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Ruins of Willkarakay

Telling stories is a natural human activity from time immemorial.  Creating a succinct and informative story to describe a business need or the future of an organization is challenging.  Stories are not bulleted presentation slides, although those tools can be used.  Rather stories at this level are longer narratives, or at the very least they are like the paintings in Lascaux Caves which evoke a longer narrative. Narrative storytelling is not a tool typically found or appreciated in status meetings, the process of building a narrative that describes a business need or the journey an organization must take to achieve a goal often needs facilitation.  Three facilitation tools are commonly used to help a team or an individual to build a story in a business environment. They are: (more…)

Stories help you visualize your goals

Stories help you visualize your goals

In the Harvard Business Review article, The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool by Harrison Monarth (March 11, 2014), Keith Quesenberry notes:

People are attracted to stories because we’re social creatures and we relate to other people.

The power of storytelling is that it helps us understand each other and develop empathy. Storytelling is a tool that is useful for presentations, but also to help people frame their thoughts and for gathering information. A story provides both a deeper and more nuanced connection with information than most lists of PowerPoint bullets or even structured requirements documents. Here are just a few scenarios (other than presentations) where stories can be useful: (more…)

A puzzle and patterns have a lot in common.

A puzzle and patterns have a lot in common.

Stories are a tool to help structure information so that audiences can easily consume them. They help presenters make sure their message stays front and center so it can be heard. While many presentations and stories in the corporate environment use the metaphor of a journey, some are best represented in other ways. Other patterns are useful both to fit other circumstances or as a tool to inject a bit of variety into presentation heavy meetings. (Just how many journeys can you take in any one meeting?) (more…)

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The Mountain is one example of a journey-based story structure.

Presentations are a story that the presenter is sharing with an audience, and any good story has a beginning, middle and an end. All too often the beginning is a slide that has an agenda, the middle is slide after slide of data and the end is a slide titled conclusion or questions.  Across that arc, the presenter seeks to inspire, informs or persuade. A better approach is to use one of the tried and true story structures. A story structure is often a useful tool to ensure the audience stays attentive and hears the specific points the presenter is trying to make. The presentation does not need to be the next The Lord of the Rings, but you could or should emulate those plot patterns.

The Monomyth or The Hero’s Journey is one of the most common story structures. The monomyth is cyclical story structure in which a hero team embarks on a journey and then returns when successful. It describes where the journey started, the trials along the way, the goal that was attained and the steps to move forward after the goal has been met. The hero’s journey was originally introduced by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). It is a broad narrative structure that can be used when the presenter is leveraging a journey metaphor, one of the most commonly used stories in business and conference presentations.  The journey is commonly used to describe process improvement, methodology adoptions or business transitions. I tend to leverage a version of the monomyth pattern described by Christopher Vogler that has twelve steps in order to provide a journey type of structure to relevant presentations. (You can view a recent example of how I applied the monomyth to a presentation in Discover The Quality of Your Testing Process). Reflect on every adventure movie you have ever seen and you will recognize the pattern. Even in a business environment, audiences are very comfortable with this approach because they have been trained to recognize the pattern.

Similar Journey Story Narratives:

Freytag’s Pyramid is a structure that follows a similar pattern of rising action climax, falling action followed by final release. This pattern is commonly used in commercials to hold attention (here is an example). In this pattern, the protagonist doesn’t need to return to complete the cycle, but the problem does need to be solved. I often use Freytag’s Pyramid as a guide to ensure short presentations have a plot.

The Mountain begins by describing a current state, showing how challenges are overcome as the story moves away from the current state towards a conclusion/climax, followed by falling action. The most significant difference between the Hero’s Journey and the Mountain is that in the Mountain the conclusion does not have to be positive. For example, the Harry Potter series would have been much less of a Hero’s Journey and more of a Mountain if Voldemort had won. Similarly, the mountain would be a good structure to use to describe an Agile adoption journey that ended in implementing a new waterfall methodology. 

It is easy to see how to use the journey story narratives to tell a story of great quest; however, in a business environment, journey story narratives have a wide range of uses.  Some of the typical business uses are:

  • Establish that change has happened in an organization.
  • Make sure that the audience understands that the progress made was not easy.
  • Show that taking a risk had benefits.
  • Identify the source of new information and knowledge.

