Monday, October 19, 2015

How to Create an Awesome Meeting that is Massively Productive and Laser Focused

In 2012 I had the great fortune of meeting someone I will call one of my best Agile mentors, Ahmed Sidky. Learn more about Ahmed at Ahmed doesn’t really know me that well, but I have pretty much done everything he told me because I saw that he really understands how to get things done in a business environment.  And by that I mean he knows how to take an organization from performance level 1 and move them through a series of steps until they are performing at level 5 (on a scale of 1-5, where 5 is awsome).

During late 2011 and early 2012 my former employer was on a quest to get better at Agile Software Development. While pursuing a better agile process, I gained some revolutionary insights from Ahmed that sent me down a path of learning and experimenting and productivity that has forever change how I work and interact at home.

The killer app for meeting productivity is facilitation.  And I’m not talking about ordinary meeting facilitation, I’m talking meeting facilitation on steroids.  Don’t quit reading because I used a boring word like "facilitation", this well-practiced art will change your productivity level across the board.  I’m now a ICAgile Certified Agile Team Facilitator and that training is golden.

By the time you finish reading this article, you should be equipped to start a change in your behavior at home and at work that will bring you better success in getting things done during meetings or gatherings and make you renowned in your workplace and with your relatives.  Getting to “black belt” facilitation might take a while, but you will see an impact very quickly.

Do the following things in your meetings at work and you will take down mountain-sized problems as easily as Spiderman swings on his web.

1.  Create a plan in advance

Create a plan in advance that will utilize well-defined exercises that fit into time boxes. If you really want to be productive and take on the hardest problems, you will have to prepare in advance. In my workplace, I usually conduct at least 1 or 2 facilitated meetings a week and about every six months I have a 1 or 2 day facilitated meeting for an architecture summit or new project kick-off. For each of these meetings I prepare a plan that includes desired outcomes and activities to support each outcome.  I would typically have a minimum of 3 activities for a 1 hour meeting and probably around 5-8 activities for a 1 day meeting.  An activity is simply a means to capture information from the participants.  It could be a simple as this Hopes & Fears activity: “Please put one post-it-note under the ‘Hopes’ label on the whiteboard (or wall) and put one post-it note under ‘Fears’ label on the whiteboard (or wall). Only put one thought on your post-it notes”.   
This exercise is fantastic to kick off a meeting because you usually get people to admit they think something is dumb or broken about this meeting or the topic and you get people broadcasting their desires about the outcome of the meeting.  Brilliant … you’ve got super insight into the participants minds.  And they are energetically involved in the meeting.

2. Write down the meeting Goal

Always write a Goal in your meeting announcements (Outlook or whatever). Why does this work so well?  Writing a goal is  a focus technique that puts a meeting on rails.  First the creator of the meeting must actually think deeply (even if the depth is only 30 seconds of thinking) about the outcome of the meeting.  This is critical because everything hinges around a clearly stated goal.  A poorly stated goal like, “Discuss the XYZ Widget”, will not likely produced a good result.  Powerfully stated goals like, “Create Milestones for developing and deploying PDQ Web Application.”, will give the meeting focus and a desired outcome. Moreover, you can know that you will have a successful meeting if you get an artifact. Yes, if you get an artifact out of your meeting then you’ve actually succeeded at have a mildly productive meeting. An artifact could be, “Milestones”, “Project Plan”, “Actions” or an “Architecture”.  Make sure your goal somehow alludes to the creation of artifacts.

3. Put away computers and use whiteboards and post-it notes

Use white boards, flip-charts and sticky notes instead of letting people sitting around a table.
Sitting around a table is the standard methodology for conducting a meeting, but it does not expedite decision making nor does it encourage full participation from all the attendees.  Sitting around will actually exclude quieter people and allow unrestrained talkers to carry the meeting down rabbit holes and snake pits.  I already mentioned how planned activities are necessary before a meeting, and they add a second benefit of creating a level playing field for the quiet and the loud.  Leveling the input is critical for brainstorming because the flow of good ideas is actually proportional to the number of smart people contributing.  And not all smart people talk a lot. I usually tell people when I start a facilitated meeting that they can expect the unexpected and that they need to agree to participate in some strange activities.  No one has ever rebuffed my request for participation, even the C-levels.

Go forth, make a plan, make a goal and make people stand up, walk around a talk to each other with a focal point of a drawing on a whiteboard or patch of post-it-notes on the wall.  People are very visual and without good visual aids, humans use hordes of words to describe complex things.  Give people the gift of using a picture on board or collection of words on a wall to help them clarify their ideas and cease the deluge of possibly confusing words.

I’d love to hear from you about your experience in meetings?  Do you have some tried and true techniques that really help you get productive in highly creative meetings?

Please write me an e-mail and tell me about the biggest challenge you face when conducting a meeting?