Meetings are more than just a gathering of people.

Meetings are the most important event in any organization — well that is what it seems like.  It can also be said that meetings are the bane of every human that isn’t buying or selling something (and that caveat might be an overstatement). There is an enormous amount of literature purporting to deliver effective meetings.  If we use the simple Daily Scrum as an example even what should be straightforward wander off course if participants use the meeting for more than it was intended. A quick query of internet sources suggests that there are anywhere from 6 to 16 types of meetings. The most common meeting types in software-centric organizations are: (more…)

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…)

Their are meetings of all types!

Their are meetings of all types!

The Scaled Agile Framework Enterprise (SAFe) organizes work using a hierarchy of value stream, agile release train, program increment, sprint and teams. In order to make the structure work, SAFe adds a few events to the standard set of team-level Scrum meetings (sprint planning, daily stand up/Scrum meeting, demonstrations and retrospectives.  The additions include:

  1. Release Planning Meeting. The release planning meeting is used to plan and kick-off a program increment. The meeting is typically held over the course of two days and involves everyone involved with the program increment. The release planning meeting is one of the keystones of the SAFe framework.
  2. Scrum of Scrums: The Scrum of Scrums (SoS) is a meeting of the Scrum Masters using a format that is very similar to the daily stand-up meeting. The SoS is a common tool for scaling Agile and has is part of the Scrum cannon. This meeting is generally facilitated by the release train engineer.
  3. Scrum of Product Owners (optional): In a similar vein as SoS, a Scrum of product owners. The same general format of the classic three questions can be applied from a product owner perspective. The goal of the meeting is generally to keep the product owners informed and involved.
  4. Release Management Meeting: The release management meeting reviews progress toward a developing releasable product. Attributes that are reviewed include scope, quality, and progress toward the release roadmap, quality and potentially other factors.
  5. System Demo: The system demo provides a demonstration of the integrated software. This is typically a demonstration to the business and other key stakeholders. The system demo occurs at the end of each sprint generally after the sprint demo.
  6. Program Increment Solution Demo (Part of the activity SAFe calls Inspect and Adapt): The PI demo reflects everything that was developed (and is done) during the program increment. All release planning participants are part of this demo. The PI solution demo connects the loop with everyone that was involved in planning and also provides a starting point for everyone involved in the next planning event.
  7. Problem Solving Workshop (Part of the activity SAFe calls Inspect and Adapt): The problem solving workshop is a macro version of a retrospective. The workshop generates an improvement backlog that is an input into the next release planning cycle. The problem solving workshop provides all of the teams with time to identify and prioritize problems that may affect the entire Agile release train.

All of these events bear further exploration, however it is important to note that when scaling Agile so that important  large business needs are tackled in a timely fashion, scale comes with a cost. The cost is the need for control structures. Agile has many attributes that contribute to discipline and control such as short feedback loops, iterative planning, demonstration and more, but as the number of teams working toward a common goal gets larger additional mechanisms are generally needed when cadence and synchronization are not sufficient.

Hydrogen is elementary!

Hydrogen is elementary!

Hand drawn chart Saturday.

In Scrum there are four-ish basic meetings. They are sprint planning, daily stand-up, demonstrations, retrospectives and backlog grooming (the “ish” part). Whether distributed or co-located, these meetings are critical to planning, communication and controlling how Agile is typically practiced. Getting them right is not optional, especially when the Agile team is distributed. While there specific techniques for each type of meeting (some people call them rituals) there a few basics that can be used as a checklist. They are:

