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Don't get stuck: Here's how to avoid the worst Agile meeting syndrome

Too much talking and not enough listening equals boredom and ineffectual meetings. Columnist Jennifer Lent has great advice on how to keep regular Agile gatherings lively and relevant.

We've all been there -- trapped in the worst Agile meeting ever.

Mine wasn't Agile, but it happened many years ago when I worked for a magazine startup. Sitting in a glass conference room in a cookie-cutter high rise, I experienced a strong sense of déjà vu. I had been here before! I was sitting in this same room, with the same people, talking about the same things! It was my worst meeting ever, and I couldn't wait to get out. Why were we talking about work instead of working? Our team had been developing editorial content for six months, but we still didn't have anything to show for it.

At the time, I felt like I was the only one suffering from "worst meeting ever" syndrome. But, of course, I wasn't. This phenomenon is widespread, and Agile experts and other business professionals have a lot to say about it. They aren't just complaining; their posts and presentations offer advice and insight on how the right Agile meeting at the right time can make us more, not less, productive.

Here's what some of the best had to say.

Skip the status updates

The worst meetings I ever suffered through were all about simple status updates; they weren't about collaborating with peers, seeking help or hearing insight from others. Instead, participants went on auto pilot and talked. But was anyone listening? Or were they just thinking about what to say when it was their turn?

You can avoid this fruitless exercise by asking a simple question, said Elizabeth Grace Saunders in a blog post on the Harvard Business Review website. "Do I need outside input to make progress?" If you don't, take action and do your work on your own, said Saunders, founder and CEO of coaching and training company Real Life E. If outside input is essential, use your Agile meeting time to get what you need.

The three-email rule

Using the team's time effectively is the basic idea behind daily standup meetings, the scrum practice where the team convenes at the same time every day to see where everyone stands on three issues:

  • What did you do yesterday?
  • What will you do today?
  • Are there any impediments in your way?

The standup meeting practice was designed to cut to the chase and keep people accountable. But for many teams, the daily standup feels so routine that it has grown less effective over time. These meetings fall prey to simply providing status updates, said user mcorum in a recent post on TechTarget's IT Knowledge Exchange.

"The standup is a quick and effective tool … as long as the team avoids the 'yesterday I worked on that, today I'll work on this, no obstacles' mantra … At that point, it becomes an unproductive waste of time that needs to be dealt with quickly," mcorum said.

To avoid this trap, Neetia Tolia, an engineering director at Unisys in India, applies the three-email rule, a practice she learned from a colleague she once worked with at Hewlett-Packard.

"We … try to resolve many queries/questions through [email] … If any discussion cannot be concluded in three emails (round trip), that's the topic/impediment that should be brought out in scrum," Tolia said in a blog post on LinkedIn.

Getting basic business out of the way helps teams use meeting time -- not the brief standups -- to focus on real impediments. That alone is a huge step in avoiding "worst Agile meeting ever" syndrome. When group discussions are meaningful, team members listen and come together.

"There are other advantages when everyone is really internalizing what others are doing," Tolia said. "There is always an opportunity to learn from each other."

Team members not only get answers to their own problems by listening to others, Tolia said. They also begin to hold one another accountable.

"No one can get away with the same updates rephrased for multiple days," Tolia said.

Worst meeting ever

Coming together as a team and holding one another accountable is Agile at its best. But meetings, by nature, still veer off course.

"People somehow end up getting lost … [they] bring up related, but irrelevant, side issues instead of working towards your solution," said Lana Pavkovic, a project management specialist at Yanado.com, in a blog post on her company's website. Yanado.com is a software service for team collaboration and task management.

For Pavkovic, the worst meetings ever are those where team members "spend time talking about ideas or initiatives you most probably won't take action on." That's exactly what was happening at my worst meeting ever. We were talking about big ideas that we had no plans to implement.

When they go on too long, those blue sky discussions are maddening and they hinder productivity. Pavkovic recommends designating a place to park "all those side issues." A flipchart or an open document can serve as your parking lot or hanger, she said.

"Whatever you call it, it should serve to keep track of those off-topic, but still relevant, issues for later," Pavkovic said.

But these discussions are also at the heart of creative work. Engaging in big ideas and considering all the possibilities is essential to delivering the best product for customers. So don't be afraid to go there. Just don't let the discussion turn into your worst Agile meeting ever.

Let me know about your worst meeting ever -- and your best! 

Next Steps

The secret guide to stand ups

Will the serious meeting-goer please stand up?

Surviving long-distance meetings (tip: be patient)

This was last published in August 2016

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