 Story patterns like the Hero’s Journey, Freytag’s Pyramid or the Mountain can be used to guide how we deliver information. Story patterns are often useful because they help the audience consume the presentation’s message. Whether a presentation is developed to inspire, inform or persuade, if the presentation does not connect with the audience then the time and effort for all parties are wasted.

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A good story makes information engaging

Presentations are the lingua franca of many . . . OK most corporate IT departments. Presentations are used for many purposes, such as to inspire, inform, persuade or some combination thereof. The problem is not that presentation are a common communication vehicle, but rather they are often misused. I recently attended a Chamber of Commerce meeting where I watched a presenter go through slide after slide full of bullet points, charts and graphs.  Trouble is, I can’t remember much of the presentation a week later. If he had approached the presentation as a story using one of common story structures and added specific vignettes, the presentation would have had a better chance at making an emotional connection and being memorable.

Story structures are tools to build a connection with an audience and aid absorption of the entire overall message. An example of a common story structure used to guide a presentation is called the “Mountain”. The Mountain begins with describing a current state, shows how challenges are overcome as the story moves away from the current state towards a conclusion which that satisfies a need. I often use this structure to describe a project or an organizational assessment.  Each step along the path can accompanied by relevant and powerful vignettes to highlight specific points and to increase the audience’s connection to the presentation.

The most basic goal of a presentation is for the audience to remember what was said. In a Wall Street Journal article, Cliff Atkinson, a communications consultant and author of Beyond Bullet Points, suggested that raw data is not as persuasive and memorable as many in business believe.  Mr. Atkinson suggests distilling what is important and wrapping it in an engaging story so it can be remembered. The Inc Magazine blog entry by Riley Gibson makes a similar point, suggesting that stories create interest and investment so that audiences can “hear” and accept what you are saying. Richard A Krueger in Using Stories in Evaluation (2010, pp. 404-405) stated, “Evidence suggests that people have an easier time remembering a story than recalling numerical data.” The story structure provides a container to hold the data and message that is at the heart of the presentation so people can remember. This similar to my son-in-law’s uncanny ability to remember movie lines. Supporting this thesis are any number of study guides prepared for students, such as the one published by the Michigan State University College of Osteopathic Medicine that suggests using a story (more emotive the better) to enhance long-term retention and recall.

As I was leaving the Chamber of Commerce meeting, I overheard someone say they were glad that at least there were appetizers before the presentation because they didn’t get the point of the presentation. The comment was harsh, but even I, the ultimate data geek, had a hard time remembering the punchline. Whether a presentation is developed to inspire, inform or persuade, if the presentation does not connect with the audience then the time and effort for all parties are wasted (even if the refreshments were good).

UntitledWhen it comes to the daily stand-up meeting, one of the process “improvements” I occasionally see is changing them to periodic stand-up meetings.  Generally teams do this when 1) non-Agile projects use the stand-up meeting technique to share statuses, 2) they are doing large tasks that do not require coordination, or 3) when an Agile team misunderstands the purpose of the stand-up meeting.

Project plans and schedules are an important tool to coordinate and direct team members in non-Agile projects. The intent of project plans and schedules is to provide team members with a sequential list of to-do items.  The schedule is to a non-Agile project what sprint planning and the daily stand-up meeting is to an Agile project.  Where work is highly deterministic, nothing goes wrong or nothing new is discovered the process works great.  Non-Agile project managers often leverage the stand-up meeting technique to gather status and feedback to help them control and tune their project schedule. These stand-up/status meetings are not typically needed on a daily basis given the belief in the pre-planned schedule and a project manager, rather than the team, who is responsible for adjusting the plan.

During sprint planning, Agile teams break work down into more granular chunks.  This process serves multiple purposes including helping team think through the process of delivering the work, generating milestones to show progress and to evoke additional feedback. The level of granularity that work is broken into varies from team to team and from function to function.  For example, installing a new server might be broken down into more granular task such as, installing a new rack, running power to the rack, mounting and hooking up the server (teams will add more or less detail depending on their needs). The more granular tasks would be completed individually more accurately showing progress. Some teams decide to hold their stand-up meetings on a less frequent basis to reflect the lack of change on a day-to-day basis. Assuming that the team has a common goal and that team members are working on stories related to that goal or tasks that are part of the same story a better solution would be to break the work down in to smaller components.

