Meetings can be a source of creativity and motivation, a time when team collaboration and leadership combine to create the space for achieving organisational goals. Maybe true in an ideal world – huh? Unfortunately, more often meetings are just an unproductive and inefficient waste of time.
This article’s purpose is to present ideas that can help Agile teams and their leaders to be able to facilitate effective meetings. Agile meetings have been designed to avoid many of the pitfalls that plague large organisations and numerous teams. For this article we have largely referred to the role of Agile facilitator which in many cases might be played by a Scrum Master, Iteration manager, Coach or any other team member etc. However the advice below can also apply to any meetings regardless of the size of organisation or type of team.
First, let’s see some of the factors that can lead to poor outcomes from meetings. Meeting can be ineffective because:
- Its purpose may not be clear
- There are no actionable outcomes
- It may result in unproductive conflict
- It may be boring
- Conversation may divert from the agenda into deep discussion
Such meetings almost add no value and it is the responsibility of a facilitator or coach to fix these issues.
Now let’s look at some ideas below which can help you to be aware of how to run meetings which increases participant’s engagement, creativity and collaboration.
Small groups of smart people
Robert Sutton, a professor of organizational behaviour at Stanford University, looked at the research on group size and concluded that the most productive meetings contain only five to eight people. Why? There is a tipping point beyond which the quality of the conversation begins to erode.
When well-intentioned managers are too inclusive in their meeting invites, the follow issues can arise:
- There is not enough time for everyone to participate in conversation
- Rich debate can be replaced by shallow comments
- Information sharing and catch-up can distract from addressing higher priority issues
- People becomes more guarded and less candid
- Tough topics and decisions are dealt with offline discussions instead of discussed within meeting.
Late Apple CEO Steve Jobs was known for insisting that meeting should be of small groups of smart people. He would not hesitate to let someone know if they were not needed. 
Agile team is kept to a small size to keep the focus of the group and help them to have effective meetings. Agile facilitator or coach must ensure that team meetings are mostly kept to team members and if there have to be some guests invited then they are observers and not active participants.
Keep it short
Meetings should not drag on for long. Common estimates of the attention span of healthy adults range from 10-20 minutes, therefore it is important to keep the meetings short and finish on time to keep them productive. 
Agile facilitators can help the agile teams to optimally run the meetings within agreed timespan. Longer meetings such as planning, estimating, showcasing etc. can be broken down in smaller blocks to allow the participants to focus.
In cases where Agile Process requires a big room planning meeting such as program increment planning sessions (Scaled Agile), key is to have agile teams work with their own Coach or Facilitator, in their own location with short time boxes to keep the focus.
Appoint a decision maker
A problem with big companies is the increased red tape and bureaucracy that comes from having many different departments. This leads to increased meetings and slower decisions. Google has addressed this by adopting a “buck stops here” approach to streamline decision making in meetings. 
One of the fundamental roles in an Agile Team is of a product owner who is a decision maker for the team’s work. PO prioritises the work for the team and is accountable for its direction. Agile coaches/leaders must ensure that their teams have a PO assigned and is readily available to team.
PO plays an important role in the planning, estimation, prioritisation and showcase meetings.
What is in location?
Meetings don’t have to be at the same place and location all the time. Virgin boss, Richard Branson once said that good ideas can come from anywhere and are often found in the most unexpected places.
Think about changing the meeting location for your meetings. If your team can’t afford to have a planning meeting on a luxury Yacht, then maybe you all can walk to a local café for a retrospective or to office kitchen for a stand-up.
Think on your feet
According to a research by Washington university (St Louis) “standing during meetings boosts the excitement around creative group processes and reduce people’s tendencies to defend their turf”. Not only that standing also reportedly cuts meeting times by 25%. 
Virgin boss Richard Branson loves stand up meetings as they get people to focus on the task at hand. Blogging for Virgin, he wrote “I find it to be a much quicker way of getting down to business, making a decision and sealing the deal.”
“Another positive about meetings outside the boardroom is a lack of fancy tools, and instead an emphasis on real communication.”
