Today at Crisp, we had a short discussion about effective meetings where I described what I think are needed in order to have successful meetings. Meetings, like work meetings, are used to produce some kind of result, achieve a agreed on decision or solve a problem. The discussion got me thinking about how often we are overloaded with meetings where many of them give little value back to the project and organization.
Paul Graham describes two different schedules, the manager and the makers schedule, where the former is run by managers working through the day participating in a lot of different meetings, and the latter is run by the workers, the developers and project participants, working through the day developing new versions of the product they are accountable for producing. These two schedules have their place in an organization, but we may get in trouble when the two schedules meet each other, which they do now and then during a normal working day.
Meetings cost quite a lot, and it is often not obvious for the managers working under the manager schedule how big that cost really is. I believe we need some kind of structure, an agreement between the meeting participants and the organizer of what they need to prepare and do before the meeting, in order to guarantee that it will be as efficient as possible. This to ensure that the organization get some kind of ROI from having the meeting.
Structure of an effective meeting
In general I run my meetings in the similar way as most agile chops organize their retrospectives, where you should have a similar structure as the following five points:
- have a dedicated facilitator that help the group build on each others ideas
- visualize the agenda which describes the different steps the group will go through during the meeting
- express a clear goal with the meeting; what should the group have achieved when the meeting is over?
- provide a description of how the group should work during the meeting, how the group will be organized in order to work towards the goals
- and finally, end the meeting with a short recap of what have been achieved and all action items are restated so that everybody agrees on them
Using this structure the group organize itself better and is more focused on achieving the purpose of the meeting. Meetings without this structure have easily just turned into a discussion without reaching any decision point. These meetings have in many cases just ended with a decision to schedule another meeting to continue with the discussion. Since most organizations are really busy, this should of coarse be avoided by all means.
Looking at the meetings from a different angle, I believe that we should organize the meetings as timeboxes, where each one has a fixed length and and a agreed on scope, focus for the meeting, and end with a delivered goal at the end. One way of improving the efficiency of the timebox is to use the concept of READY and DONE criteria described by Jeff Sutherland, where the READY criteria describes the detail level of the requirements for them to be accepted into the sprint. The DONE criteria then describes what should have be done in order to say that the requirement has been delivered as requested, The two criteria are used to make the expectations on groups up and down streams from the team, explicit to everybody. They may also act as a baselines for further improvements regarding the collaboration between different groups.
You could use the READY and DONE criteria when organizing the meetings as well. The READY criteria describes what the meeting organizer should have prepared and have done before the meeting is started, and the DONE criteria describes what the group should strive for and have achieved at the end of the meeting. The meeting organizer is accountable for reaching READY, and if the participants don’t feel that the criteria is met, they may cancel the meeting and ask the organizer to prepare the meeting better. If the READY criteria is met, the group is accountable for reaching DONE, working according to the structure described in the agenda.
An organization should always strive for improving itself, and you can use the READY criteria as a tool helping you creating an efficient structure for your meetings. Let the different groups having short retrospectives around the meeting structures where they improve how they are organized, and capture that structure in the READY and DONE criteria.
Value driven meetings
Thinking further around the READY and DONE criteria and how they are used in Scrum, and the possible use of them during meetings as well, got me thinking about the purpose of having meetings at the first place. I believe we have a tendency having to many meetings, where many of them are run without any clear link to how it will bring the organization or project closer to its goals.
In Scrum, the READY criteria describes how much details and information you should provide to the Scrum team regarding a user story for them to accept it into the sprint backlog. And, the story describes some kind of functionality that should be developed to achieve a value; both user value and organizational value. The team shouldn’t develop stories that have unclear value since without the value you do not have any business case for developing the story. Working further down this thread, the value of a user story should be linked to what you are trying to achieve with the product as a whole; you should have integrity regarding the purpose and value of the product and the aggregated values of all its different parts and functionality.
You should think in the same way regarding you meetings. Before deciding on setting up a new meeting, you should be able to answer the following question (in either the organizational or the project context):
- In what way are we, by running this meeting, bringing our organization/project closer to our goals?
If you cannot answer this question and therefore not able to describe how the goal of the meeting is bringing value to the organization or project, you should have another thought about what you are trying to achieve and why you would like to spend your colleagues precious time on the meeting. It should be clear at the beginning of the meeting in how the group is bringing value to the organization by having the meeting, and in what way the desired result will bring the organization closer to its goals. All activities should be linked to the organizations goals liked this, but especially meetings since they, by the very fact that we are gathering a lot of people at the same time, is very expensive. You need meetings, but make sure that you only have meetings that are bringing value and a high ROI back to you.