Chapter 9: Make meetings matter
Teams meet frequently in order to reach some decision or information objective, such as plan an iteration, evaluate a design, or reflect on an activity. Since Agile methods promote more frequent meetings with more participants than traditional methods, their cost and value are a common cause of concern.
Almost universally, people love to hate meetings. Have you ever attended a meeting that seemed to wander aimlessly, detour off its agenda, or get hijacked by its loudest or higher-ranking participants? Even though all the standard Agile meetings have well-defined processes, I’ve witnessed several where the process was ignored mid-way and the meeting meandered, or where tight enforcement squelched all options and creativity.
As more people attend, as they explore more opinions and options, and as the stakes get higher, the more guidance and process they require in the form of facilitation. Facilitation involves assembling the right group, helping it set objectives, crafting a workable process for meeting the objectives, and taking the group through the process.
Team time is expensive. A well-facilitated meeting respects that investment and moves the team forward. Badly-run meetings don’t just waste time; they cause the team to proceed with subpar decisions — or no decision at all. They cause resentment and rancour among team members. When they are the norm rather than the exception, participants avoid them. But since a self-organizing team has to make decisions regularly, it will have to meet — a lot.
Master facilitators focus on people first and on the process second. They handle emotional behavior empathically. They “feel the room” to funnel energy and innovation in valuable directions. And they ensure that participants leave the meeting feeling empowered and important, not ignored, second-class, or lip-serviced.
More art than science, facilitation is a sophisticated skill (as well as a profession). However, Agile team leaders and coaches need only basic facilitation skills. This chapter lays out the top techniques you need for great results.
9.1 What is the most vital ingredient of an effective meeting?
Stephen Covey has popularized the phrase “Begin with the end in mind” as one of the habits of effective people. This principle underpins many Agile practices: Understanding a story’s value before scheduling its development; figuring out an iteration goal, not just a list of user stories; writing a piece of code only after writing a test to demonstrate the code’s expected behavior. The same principle applies to any meeting: a clearly defined purpose is the most critical factor in its success.
Key members of the project community filed into a defect triage meeting. In their hands they held spreadsheet printouts showing 160 defects. Knowing that the delivery team was not going to fix all 160 anytime soon, I suggested we just identify the top 20. The participants agreed, and I improvised a process for identifying and prioritizing the 20. When we were done, a half hour later, one attendee said, “This was the best meeting in a very long time!”
When you hear someone say, “This meeting was a waste of time,” deficiencies in its process or purpose are the typical cause. To improve matters, look first to the purpose; that is where everything begins. When attendees have a vague or incorrect grasp of the meeting’s intent, they can’t participate effectively. It feels long and goes off-topic — because they don’t know what the topic is. If any element of it was worth their time, it probably happened accidentally.
The meeting’s purpose answers the question “Why.” Why should we pause from value-adding work and get together? How will it make a difference? Why have this meeting instead of another activity? Just as every standard Agile meeting has a clear purpose, so should any additional meeting you hold. It may have other valuable benefits such as sharing information, strengthening the team through collaboration, or even a chance to relax — but make sure you keep your eye on the main purpose.
When you invite people and when you open the meeting, express the purpose and explain how the process achieves it. For example, the first few times I lead a new team’s daily standup, I start off like this:
“We’re here to identify obstacles to progress and to make necessary adjustments to our iteration plan. To this end, would each one of you please share your update since our last standup, your ideas for the next 24 hours, and what’s standing in your way.”
Despite common complaints about meetings, people seem to enjoy the opportunity for face time and conversation. This is important — just get them to accomplish the meeting’s intent first. For instance, if your daily standups tend to devolve into design conversations, raise your hand and remind people to “take them offline” (discuss them at a later time).
The ritual and ceremony of a meeting can be a good starting point — but without introspection, they can also cause its purpose to be forgotten. At one company, team members lost patience for the retrospectives, so they shortened them to 30 minutes. They still held them though: every two weeks they engaged in a perfunctory review of hastily written “opportunity” cards, without any real discussion, action items or follow-up.
If you’re having doubts about a particular meeting, or are thinking of convening one, ask yourself: “How does this meeting move us forward as a group?” This simple question will help you discover the purpose.
I observed a team that held a sprint demo every two weeks — without their product owner or any stakeholder in attendance. They were visibly bored going through the meeting’s motions, since they did not need the demo for their own sake. I suggested canceling that meeting until such time as the product owner would become more involved (which was the greater impediment).
Ultimately, a recurring meeting — even an obligatory one — will need to change if it does not provide good value anymore. For instance, if your team has been together for a while and performing well, the retrospectives might not be yielding much anymore. Running them a little less frequently, or finding other forms for continuous improvement, might yield better results. Or, a team that sits in tight quarters and communicates constantly may well find the daily standup too heavy for its needs, and reduce its frequency or change its format.
“If I could change corporate culture with only one sign, I’d post the following on every conference room door: ‘If the meeting you are about to attend has no stated purpose, please return to something that does!’” (from David Spann)