Change, Meeting Facilitation

Ready to spice up your Meetings?

Here are some quotes from research about meetings that I came across lately: “Most professionals attend approximately 15 meetings a week.” “…executives [are] spending anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of their time in meetings.” “Around 70 percent of senior managers view meetings as unproductive.” “88% of the participants find meetings useless.” “75% take the opportunity to do something else in meetings.”

Assuming those numbers are true, this is sad and frustrating. In this post you will find some ideas and inspiration on how to start changing what’s happening in your meetings.

I collected the quotes above from the Freakonomics Podcast “How to make meetings less terrible” and “The Meeting Spicer” card deck. The podcast refers to an interview with the organizational psychologist Steven Rogelberg of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte and the “Meeting Spicers” mention a survey by IFOB. I recommend both the podcast and the card deck.

So why do we meet anyway?

In an agile context it’s common to work in teams. We need the know-how and the creativity of each team member to do the next valuable step that tackles the user problem we are currently facing (or to conquer the complexity we are living in, if you like). And we don’t want team members only to be involved. We want them to be affected. So we meet “for a purpose that is sustainably related to the functioning of an organization or group… We need to have problems or crisis and decisions to have meetings.” (Hellen Schwartzman in the podcast mentioned above)

Or the other way around: If you don’t have a problem or crisis or decision to make, you actually don’t need a meeting. Doing that properly would probably delete half of the meetings in your calendar.

Meetings where (highly paid) people are gathering to update each other on a status of this or that are not only a waste of time but also a costly expense for your company. The owner of such a meeting should be aware of that and should think of other creative ways how to have everyone status-updated (if that is necessary at all). Maybe the meeting owner is only holding the meeting to establish his or her (boss) status? In that case it’s no wonder the meeting culture produces the numbers mentioned in the beginning.

(Culture) hack your meeting and spice it up

So, but this is your company and you find it hard to change the meeting culture?
The podcast comes up with a couple of ideas. Here are my favorites:

  1. Have your agenda (you have one, right?) not in topics but in questions.
    Framing the topics as questions gets it clearer who and what needs to be there for the meeting.
  2. Invite for the meeting for as long as it should be (and not for 1h)
    Don’t fall for Parkinson’s Law (“Work expands to whatever time is allotted to it.”). Think and then invite maybe for 40 minutes (or 39 minutes?).
  3. Spent the first minutes to connect the people with each other
    Ask e.g. “What was your best part of your week so far? What was the worst part?” Over time some interesting topics will come up.

The Meeting Spicer

“The Meeting Spicer” card set from Dov Tsal & Régis Schneider uses a playful approach to have your meetings more focused and effective. It is a set of short practices that can be easily introduced to any meeting. The practices are based on micro-learning: So you are spending (only) one minute per meeting on the practice. So the idea to try this for one minute will have minimal resistance.

To get you a better idea:
In a first step introduce the “end cards” to your meeting. That is a set of cards with activities to say, think or try. Let someone from the meeting participants pick one card and then read out loud the activity: e.g. “How do I feel now compared to the start? Did the meeting energize me? Did it drain me?” (Think) or “In your opinion: What is the single most important outcome from this meeting?” (Say)

If that is working well, use also the “start cards” in a second step. It’s also a set of card with activities: e.g. “Ask everyone to think silently for 20 seconds: Is the meetings’s purpose clear to me?” (Think) or “Assign a Time-Keeper: Give a participant the “Time Keeper” role card and the time-cards (provided in the card deck). Respect the time keepers remarks during the meeting.” (Try)

I have heard that the second edition is just out now.

At it-agile I provide a training on meeting facilitation together with a colleague.Next to a huge amount of activity and practice, we always find time to discuss topics like this. You are very welcome to join.

Meeting Facilitation, Training

Instant Feedback Meeting Artefacts

What are Instant Feedback Meeting Artefacts (IFMAs)? 
IFMAs are artefacts that help meetings to get instant feedback in meetings from participants.

Why would you use IFMAs?
All participants should feel responsible for a successful and meaningful meeting; it is not the sole responsibility of the meeting moderator or facilitator. Most reasons why meetings do not produce successful and meaningful results are either endless discussions, lost focus or dwindling concentration.
IFMAs can help to address those causes in an entertaining and easy way by participants themselves.

How to use IFMAs?
IFMAs are introduced at the beginning of the meeting or the workshops. Each IFMA has a name and a meaning. Whenever a participant feels the urge to use the IFMA she grabs it, holds it up high and shouts the name of the IFMA.