A related reason teams give for not needing to do daily stand-up meetings is that work they are doing is not related, and therefore hearing about what someone else is doing is only of tangential interest.  Actually words like ‘boring’ or ‘overhead’ might be used.  I tend to agree with this rational, if team members are not working on tasks that are related to a common goal or story or they are working on items where inter-team coordination and communication won’t add value, then don’t do daily stand-up (perhaps don’t do them at all). HOWEVER I am unsure whether I would call this assembly a single project or the group of people doing the work a team.

Every once in a while I find a team that has truly embraced the Agile principles, but have misunderstood the rational for doing stand-ups. Most the teams in this category are highly cohesive and expend a significant amount of energy communicating and coordinating between members.  Many times groups in this category see the formal stand-up as a ritual that they found other, informal means to address. Daily stand-up meetings are a time for the whole team to gather, interact, coordinate work and offer advice.  If an Agile team has found another means get the whole team together to interact, coordinate and communicate, the formal daily stand-up is not needed.  Generally, however, what I have observed is serial one-on-one conversations rather than true group interaction. There are much more prone to imperfect communication (see telephone game), and lacks the diversity of opinion group interactions can give.

Sometime daily stand-up meetings don’t make sense. However I typically find that when that is true the real issue is that the either the team has not really embraced Agile or are not working towards the same goal.  Every once in a while a small, very tightly knit team finds a way to continuously interact and coordinate at a group level. They do not need to do a formal daily stand-up – they are doing a stand-up continuously.  Most (99.9%) Agile teams need to do a daily stand-up.  Stand-ups not only reinforce team membership, but more importantly, stand-up meetings are often only time the whole team gathers to share and interact during the day.

Stay focused!

Stay focused!

 

There are very few add-ons that can make a daily stand-up meeting better. In fact most add-ons shift the focus of the meeting and could easily be classified as process problems. However, there are two add-ons that can add value to the stand-up meeting process: trolling for risks and hand-offs.

Trolling for risks. Anyone that has ever felt responsibility for the outcome of a project has had that nagging feeling that something was lurking just over the horizon that could reduce the value you are delivering. Project risks reflect the potential for something to go wrong. No one wants to have a risk that should be seen coming to catch them off guard. Therefore I periodically add a fourth question to the stand-up meeting questions: “Are there any project risks you are more concerned about this sprint than last sprint?” The goal is expose any new risks or any risks that are becoming more risky. At a project level I suggest adding this to the stand-up discussion once per two week sprint and do not let the conversation expand beyond the 15 minute time box. If the project has suddenly become so risky that more time is needed, treat the changed risk status as a blocker and have the scrum master pursue identifying the root cause so that specific action can be taken. Stand-ups for a program (very large project or a related group of projects) may need to monitor risk on a daily basis.

Hand-offs. Project teams are often distributed across continents, which can be used to a team’s advantage so that work begun in one time zone can be handed off and to be continued at the beginning of another team member’s day. This technique is often called “following the sun.” In order for this technique to work, the team members that are involved in the hand-off must understand that the hand-off is occurring, the goal of the shared task and the current status of the work. The daily stand-up meeting plays a critical role in this process. Involved team members can use their update to alert those they are handing work off to about the current status of their shared task or to schedule follow-on discussions if a more in-depth hand-off is needed. One common example of this practice is when developers are in one location and testers in another. The approach is first planned in sprint planning then coordinated during the daily stand-up meeting and other person-to-person interactions. The daily stand-up meeting generally acts as a formal control mechanism while conversation outside the meeting is less formal and more collaborative.

The stand-up meeting serves a very specific set of planning and coordination purposes. Add-ons generally push the daily stand-up meeting away from that purpose therefore become process problems. There are a few add-ons that fit well within the purpose of the meeting and the 15 minute time box. These add-ons focus on planning and coordinating and help the team get their work done rather than reporting on how the work is being done.

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