  • Schedule and invite participants. Team members are easy! Schedule all standard meetings for team members upfront for as many sprints as you are panning to have. As a team, decide on who will participate in the demo and make sure they are invited as early as possible.
  • Review the goals and rules of the meeting upfront. Don’t assume that everyone knows the goal of the meeting and the ground rules for their participation.
  • Publish an agenda. Agendas provide focus for any meeting. While an agenda for a daily stand-up might sound like overkill (and for long-term, stable teams it probably is), I either review the outline of the meeting or send the outline to all participants before the meeting starts.
  • Check the tools and connections. Distributed teams will require tools and software packages; including audio conferencing, video conferencing, screen sharing and chat software. Ensure they are on, connected and that everyone has access BEFORE the meeting starts.
  • Ensure active facilitation is available. All meetings are facilitated. Actively facilitated meetings are typically more focused, while un-facilitated meetings tend to be less focused and more ad-hoc. Active or passive facilitation is your choice. Distributed teams should almost choose facilitation. If using Scrum, part of role of the Scrum master is to act as a facilitator. The Scrum master guides the team and participants to ensure all of the meetings are effective and meet their goals.
  • Hold a meeting retrospective. Spend a few moments after each meeting to validate the goals were met and what could be done better in the future.

Agile is not magic. All Agile teams use techniques that assume the team has a common goal to guide them and then use feedback generated through communication to stay on track. Distributed Agile teams need to pay more careful attention to the basics. The Scrum master should strive to make the tools and process needed for all of the meetings fade into the background; for the majority of the team the end must be more important than the process.

Break the rules at your own peril.

Break the rules at your own peril.

I am not really a big rule guy, I would rather think of most structures as a guideline. However, sometimes there are some lines that shouldn’t be crossed.  There are three rules that everyone involved in backlog refinement must remember.  These rules are broken at your peril!

  1. Rule One (originally described in Splitting User Stories: Patterns): Each story must deliver functionality that is potentially implementable. If a story needs to be split or refined, think slice rather than phase or layer. Each story should represent a thin slice of on an onion starting at the outer layer cutting to the core rather than an individual layer.
  2. Rule Two: All formal refinement sessions need to have a clear measurable goal. A goal provides focus for the refinement exercise and provides bounds in much the same manner as an agenda does in a standard meeting. Participants should know the goal for the session (e.g. today we focus on stories supporting the theme for the next sprint) when the session is scheduled so that they can prepare. For example, when I participate in refinement sessions, I try to review the stories that will be discussed so I am not participating to generate questions, but rather participating to generate understanding.
  3. Rule Three: While most Agile exercises include the whole team, participation in a refinement session should be limited. I use the Three Amigos technique to ensure a crosssection that includes a tester, product owner or business analyst and developer. refinement sessions are working sessions focused on making sure stories are understood, properly formed and have initial acceptance criteria. The larger the number of people involved in a meeting, the larger the amount of time that will be spent developing a consensus that will be revisited during sprint planning.

When scheduling a refinement session remember the three rules.  First and foremost, all stories need to deliver value. If a story does not deliver value, consider jettisoning the story. If you are going to schedule a session make sure you have a goal.  Just like the relationship between a meeting and an agenda (no agenda, no meeting), if you don’t have a goal for your session generate a one or reschedule the session. Finally, inviting everyone involved in the project (and a few extra subject matter experts for good measure) is a recipe for death by talking.  Constrain the session to the absolute minimum number of participants. User story refinement is important, don’t mess it up!  If you have to break the rules  . . . well just don’t.

Distributed Meetings Need Structure

Distributed Meetings Need Structure

Hand Drawn Chart Saturday

When you really need to have a meeting (and here are the types of meetings you might need to have), face-to-face meetings are the best. Unfortunately, when your team is distributed, face-to-face meetings are really no longer possible. It is important to try and maintain the most intimate meeting possible. After face-to-face, the order of intimacy starts at immersive video, standard video, web conference, phone to IM/chat and, finally, email. Every step down the chain peels away a layer of intimacy, increasing the perceived distance between meeting participants. Techniques that I have used to improve communication between members of distributed teams include:

