Thursday, March 17, 2016

Dealing with Meeting Madness

Working a lot in the Telco industry, I often jest: "What is the primary characteristic of Telecommunication? - That face to face communication does not work."

This is no offense to Telco and definitely not limited to the Telco industry, but actually a characteristic of many organizations, and IT as a means for communication makes this problem even more profound: It's so easy to schedule a meeting that people put up meetings without even considering whether a meeting makes sense.

Symptom

We often observe people's schedules crammed with meetings. Working as Project Manager for one specific organization, I complained to the CTO that I had thirty six (36) hours of scheduled meetings in my calendar - recurring daily and/or weekly stuff. The reason for the complaint was this: "How do you expect me to give you a meaningful status report when the only thing I'm doing is running from one meeting to the next without actually looking what the teams are doing?"
Long story short: The CTO gave me a blank check to not attend any meeting I didn't consider valuable. Two days later, I was down to 10 hours of scheduled meetings per week and actually started spending time with my teams.

Cause

One cause of Meeting Madness is that ceremonies are not used effectively: When daily standups move from collaboration to reporting, further synchronization meetings become necessary. When plannings are improperly prepared (Refinement/Grooming was not done well) - then multiple planning and clarification meetings become necessary. And so on.
The consequence is that meetings start filling the schedule to the point where people meet, and do not communicate.

Root Cause

In dysfunctional organizations, people focus on two things: Themselves - and their work. Both must look good. Regardless of whether this is the result of perverse incentives provided by management or inherent company culture - it does not help anyone.
People in your organization who care more for "looking good" than for helping out the company in times of need? You've got a staffing problem. 
People feel the need to vindicate themselves rather than solving the issue at hand? You've got a mindset problem!

The Agile way

The most important aspect in communication is considering which information should be conveyed and how that is being received. A general rule is cutting down on complexity as much as possible. Use information radiators to remove the need for "obvious" discussions. Only engage into detailed discussion when they point at something unusual. Do not call meetings whenever you feel they could help: use formal meetings as a last resort. Exhaust small face-to-face discussions, such as during Pair Programming or over a cup of coffee - as preferred methods of communication.
Put every recurring meeting that does not correspond to a Scrum ceremony under scrutiny.

The Scrum way

In Scrum, we should be spending less than 15% of our time in the so-called ceremonies. Scrum does not intend for any other scheduled meetings on top, because the ceremonies should provide enough transparency that no additional planning, reporting, status or coordination meetings are necessary on top. In theory. Many organizations are not there.

Summary

Resolving the meeting madness issue is best done by continuous, scrutinous examination of all the meetings going on in your organization.
Establish a culture where people are welcome to leave ineffective meetings - and at the same time, have the freedom to communicate in whatever way is effective for them.

Try applying Open Space principles to your meetings: 
1 - Don't demand people to come
2 - Don't demand them to stay
3 - Don't demand to fill the entire time
4 - Don't demand to stick to the agenda,
See what happens. The meetings where nobody shows up, stays or talks are probably not important. The meetings where people leave the agenda should make you think.

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