In a prior post Agile Leaders with Facilitation = Hyper-Productive Teams, I discussed the necessity of keeping a team focused during a collaborative event. I outlined a couple of strategies for an agile leader and facilitator to enable focused collaboration through planning and interventions throughout the meeting. From the last article, the Agile Leader and Facilitator ensures a more focused collaborative event by first writing down and publishing the goal for the meeting.
This article builds on the foundation of the meeting goal and adds tips to keep focused during the meeting.
Host the Meeting to Focus the Event
I spend a healthy portion of my week in meetings. And I make a point to be the host of most meetings to minimize wasted time and maximize people’s energy for collaboration and decision making.
If I need to participate in a meeting, I’ll often volunteer to assist with building the meeting agenda or facilitating the event. Yes, it’s extra work for me, but in the end, the extra couple of hours saves many of my hours and accelerates the decision making processes for colleague or sister organizations.
For example, when leader tells me or expresses the desire to host a meeting of topic X without any real details about what he wants to know about X, it’s a red flag indicating the ensuing meeting could result in 5-10 people sitting around a conference table discussing X with no purpose in the discussion and no decision to be made. A wasteful meeting like this drives me crazy. And if the resulting decisions (or delays in deciding) affect my team, I’ll ask the person assigned to present, “Can I help coordinate the preparation for this meeting?” Sometimes the answer is yes. Often it’s yes because folks are busy. And then I can apply facilitation skills to the preparation (saving time in getting information collected) and use facilitation planning for the upcoming meeting (doubling down on the making the event both planned and facilitated real-time).
Does that make me sound like a control freak? Perhaps. I am obsessive about being productive in life and efficient with my time. I offer that obsessiveness to others in the organization so that my time is not wasted and my companies decision get made with more focus and speed. I’m not controlling decisions, but I am influencing the process for making decisions. And my hope is that my involvement will be an accelerant for my company in moving forward with tactical and strategic activities.
People Need Focal Points
The enemy of productive collaboration is distraction.
People have incredible potential for creative thinking and idea generation. Most senior people, either business-oriented or technical, can quickly amass tens if not hundreds of concerns or risks or possible success scenarios when a new opportunity is thrown into their midst.
For example, when a customer requests the next generation feature for the core application that your company makes, the most technical people will find the ten reasons why you will fail at the opportunity and 15 more off topic concerns with your company’s culture, inability to execute projects, poor management, and so on.
It’s legitimate to know your companies strengths and weakness. It’s not helpful to rehearse weakness or past issues when you don’t have the right people in the room to address them. Therefore, when you have a technical problem use, a meeting focused on solving or identifying the technical challenges. And for a business side, do the same. And for process-oriented issues, you do the same. Mixing the purposes of a meeting or perhaps overloading a meeting with too many outcomes will result in hardly any outputs. Most meetings will naturally decay to mixed outcomes without the agile leader and facilitator guiding them toward the goal.
To focus people need to look at tangle pictures or words. This means a meeting must have either physical (preferred) or digital artifacts to guide the discussion.
Agile Leaders and Facilitators Bring Focus Through Auditor Agenda
When meeting with someone ad-hoc, a walk-by meeting, be sure to identify the a) the number of topics you wish to discuss b) walk through the items pausing between each and introducing the next topic.
Example: With people who have busy schedules and are in the same office, I will try to view their calendar in Outlook and visit them. I could send an e-mail, but in many cases, I want to dialog about a topic that might not come across very well in e-mail. So I’ll drop by the persons’ desk, ask if they can chat for a few minutes, and if they say yes, I’ll introduce the number of topics and then begin the dialog.
“Thanks for making some time. I have three topics I want to discuss. The first item is the deadline for the upcoming release.”
After the information exchange and decision making, actions are assigned, and then we move to the next topic.
“OK. Topic number 2 is increasing collaboration between our teams.”
I press for actions in all the discussions so that when the meeting is done both myself and the other person have something that moves the situation forward.
When topics 1,2 & 3 are complete, I ask, “Is there anything you need from me?”
Agile Leaders and Facilitators Bring Focus Through Digital Presentations
To prepare myself for a meeting with senior leaders, I do a couple of preparatory exercises.
First, I create a slide package that is unique to the group. I have many templates around that I can grab and update so that I don’t spend my entire life creating new content.
Second, I ask questions (literally type them into a slide or title my slides with the specific questions that need to be answered.) These questions become my agenda. As I grow more knowledgeable about the audience, I have better and better focus on the questions to ask, and my ability to focus on the critical topics improves.
Example, I’m meeting the VP of a business unit on a weekly basis, just he and I. I know that he get’s distracted easily, so I always bring a complete agenda in Powerpoint form so that I can guide the discussion. Each week I put the highest priority slides at the top of the deck, and we get through about 2 or 3 of the most important. Often I edit the slides real-time while we meet so that we leave the meeting with artifacts that help us have a common understanding and a mutual plan for the future.
Agile Leaders and Facilitators Bring Focus Through Interactive Exercises
Brainstorm and mindmaps remain the best in class idea generation activities. Even if a team sits around a conference room table, they generate ideas at a fantastic rate of speed.
Conference table brainstorming is broken in several ways. First, there no focal point to keep the brainstorming pointed in the general direction of the problem that needs to be solved. Second, the ideas are forgotten as they don’t get captured and stored for future analysis. By future, I mean in the next 10 minutes or next ten days or longer. Third, sometimes verbal brainstorming results in ideas haystack or trash heap of unfinished thoughts and the elusive needle buried in the haystack remain hidden.
8″x6″ stickies remain my go to brainstorming tool. If I don’t have time to create specialized exercises for a meeting, I just grab a stack of 8″x6″ post-it® notes and pack of Mr. Sketchy Scented Markers and improvise. The essential part of using something like post-it notes is to create a focused brainstorming session that records thinking and creates artifacts to be used later in the meeting or outside the meeting.
That about covers context (keeping people focused on why they are there) and content (keeping people creating the artifacts needed for refining ideas, decision making, and action steps).
Bottomline: Makes sure people know the context (why you are here) of the meeting from the beginning and throughout. Make this information visible with slides or printed material. And make sure people know what content (the artifacts to create) needs created and facilitate that process from start to finish.
P.S. In later posts I will address the last wasteful meeting practice: lack of decision-making process.
Please send me an e-mail if you have questions about how to improve your Agile Leadership. Check out the courses pages where you will see the Introduction to Agile Leadership webinar which will equip you to handle the toughest situations with confidence and knowledge