  1. Facilitation: Facilitators help communication happen by encouraging full participation, promote understanding and keep the meeting moving. Consider facilitation at each location for significant meetings. Facilitation can be an expensive option.
  2. Rotating meeting leadership: Rotating the meeting leadership for standing meetings (e.g. standup meetings, sprint reviews, demonstrations and retrospectives) is helpful to generate engagement. This technique works best if the meeting is not chaired by a single strong, positional leader.
  3. Formal structure: Structure provides a means to keep the meeting synchronized. The structure helps avoid open discussion. Open discussion is difficult to follow in distributed meetings.  Different accents and cultures complicate not only how information is interpreted, but also how behaviors like interruptions are interpreted.
  4. Pairing: Pair participants in different locations. Each person in the pair will look out for the other’s interest. Meeting pairs are highly effective when one or both people in the pair are actively leading or presenting as part of the agenda. Pre-work between participants in the pair might be required.  Pairing also has the side benefit of helping to keep participants engaged.

Technology is key to making distributed meetings work. Whether video or phone, use the best technology possible. If can hear the people on the other end of the phone or if the video is so poor that you are unsure if you are looking at the moon or a person, the meeting will fail.  Assuming the technology works there are several additional steps that can increase effectiveness.  All of the above techniques can be combined.  Facilitation is the most powerful technique however it tends to be the most expensive, use this technique for high impact meetings. Structure and pairing are two very powerful techniques that are cheap and easy to deploy. Rotation works best in standing meets that leverage self-organizing teams comfortable with sharing leadership.

Distributed meeting are more complicated than face-to-face meetings.  Effective distributed meetings require both an investment in technology and learning new technique to ensure understanding and communication.

2991675659_94674013ca_bGood meetings include contributors and deciders, people that are there to get the job done. Unfortunately there are seven bad actors that can show up in any meeting, which can seriously derail your efforts. They are:

  1. Meeting Tourists: Meeting tourists attend meetings so they don’t feel left out of the loop.  They attend so they can soak what is happening in the organization, even if they can’t materially add to the discussion or decision process.
  2. Filibusterer: The filibusterer will talk a meeting to death by any means possible. The intent of the filibusterer is to avoid making a decision or having work assigned to themselves or their team. When a person takes this role they are always doing it on purpose and for a reason they perceive as rational. This person often doesn’t have decision-making authority (at least in the meeting) otherwise they would simply say no.
  3. Curmudgeon: The curmudgeon is annoyed at being in the meeting and maybe even annoyed at being at work.  They will find fault with nearly everything. A curmudgeon’s attitude can poison the entire meeting causing the participants to focus on the negative.
  4. Lurker: The lurker is the person in the corner that might be scribbling notes, sleeping or just listening attentively but not participating. In meetings where the lurker or lurkers are unknown or are not trusted, participating attendees can feel they are being watched and therefore act in a more guarded fashion.
  5. Hijacker: Hijackers force the meeting to tackle something that is not on the agenda.  Hijackers usually have social or positional power to push the meeting in a different direction.
  6. Story Teller: A story teller uses richly described metaphors or stories to make his or her point.  These people are generally visual learners and are using the story to create mental pictures.  Story telling can disrupt the meeting time box (similar to the filibusterer, but not for the same reason), which can lead the meeting not to reach the defined goals and objectives.
  7. Bully: A bully will publically pressure and brow beat participants to support their position or act the way they want them too.  I once heard a story of program manager that made his subordinates stand in the corner if they told him information he did not like. His goal as a bully was to suppress any narrative that challenged his perception of project progress.

Meetings are heavily used tool in the corporate environment for making decisions and distributing information. Weeding out the bad actors or managing their behavior is an important facilitation technique. As a change agent, tackling meetings needs to be on your backlog of improvements.  When you decide to tackle meeting behavior,  begin with training.  Teach organizations the behaviors that are need for meetings to be effective is an important first step, but only a first step.  Once trained, have a trained facilitator observe meetings (consider a random sample) whose remit is to mentor and coach participants towards better meeting behaviors.