These meetings should take no longer than 10 minutes – and if you’re feeling extra fit, you could even make them a walking meeting. 
Standing meetings are not limited to daily stand-up meetings only. Any meeting where creativity/ innovation is needed, can benefit from standing whether that is a co-design session or a planning session.
Share airtime (give everyone a chance to say something)
Meetings are not a lecture and therefore input is usually required from all attendees. Agile facilitators must know how to keep the meetings on track and ensure that each person is afforded airtime. A team at REA Group used “nerf guns” to toss around the group to the speaker of the moment. This technique can act as an icebreaker, but it can also help keep the balance of speaking/listening in meetings.
Directly Responsible Individual
Appoint a directly responsible individual for the issues and action items. This creates a culture of accountability, which keeps things moving forward and ensures meetings are always productive.
At Apple, Steve Jobs insisted on senior staff taking full ownership and responsibility of the issues and action items. Agile facilitator must ensure that a DRI assigned for every issue and actions coming out of a meeting.
Know your purpose
All meetings should have a clearly defined purpose or problem to solve. Any meeting that does not have a purpose is doomed to failure. At the end of the meeting, you will not know whether the meeting has been a good use of your time, if you cannot answer the question: “Did we have a purpose for the meeting, and did we achieve it?”
Specific agile meetings (such as Daily stand-up, planning, backlog refinement, retrospective) have a purpose and meaning to agile teams. Agile facilitator must ensure that these meetings stay to their purpose and everyone in the team has the same understand.
Leave the laptops
Everyone should be fully engaged and attentive in a productive meeting and laptops rarely facilitate this. What about note taking? Well, research shows that conceptual recall is much better after taking handwritten notes than on a laptop anyway. If it’s going to be a long meeting schedule a 15-minute email break.
At the start of the meeting Agile facilitators can develop a social agreement about the conduct of the team.
Switch off mobiles
A recent study found that 79% of people aged between 18 – 44 have their smartphones on them 22 hours per day. Although this mobile technology has many advantages, it’s mostly an unnecessary distraction in meetings, so keep it a phone-free space! Very few things are that urgent or important.
Even Barack Obama reportedly made the bi-monthly cabinet meetings at the White House as a mobile phone free affair! There was a basket on entry for all attendees to deposit their phones. Where it may not be practicable, facilitators can come up with a social agreement with the team on how to reduce distractions
Use Power of sketching and illustration
A 2009 study at University of Plymouth found that doodlers can retain 29% more information than non-doodlers in meetings and lectures. Nike’s boss, CEO Mark Parker is known to often found with a moleskin notebook and pen in hand during meetings – he says it helps with the brainstorming process. [8, 9, 10]
Facilitator uses this power to sketch and illustration to help the help with the brainstorming, retention of information and to help create shared understanding.
Get rid of power point
No body enjoys death by thousand slides. As facilitator, encourage your teams to present their ideas through conversations, storytelling or through illustration. This is a far more proven way of retaining knowledge and creating shared understanding. Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos opines that PowerPoint is easy for presenters but difficult for the audience. He is known to have banned PowerPoint from his meetings, and this is followed as a practice by majority of teams in Amazon.
These ideas are proven techniques which can help you to turn your meetings into more effective outcome driven and successful activities.
7. Isaacson, Walter; Steve Jobs, Simon & Schuster (2011)
8. Wu, J. Y., & Xie, C. (2018). Using time pressure and note-taking to prevent digital distraction behavior and enhance online search performance: Perspectives from the load theory of attention and cognitive control. Computers in Human Behavior, 88, 244-254. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2018.07.008
9. Wammes, J.D., Meade, M.E., & Fernandes, M.A. (2016). The drawing effect: Evidence for reliable and robust memory benefits in free recall. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 69(9). http://doi.org/10.1080/17470218.2015.1094494
10. Mueller, P.A., & Oppenheimer, D.M. (2014). The pen is mightier than the keyboard: Advantages of longhand over laptop note taking. Psychological Science, 25(6), 1159-1168. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797614524581