Bad Meetings Are Boring and Ineffective


Bad Meetings Are Boring and Ineffective


empty conference table

Every day, when my husband returns from work, I ask him “How was your day?”  Most of the time, he shrugs, and says something like, “Urrggghhh – so many meetings – I didn’t get ANY work done.” I’ve no idea what he does, but his LinkedIn profile tells me he “attends meetings and adds value.”

But meetings ARE work. They are an important part of the collaborative process, and one that the Scrum framework recognizes and formalized.

According to MeetingKing, 11 million meetings occur in the US every business day, and waste $37 billion in lost time each year. Maybe you are in a boring meeting right now, reading this.

Patrick Lencioni’s fable, “Death by Meeting,” hits the nail on the head:

“Bad meetings, and what they indicate and provoke in an organization, generate real human suffering in the form of anger, lethargy, and cynicism. We typically complain we have too many meetings, but the real issue is that the meetings normally aren't very effective.”

That doesn’t sound very agile, does it?

Lencioni cites the problem as twofold. Meetings generally lack:

  1. Drama or conflict
  2. Contextual structure

Frustration is inevitable when “little is decided as participants have a hard time figuring out whether they are supposed to be debating, voting, brainstorming, weighing in or just listening.”

Why Are We So Bad at Meetings?

We are failing our Scrum Masters. They are our anointed servant leaders, coaches, and facilitators. How inspiring! However, we rarely tell them HOW to fulfill those roles. There is a general overemphasis on process and technology, and an under-emphasis on leadership skills.

I have a recurring daydream, where I decline every single meeting on my calendar. Eventually, if I’m really needed, I’ll be contacted again. Bliss! I’ve learned that this isn’t the most emotionally intelligent way of dealing with meeting overload.

David Grady’s humorous take on organically seeding good meeting etiquette is a great primer, especially when you have no idea what the meeting is about:

  • You don’t HAVE to accept every meeting you are invited to – use the “tentative button.”
  • Talk to the organizer, and let them know you are excited to support their work. Ask what their goal is and how you can help.
  • If you do this often and respectfully enough, maybe people will become more thoughtful about putting meetings together.

The Difference Between In-Person and Virtual Meetings

conference call bingo

While I was attending an advanced agile scaling class a few years ago, the instructor stated, “at scale, Scrum won’t work if you have distributed teams – they must be co-located.” Always one that likes to debate, I sent out a “thought balloon” to see how it would be shot down. I was curious.

“Do you think that 16 years after the Agile Manifesto and its principles were written, technology has changed enough to update the idea that ‘the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation?’”

“NO!” was the emphatic response, followed by a couple of slick and funny YouTube videos highlighting the problems with conference, or worse, VIDEO conference calls.

I had to admit I agreed with him. Today’s modern communication software does not replace face-to-face conversation, but the reality is that the majority of teams are moving to this type of dispersed work. 

Whatever the latest technology du jour is, it will not replace the fact that you can learn how to facilitate better.

So what can we do to make the meetings suck less?

Have a Plan

I have great respect for the Grove Facilitation Model, which provides a robust, world-class way to lead a meeting.  It helps to provide the context for the following questions that every participant of a meeting needs to know:

  1. Why am I here?
  2. Who are you people?
  3. What are we doing?
  4. How should I behave?
  5. When can I leave?

In my agile coaching practice, a common weak point I see is the retrospective being omitted. People don’t have time to do these meetings, and therefore they mistake the lack of effectiveness for false efficiency. This points to all kinds of juicy and dysfunctional problems, but meetings don’t HAVE to be a chore.

Make Your Virtual Meetings Shine

After training with The Grove on successful virtual meeting facilitation, I’d love to share their six main points to consider when planning a meeting. Make a template and fill it in so you have a proper plan you can add to your agendas. Scrum Masters, discuss it with your team to use as part of your working agreements.

Prepare

  • Assign roles (such as tech support, scribe, timekeeper or facilitator). Don’t make the team lead a facilitator.
  • Use a visual focal point for each agenda point. Humans are a visual species – this is how we remember and engage with things. Include a team portrait and graphic facilitation. Practice transitions.
  • Determine how you will reach your outcome. How will time be used, who owns each topic, when do you make decisions, how will you make and document a decision?
  • Make it engaging. I like to channel Sharon Bowman’s The 6 Trumps™ for any occasion. The person doing the most talking is doing the most learning, and if anything is longer than about 10 minutes, then you have lost your audience engagement. Design things well to maximize audience participation and use simple tools.

Clarify Communication Channels

  • Confirm meeting arrangements ahead of time.
  • Audio is the most important element to get right. Include working norms. For example, always use a headset – no speakerphones permitted.
  • How will you share working documents? Which ones does your company support? Which ones support the type of work you want to do? KISS (keep it simple, stupid)!

Go Slow to Go Fast

  • Expect a slow start. Include an icebreaker to allow people to get settled. It also serves as a subtle way to do a tech check and ensure that everyone can hear.
  • Display the agenda often, especially at the beginning, transitions and the end. Virtual meetings often omit an agenda altogether.
  • Create space right away for people to have their voices heard and get connected to content. Ask people to reframe the purpose of the meeting -- include a “2 breath” rule to allow for bottom-lining of context.

Ensure Participation is Balanced

  • Engage everyone by name, especially in blended meetings.
  • Make space for quiet participants.
  • Be sure to throw the quiet people a line.
  • Structure an inclusive process (maybe write thoughts down first, then share).

Keep Calm and Carry On

  • Keep participants accountable to the agenda.
  • Expect things to fall apart.
  • Always have a lower-tech back up plan (phone or chat).

Actually Follow Up

  • Form crystal-clear agreements on next steps.
  • Communicate with people after the meeting. Make the notes visual and ban the bullet point. It’s a snore fest. My list here is ironic.
  • Document! List action items, owners and due dates, and add things to the backlog.

Poorly facilitated meetings are still poor meetings, irrespective of location. Virtual meetings just amplify facilitation problems. Facilitation as a skill is not often purposely honed--it’s something that most people “just do.” The evidence overwhelmingly tells us that it is not usually done well.

Now I know my husband does work by attending meetings and adding value, even though he feels like he attends every one of those 11 million meetings a day.

Bad meetings are boring and ineffective. But, if done well, they can be a time-saver.

Have you had positive or negative experiences with virtual meetings? Do you have any tips for improving their efficacy? Let me know in the comments below!

Find more information about different facilitation models here:

Grove Facilitation Model and OARRS

Agile Coaching Institute POWER

 



 

Tamsen Mitchell is an agile coach at Salesforce.

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