Recently I facilitated a two-day architecture summit that needed to provide seven days worth of output. The upper management asked for a concrete deliverable from a team of architects. A couple of these senior engineers had previous experience in creating numerous large and complex architecture and estimated that it would take about seven days of co-located effort from 3 people to achieve five deliverables.
Due to scheduling conflicts, the three principal architects could only spend two days in the same location. The time frame limitation did not reduce the expectations, so the process had to change to achieve the results.
As an agile leader and trained facilitator, I know that people can achieve greater productivity when a facilitator creates a process to fulfill the goals before the engagement.
Lean and Agile both depend on processes to provide a fast track to getting products completed. What’s interesting is that you can create a mini-process for just about anything. You can create a mini-process for a 30-minute meeting so that you get the equivalent of 45 or 60 minutes of output when compared to no planning.
In the case of my two-day summit, I needed to accelerate the productivity of the team by 3.5 times. I’m regularly successful at increases meeting output by two times, but 3.5 is a huge challenge.
How does one increase the productivity of a team of people?
You don’t increase productivity; you remove waste.
The mechanism for increasing productivity in meetings is to remove wasteful activities and provide tools to quickly generate significant amounts of data, arrange the data and make decisions about the data.
Missing the Point
Most waste in meetings occurs by talking about things that don’t contribute to the goal of the meeting.
What’s sad is that a typical meeting wastes 50% of the time allocated because participants allow themselves and others to be distracted by off topic information and they often think the discussions are somehow relevant.
Wasting Time by Failing to Communicate Content and Context
The inability to visual the content or context of the meeting gives rise to waste. For example, if someone in a meeting is describing a complicated process about how the data flows through your software architecture and then tries to explain verbally where the bottleneck exists, everyone in the room will have a hard time decoding the information if the presenter provides only verbal descriptions.
Let’s say one of the smartest engineers comes to the meeting and fully understands the verbal explanation. But the four other people in the room are not so quick and cannot put all the pieces together. If the four other people are on the hook to provide solutions to the problem, then they also must understand how the system works.
Caveat: If you only need the smartest engineer to know how things work, then don’t hold the meeting, go to his desk, explain it and be done.
Let’s assume everyone in the room will contribute to solving the problem and therefore they also need a comprehensive understanding.
When it comes to conveying information, visualizations will inform people with speed and generate more questions than straightforward dialog.
Wasting Time by Inferior Decision Making Mechanisms
Subpar decision-making rules are a second type of waste in meetings. Let’s say a scrum master wants a team to determine the highest priority issue facing the team and find a solution for that problem. In a typical meeting, engineers might sit around a table and debate which issues deserves the most attention. Individuals that excel at debate or have the greatest positional authority might succeed at driving the discussion toward his or her desired pet issue.
The decision-making process described above fails to create a process where everyone contributes and where the derived solution comes from a majority vote or some deterministic process.
A deterministic process might seem at first to squelch creativity and involvement. In reality, a facilitated meeting uses a process to invigorate brainstorming, discussion, and collaboration. And then a process of deciding provides a more fair and deterministic and inclusive result than other ad-hoc methods which rely on the strength of each participant’s personality.
Wasting Time with Off-Topic Discussion
Distractions in meetings come in a few favors. The biggest and most blatant meeting de-railer is the “that reminds me” scenario where a bright individual makes an intellectual jump from one topic to another and then a jump to a third. While the second topic could be germane and add value to the discussion, the third topic is usually the one to avoid. Getting off topic can cost many meeting minutes and distract people from the core mission of the gathering.
You can loose 30 minutes of a 1-hour meeting in off topic discussion. Think about the danger of holding a 1-day or 2-day meeting and the consequences of being only 50% efficient with a multi-day gathering.
The Agile Leader and Facilitator Always Make a Goal to Focus the Discussion
To combat time wasting activities, create a concise one-sentence goal for the meeting. No matter how long the session, create a single sentence that reflects the OUTCOME of the meeting.
Do not use “discuss” as an outcome. Everyone will talk in meetings, but talking is not an outcome. Outcomes include artifacts, actions, and decisions.
Sometimes meetings exist to present ideas to individuals and get feedback on the content. When conducting a review meeting, push to make the outcome an approval of the subject matter. For example, if a bid or architecture needs review, ‘approved or updated document‘ constitutes an outcome.
When a meeting contains only consumable material and perhaps a small question and answer period, then the setting looks more like a presentation than a meeting, so it falls into a category where the presenter can control the pace and content, and the efficiency of the event comes from the effectiveness of the speaker.
Include the goal statement in the calendar invite and put the statement on the wall in the meeting room.
I typically create an 11″x17″ landscape document and type in the goal statement. Then I adjust the font, so the sentence fills up the entire page. I print it and tape the paper to the wall in a conspicuous place using blue painters tape (I put four tape loops on the back to keep the goal statement on the wall. Taping the corners down looks unprofessional).
When you begin the sessions, start with a quick introduction of the meeting goal. A simple opening statement that shines light on the goal results in subconscious re-enforcement to focus on the goal.
When conducting a multi-day event, it’s important to refresh everyone about the goal each morning to ensure the contributors focus on the outcome.
The Agile Leader and Faciliator Courageously Reigns in Topic Jumpers
During a collaborative event, it’s inevitable that people will wander off topic. Some of the wanderings produce good discussion; most wandering doesn’t contribute to the outcome. As an Agile Leader and Facilitator gently curtail off topic discussion as quickly as possible and politely as possible.
Having specific activities that require writing also provide an excellent mechanism to focus participants thinking. For example, during a retrospective, the scrum master might have people write down a single issue per sticky note and post it on a wall. The act of writing engages mental skills to collect, collate and transcribe ideas and avoids situations where only a few loud people talk without putting too much thought into their rants. An Agile Leader and Facilitator might request that each individual contributes at least a single sticky thereby getting involvement from all team members.
Bottomline: The Agile Leader and Facilitor encourages meeting productivity through creation of a goal that has a tangible outcome, and by courageously keeping the participants on track.
P.S. In later posts I will address the other two wasteful meeting practices that include: lack of context and 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.