Example, please…
Here we go! I experimented with different IFMAs in the last years. Those are my favorites:

Instant I need a break clown Feedback Meeting Artefacts

(I need a) Break-Clown

Instant Focus-Police Feedback Meeting Artefacts

(I need more) Focus-Police

Instant I'm lost - Feedback Meeting Artefacts

(I am) Lost-Professor (please rewind that conversation)

It is important to introduce the IFMAs at the beginning of the meeting. It will raise the willingness of the participants to ask for breaks, focus and orientation and thus help your meeting or workshop to be more successful. You will most probably earn some smiles as well, when holding up those Playmobil® figures when explaining their meaning.

Of course, you don’t have to use Playmobil® (although those are fun). LEGO® might be a bit small here, but a buzzer (on a mobile phone application) or a hotel bell or simply some colored cards will work as well.

Instant Feedback Meeting Artefacts

Kanban, Meeting Facilitation, Scrum

“Sexy Not-So-Sexy Tasks” Retrospective Activity

In one of the last retrospectives a team member complained about the “not very sexy” tasks the team had to do. Well, we all know that life is not all beer and skittles. Nevertheless I think, the team member was actually pointing out, that the “sexiness” of tasks can have impact on the general motivation of the team, of course. That’s why I was introducing the “sexy <> not-so-sexy” activity in the last retrospective. (As this idea originated in the team member’s comment I also call it “The Thomas S. Approach”. 🙂 )

sexy-not-so-sexy-tasks-agile-retrospectiveIn general, the team’s job is split in tasks on a support level (approx. 65%) and project tasks on a product development level (rest of their time). The team is working with a Kanban system and is using several Scrum ceremonies (regular retrospectives, review meetings, agile estimation for project tasks etc.).

The “sexy <> not-so-sexy” activity fits perfectly in between the check-in (“Setting the stage”) and “Gather Data” activities and is as easy as this:

1) Prepare a chart that shows a line between “sexy” and “not-so-sexy”.
2) Put all “done” tasks on the table and let the team stick them on the line accoring to the task’s “sexiness”.
3) Discuss (“Any suprises? Any patterns?”)

Why I think this acitivity works:

  • The team is reviewing their finished tasks while sticking it to the flipchart. (Reflection: “Cool, we have done quite a lot.”)
  • The team is re-evaluating the tasks. (Reflection: “Wow. That was a cool task.” or “I really hated that task.”)
  • The PO (Note: The team decided to have their retrospective with the PO.) realizes that different tasks can have different motivation.

Of course, the activity also shows the big gap between doing tasks that have value (“sexy”) and tasks that are simply stupid mechanics (“not-so-sexy”). Team members are aware of that. And it does have impact on the motivation if you are only doing “not-so-sexy” tasks.

As there will always be “not-so-sexy” tasks: Maybe there is a way to morph “not-so-sexy” tasks into “sexy” tasks? Any suggenstions?

The activity has been refinded after discussing it with one of the team members. He pointed out, that value is more “valuable” than sexiness. As a consequence I added the value dimension to the chart.

Sexy & Value-Added Matrix
Books, Good Question!, Meeting Facilitation, Scrum, Scrumban

Check-In Activity for Agile Retrospectives

Fortunately retrospectives are already a standard at our company now. Not only our developers teams, but also our sales team, our team assistents and as of late also our management (surprisingly, the last.. :)) have regular retrospectives. Because it has become standard to have retrospectives there is also the chance of falling into a dull routine, both for the team members and the facilitator (mostly myself). To counteract this dull routine we try to do different activities. I tried the following Check-In activity in the last weeks:

Esther Derby and Diana Larsen suggest in their book “Agile Retrospectives” as a Check-In activity to ask every participant “In one or two words: What are your hopes or wishes for this retrospective”. No post-its, no explanation, just one or two words. This always works great.

This question inspired me to ask participants an even more general question as a Check-In excercise: “Why are we doing retrospectives anyway?” I do this as a kind of fast brainstorming and jot everything down on a flipchart. It is surprising what the participants are coming up with. I heard everything from “I don’t know.” (Oops!) and “Because you told us to.” (Ooooooops!) to “Kaizen. Continuous Improvement.” (Thx.) and “We don’t want to do mistakes a second time.” (!!!)

It is also a good excercise to remind the participants of the principles of the agile manifest, one of them is: “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” (Dare to ask if everyone knows and understands the Agile Manifesto… and maybe be surprised.)

And, of course, it is a good excercise to jolt the participants from their retrospective routine.

BTW: I recognized only days ago that Esther Derby and Diana Larsen book “Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great” is legally available also as eBook! Buy it!