree. Be wary of meetings where everyone agrees. Following the Bay of Pigs debacle, JFK stated that “Most of us thought it would work. I know there are some men now saying they were opposed from the start. I wasn’t aware of any great opposition.” While disagreement should be allowed, chaos can take over if these meetings are not well-controlled.
- Clearly state the following at the beginning of the meeting:
- what decision must be made
- how the decision will be made (hand vote, private ballot, panel, etc.)
- how much time is available for deliberation
- If possible, assign someone as a facilitator to aid the flow of the meeting
- Have someone document all of the points made for and against the decision, as they should be recorded as the basis of the decision
- Remind everyone to make the effort to maintain decorum and professionalism
Depending on the participants and the topic being discussed, this can be the most fun type of meeting or the most stressful. Trying to do a retrospective on a successful sprint? Sounds like a good time for some pizza and light music in the background. Trying to come up with alternatives because the scheduled slipped after MLR was hung up for a whole day on two paragraphs? It may be a more somber meeting. Cleverism has some great Brainstorming tips. Some of my favorite considerations:
- Describe the purpose of the meeting – what are we brainstorming, exactly? I like to write this at the top of a white board so we can just point to it if someone gets off topic.
- Make the exit criteria clear, are we here for a finite period, or will we stay until we have captured every conceivable thought?
- Quantity over quality. Someone’s bad idea may trigger someone else’s good idea. Yes, even if it’s tongue-in-cheek. Just because we record an idea doesn’t mean we have to act on it. You have to foster a safe place that is conducive to people stating ideas without fear of ridicule.
- Make it fun, variations of hot potato are great ways of getting people to interact.
- Allow people to write their ideas if they don’t want to state them aloud.
Meetings are necessary, but wasted time is not. Get more done with less by thinking lean. What is the least amount of time and the fewest number of participants that we need in order to fulfill whatever need for which the meeting is called? Let’s take back our Monday mornings.