Total attention - not partial attention!

Total attention – not partial attention!

There are three categories of process improvements that help you move beyond basic logistics to help you continue to get the most out of your meetings:

  1. Start promptly and properly!
    Start promptly, the first few minutes of a meeting are critical to getting off on the right foot. Do not tolerate late starts while waiting for people to get to the meeting.  Two effective techniques that I have use (or had used on me) are – A. start meeting five minutes after the hour (or half hour).  This technique is modeled after a technique popularized by WTBS who used to begin TV shows five minutes after the hour to capture people that did not like the beginning of show or could not find the station immediately after another normally scheduled show ended.  This also recognizes transit time between meetings. B. My site manager at EDS used to require the last person to his staff meetings to publish detailed meeting minutes before they could leave for the day.
    One final note on starting promptly . . . all too often I see meeting start off on-time only to have the leader give each latecomer a recap as they join. Often this occurs multiple times.  Whether once, twice or thrice – providing a recap breaks the flow of the meeting and sends a signal that it is ok be late. NEVER go back for latecomers, unless it will cost you your job.
  2. Avoid PowerPoint!
    There are those that think PowerPoint (projected slides) are the work of the devil. Used correctly PowerPoint is a tool to help a presenter, but should never be “read” or used as outline. There are all sorts of other mechanisms that can be used to build engagement such as whiteboards and flipcharts. By using lower tech tools you also keep at least one computer off the table and make it more important for the participants to stay engaged.  I use mind-mapping tools (such as FreeMind) as a sort of whiteboard when engaging with distributed teams. Paper prototyping is a technique that is useful in working sessions.  The team works together to build a story map or some other representation of the work product so that it can be visualized (which is usually better than bullet point descriptions).  Engaging the room generally turns the meeting into a discussion rather than a presentation.
    I strongly suggest that anyone that might run or facilitate a meeting or group work sessions read Dan Roam’s book The Back of the Napkin.  The book provides talks about building engagement and explaining concepts with simple pictures using visual thinking.
  3. Relentlessly pursue focus!
    Ban all hardware not being used as part of the meeting (e.g laptop, projector and speakerphone). Avoid meetings where the participants pay partial attention (the other part of their attention focused on their phone!), which reduces the overall effectiveness.  Paul Laberge of CCH Canadian reported that his company had implemented a “clamshell (laptops) closed policy for peer review meetings.”  Paul indicated when the laptops were closed the group found more defects and had a shorter overall meeting. As an incentive to shut out the outside world, keep the meetings short and when they have to be longer than 45 minutes take a break.
    When everyone wants to participate at once, another focus technique is to use a speaker token. Only the person with the token can talk. Similarly, the football standup is a standup technique where the person holding the football gives his or her daily update and then tosses the ball to the next person. Speaker tokens are useful in teams that are working through building group norms, but is rarely useful in an executive meeting.

In order to get the most benefit from meetings you need to continue to hone how you are running meetings. After mastering the four categories of meeting logistics and etiquette you need to start working increasing their effectiveness.  Start on time in order to end on time and to get the most done possible. Engage with the participants and don’t underestimate the power of simple pictures to you’re your story. Finally, consider reminding meeting participants that just holding their smart phones under the table is not the same as turning them off and paying attention.

Some meetings are just too large!

Some meetings are just too large!

