Keeping people on track in meetings

Some people have amazing leadership skills such as communicating a clear vision or aligning people to a cause. I did not receive those awesome gifts, but I did inherit a super power that often comes in handy – managing Bureaucracy.

For example, I like to have meetings that are effective. This probably does not seem like a super power to you – but nor should meetings be a terrible curse.

When people encounter Scrum, they are often shocked that there are so many meetings (OK we hide the fact by calling them ceremonies, events, rituals, celebrations or something, but they are still times when people meet). In Kanban people are shocked that I sneak in a retro and in other agile approaches I also sneak in some meetings. I even sneak in some governance and sometimes budgets and things. You could call me a bureaucracy coach.

10% of my time in meetings? Say what?

A typical developer who didn’t see that coming

Not cool dude

Does this seem dodgy? You ask for a coach who is anti waste and he brings in more meetings.

Hopefully though there is a difference – the meeting is not a goal in its own right. The meeting should improve the interaction of the team, the team should not go to meetings because they are a bunch of tools following a process (yes I have said that before,).

So if I invite/drag people into a meeting, it should be a valuable meeting. It should also take the minimum time needed to create that value.

Keeping people on track is good

A valuable meeting is one where there is a clear purpose, people stay on task to achieve that purpose and people leave feeling that they got to participate.

In some meetings it is fair enough that people chat and catch up – if that is what they want and it is helping with the interaction.

In other meetings we want people to stay on track and not convert the meeting into a chat fest about how somebody should break down some stories in our backlog. So how do we stay on track?

Here are some ideas:

Start by reminding people of the purpose of the meeting and the commitment it will take.

  • For (someone) this meeting will provide (something) so they (get some value) is a possible way to intro a meeting. If this sounds too “user story-ish” then at least let people know whether this meeting is
    • To make a decision together
    • To discuss something so one person can make a decision
    • To inform people of things and have a general conversation
    • To commit to or track actions
  • If there are people coming for the first time, you could ask them what they want to get out of the meeting. You can also ask if the right people are in the room – some might be happy to let others cover the topics or someone might be needed if you are going to reach an agreement
  • State how long the meeting should go for and ask if people plan to attend for the whole meeting and agree with the goal

Consider having an agenda

  • If you do an agenda, leave time in it to wrap things up at the end. Otherwise everyone will be rushing off when you try to come to an agreement
  • Consider adding time at the start to read any pre-reading or to secretly admit that people will come late
  • Think about the order you put things in. Put things you don’t really want to talk about at the end and look for a generally good flow

Consider having a “5 minute rule” or a “7 minute rule.”

This means that if people deviate from the agenda or topic, anyone in the room can start a clock running. After 5 minutes, they announce that time is up and the group agree to get back on task, or they agree that this deviation from the agenda is more important that the other topics.

Observe who talks and gently make time for others if needed

Some people will talk a lot and others will prefer to listen. This can be OK but it can also mean that the group are not really getting value from all the brain power in the room.

  • Give the task of taking minutes to the loudest person in the room so they are constantly distracted and shut down. You can even give them 3 tickets that they have to spend to talk, though this might seem extreme.
  • Stop for quick check-ins like a thumbs up or 5-finger vote to make sure things are on track
  • If you have time and presence, notice how much of the conversation is inquiry (asking questions), how much is advocacy (stating opinions) and how much is echoing (just repeating what others have said). Be brave and comment on this or ask people if they have questions/opinions

Warn people when the meeting is half over or near the end

  • I sometimes call a time out in meetings halfway through. I ask for a quick vote among the group to see if they are getting value and believe we are having the right discussions. Remember my superpower is bureaucracy so you might not do this, but I promise it works
  • State clearly something like “OK 15 minutes to go .. let’s focus on blah blay”
  • It can also be good to summarise the meeting at the end, referring back to the goal or to key agreements.
  • Sometimes it is worth rating the meeting half way through or at the end and then committing to improve where needed.

Don’t pretend to take minutes

  • Some people take minutes and action items, which seems like a good idea
  • Minutes are a good idea if you will want to refer back to them. Action items are a good idea if people will hold each other accountable for them.
  • Minutes and action items that will be lost in the void will undermine the sense of purpose in a meeting. If you will not use them after the meeting then just be honest and say you will rely on people to remember/do what they said.

OK – good luck and enjoy your meetings 🙂


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