Tips and tricks for when a meeting needs a hero
This is a meeting we have all been in before — marathon-length, countless attendees, gargantuan agenda, and most of all: the outcome matters. It’s a slippery slope to madness so here are some useful agile facilitation tools for your back pocket.
I was in one of these meetings recently. We were working to define our team’s end-to-end role in our organization’s value stream process. Hefty topic, yes?
The room was packed with additional remote participants conferenced in, and we had 12–3 pm to complete our work. The meeting started strong — the problem was clarified, the key actors identified, a goal was decided upon, and at the stroke of noon it was ‘go’ time.
Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the train to run off the rails. You can probably relate to the early issues we experienced:
- Lost Context — Important although contextually irrelevant topics popped up. These are conversations that certainly needed to be had yet this was not the time nor the place.
- Lost Perspective — We quickly moved from the big picture to granular details. The team jumped immediately into the weeds falling down one rabbit hole after another.
- Lost Time — We were nearly an hour into the meeting and had made zero headway toward our objective. *Poof* one hour, gone.
It was mini-retro time. My teammates and I did a survey of the situation and made some quick decisions. We needed to pull from our Agile Facilitation bag-of-tricks to save this failing meeting, fast.
1 | Utilize Visual Tools
First, it was worth noting the positive: our meeting attendees were engaged. They were open, involved, and actively dialoguing around important issues. Were all of the issues directly related to the meeting agenda? No.
A number of the topics were important enough to be captured to discuss at a later time but did not need to be discussed to reach our meeting’s objective. Enter: The Parking Lot.
I reached for a large poster-sized wall sticky and wrote ‘Parking Lot’ at the top. To enhance the visual cue of the Parking Lot poster I drew lines that looked like parking spots along the left and right sides (infuse a little fun, am I right?). I grabbed a couple of sticky pad notes and sharpies then got to work writing out short headlines associated with each of the topics on the stickies, placing each into the Parking Lot. The group was able to feel as though the topic was captured, for later, and we were able to stay focused on the goal of the meeting. (Bonus Tip: keep a visual Parking Lot wall sticky in all of your meeting rooms and re-use the poster over-and-over to save on waste plus keep all your meetings on track.)
We implemented a couple of other key tools right away, once again as poster-sized wall stickies to allow the group to visualize and agree on outcomes:
- Action Items — If there was something that needed action, it was captured on a sticky note for the Action Item board. Each Action was then assigned to an individual.
- Decision Board — Anytime a decision was reached it was captured on a sticky note and added to the Decision Board. This allowed everyone to agree on the decisions as they were made, decreasing the likelihood of after-meeting dissent.
- Communication Plan — If something needed to be communicated to a group or person not in attendance, it was captured on the Communication Plan and assigned an owner.
2 | Implement Time Management Techniques
In addition to reaching for our visual facilitation tools we also immediately called attention to the time spent and the progress made so far. Our group had burned nearly an hour and had made almost no advancement toward our objective. The meeting organizer noticed the lost time and vocalized it. Hearing this, the team recalibrated and collectively decided that focusing too much on the details right out of the gate had hindered our headway. We decided instead to reframe the conversation to start with a 10,000-foot view and then delve deeper once the big picture had been established. This time check and refocus allowed the group to better manage our remaining time toward our meeting objective.
From there we implemented regular time checks and set timeboxes for conversations that required more than a couple of minutes to ensure we were able to achieve the intent of the meeting within the allotted time.
3 | Fist of Five
It can be hard to ensure group alignment of decisions and actions. It’s easy to assume agreement and move quickly to the next item on the agenda. Fist of Five is an easy way to capture concerns before moving on to the next conversation, and it requires no additional tools besides your audience’s hands. Toward the end of the meeting, we asked: ‘How confident is everyone about the plan moving forward? Fist of five.’ We projected the following ‘key’ so everyone knew how many fingers to raise to signal their confidence:
1. I am opposed — we shouldn’t move forward
2. I have reservations I’d like to bring forward
3. I can live with that and support it
4. This is a fine idea — wish I’d thought of it
5. Wild, unbridled support
Anyone who threw a one or two was asked to share their reservations related to the plan with the group. We were able to address their hesitations and the plan was improved by this immediate, specific feedback. When everyone in the group could minimally ‘live with…and support’ the decision we knew it was time to move on. No person left behind.
4 | Wrap Up — The Strong (on time) Finish
Ending a meeting ‘just on time’ without an in-person recap guarantees that actions will be lost and decisions forgotten. Miraculously, at 2:45 pm we met our meeting objective: we had laid out from end-to-end our team’s hand in our organization’s product delivery process.
The final fifteen minutes gave our facilitation team the time to put a bow on it. We revisited the Action Items, Decision Board, and Communication Plan to ensure we had assigned owners and no additional needs or conversations were required. Finally, we made a trip to the Parking Lot again assigning owners and actions to each item. This process of tying up loose ends meant the meeting felt finished and the group left feeling accomplished. We thanked everyone for their time and attention, captured photos of the boards, and sent a follow-up email to distribute the meeting notes, artifacts, and action items.
5 | Retrospective
While a retrospective is not always a necessity, as facilitators we wanted to capitalize on the moment. The meeting had teetered on the edge of madness but our situational awareness kicked in at the right time to remind us that we knew how to do better, how to be better. We had the tools to improve the meeting’s outcome, and we wanted to capture that steam to improve all of our meetings moving forward. Immediately after the larger group departed and with the goal of continuous improvement, our team sat down to run through what went well, what could be improved and discussed key learnings. We assigned owners to action items and provided the findings to our leadership team. Additionally, we reached out to our coach’s coach Christen McLemore and thanked her for her pearls of wisdom that helped us to facilitate this successful meeting.
6 | Bonus Track
Our world has gone remote, so instead of succumbing to unsuccessful conference calls, digitize these tools. For example, implement a Trello board or Google Doc to capture the Parking Lot or Action Items in real-time without needing a physical posterboard. The facilitator can share their screen and have participants either call out or message in their topics to be captured. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, there are lots of underutilized tools out there to boost individual and team productivity.
I am a DevOps Engineer with Centil working to architect solutions to the government’s toughest innovation challenges. Want to discuss DevOps, agile practices, meeting wins & losses, or just want to talk shop in general? I certainly do. Follow me here or on LinkedIn.