As I noted in Four Types of Meetings, most denizens of the corporate world spend a substantial portion of their day in meetings. Based on the sheer number of people crammed into conference rooms or huddled around speakerphones, most meetings are not only effective and efficient, but well loved. But, a quick poll of office workers (that did not just partake in cookies) would quickly dissuade you of this thought. Most meetings, regardless of type, fail to follow basic meeting logistics and etiquette.  There are four logistics and etiquette categories that need to be dealt with:

  • Direction:  All meetings need to have a clear, measureable goal. All participants must understand the goal and how they will contribute to meeting the goal. In order to support the goal, all meetings need to have an agenda that provides a path that meets the goal. Finally, to support the direction if pre-work or background is required, it should be distributed to all participants at least a day before the meeting (and everyone should be accountable for doing the pre-work).
  • Meeting Size: With some notable exceptions (presentations and lectures), most meetings should be held to a maximum size of 5 to 9 (same as they typical size maximum for Agile teams) in order to ensure that the people in the meeting can interact without having to break into sub-teams.  The best way to constrain the meeting size is to ensure the right people and only the right people are attending.  The right people are those can affect the goal, have a position (are not bystanders) in the outcome of the meeting and can make decisions about committing their resources.  Finally if the meeting is being held to make a decision a single, clear decision maker must be present.
  • Duration: All meetings need to be time boxed.  The time box should rarely exceed one hour. When planning and executing meetings, you should strive to keep them as short as possible. Short meetings with a crisp goal tend to stay on track. One technique for keeping meetings short is removing the chairs. The Wall Street Journal reported that meetings that are held standing up typically take 1/3 less time than similar meetings where chairs were provided.
  • Follow-up: If action items and follow-ups are generated in a meeting each item needs to indicate what must be done and MUST be a assigned a directly responsible individual (DRI) who will be accountable for follow up.

Effective and efficient meetings require planning to ensure that a clear goal is identified before the meeting invitation is sent.  A clear goal not only helps to focus the meeting but it helps to decide who to send invitations. Once the invitation is sent whomever is facilitating the meeting needs to help make sure the right people participate and that “substitutions” meet the criteria needed to participate. Good meetings require work, but given that, meetings are ubiquitous, the work to make meetings effective will pay off in the long run.

Who doesn't like cookies?

Who doesn’t like cookies?

Corporate calendars are crammed with meetings. More than once I have peered over a friend’s shoulder as we tried to find room on a calendar for a meeting, only to find that the task easier said than done. I once told my children that my job was to go to meetings. Unless your organization has made some tough choices, none of us are immune. The question is when do we actually get anything done?

Meetings are held for a variety of reasons:

  1. To Communicate:  Meetings gather people together to give and get information. Presentations are often used as an information delivery vehicle. These types of meetings tend to be unidirectional (information flows in one direction). I have a very dim view of the value of Q&A sessions to generate two-way communication. This one of the easiest types of meeting to get rid of by substituting videos, memos, podcasts and blogs. These substitutes can be consumed as needed and without the cost of gathering people together.
  2. To Work Together:  A second reason for meeting is gather people together to pool expertise in order to generate ideas, to create a deliverable or to perform a review of a deliverable. Group work seems to be used for all forms of work.  The synergy generated by good teams working together is well documented. But, is the group in a meeting a team? If not, then working separately with collaboration tools will yield an equivalent result without the overhead of a meeting.
  3. To Make a Decision: A third reason for meeting is to make decisions. These meetings require gathering the right people with the right information at hand. In organizations with participative forms of management, this type of meeting is critical. In hierarchal/command and control organizations, these types of meetings tend to be advisory in nature, which makes them more akin to a communication meeting (see above).
  4. To Get Cookies: The final reason to hold meetings is for human contact. Many offices are now embracing distributed teams and work-from-home solutions.  Even when everyone works in the same building, cube farms tend to be the norm. All of these workplace solutions isolate team members; meetings are a way to interact with people. These meetings tend to masquerade as working sessions or as communication meetings (usually without firm goals).  These meetings are needed, but the number and delivery vehicle need to be managed carefully so they do not overwhelm anyone’s calendar and do not stop real work from getting done.

I counted the number of meetings on my calendar for this week.  There are twenty-two meetings currently on my calendar; some begin as early as 4 AM! The majority of those meetings fit into the first three categories and one holds the possibility of lunch (a variant of cookies). Meetings can be productive, but first step starts with understanding the type of meeting being held.