A member of a team I’m working with recently observed that the team’s design workshops were much more effective when she (and everyone else) came to the meeting prepared with an agenda, examples of the problem space and some other concise reference materials related to the design discussions. Having this pre-work (and pre-thinking) in place made the meeting flow smoothly and helped participants understand the context for the decisions being made so that a lot of ground could be covered in a relatively short working session.
The observation that meetings will be more effective with some thoughtful preparation seems like common sense, but somehow I still find myself attending too many meetings that waste people’s time and energy because the intended outcomes aren’t clear and/or necessary info & decision makers aren’t in the room. I sense that because Agile favours lightweight processes and documentation, some teams have formed the impression that you shouldn’t be worried about things like agendas and preparing for meetings/workshops/whatever kind of group session, because you’ll do it all “just in time” (i.e. “making it up as you go along”); this is a misunderstanding, as Agile work practices place great value on identifying desired outcomes and how you’ll know you’re done before you dive in to a piece of work, as well as timeboxing work to help make sure that something of value gets delivered in the time available.
There’s a lot of really good advice on facilitating effective meetings readily available. I go back to Jean Tabaka’s book Collaboration Explained repeatedly for guidance on how to facilitate effective meetings while fostering collaboration and creativity. One technique from this book that I’ve had great success with is building agendas using a set of questions; rather than just identifying a topic for discussion, phrase the agenda item in terms of the specific question(s) on that topic that the group needs to answer. This technique has three advantages:
• people are prepared for what specifically needs to be discussed/decided
• there is an clear outcome to the discussion identified from the outset so that participants know when the topic is “done” for the meeting (“have we answered this question?”)
• it limits rat-holing by redirecting focus back to the specific aspect of the topic to be addressed
Agendas might also include timeboxes for each topic/outcome in order to keep the group on-track. It’s astonishing how much can actually be accomplished in a few minutes of discussion when the team is prepared and focused.
You can help tighten up your team’s meetings even if you’re not the meeting facilitator. Esther Derby provides a great list of suggestions that any meeting participant can implement to help improve meeting discipline, including :
• ask for an agenda ahead of time
• send only one person from your team
• politely decline the invitation
• offer to take notes
• facilitate from where you sit
• ask for progress checks
• help others participate
Lastly, don’t be afraid to ask questions about the proposed duration of a meeting. Microsoft Outlook has conditioned us to schedule meetings in 30 minute increments, but different meeting purposes require differing amounts of time (often less than 30 min or 1 hour). Using arbitrary timeslots because that’s what the scheduling app gives you by default leads to Parkinson’s Law. Be bold and schedule a 15 minute meeting if you think the objectives can be met in that time. And rather than waiting several minutes to begin in order to accommodate latecomers, start your meetings right on time and end them after 25 or 55 minutes to allow participants time to get to their next engagement (of course, if your team is dedicated and co-located, this is a non-issue).