Friday, October 21, 2011

Being Present in Meetings

Meetings of various kinds are the bread and butter of Agile practice. As a result, many of us look for ways to create successful meetings that engage attendees, use the time well, and achieve our meeting goals. This often manifests as a set of agreements or rules.

When we look at rules of successful meetings, I often hear "be present" or, put another way, "be engaged." This generally is translated into rules about leaving laptops out of the meeting room, turning off phones, not allowing side conversations, and other enforcement approaches. 

I struggle with the idea of "enforcing" presence. Rather than requiring people's attention, there is value in looking at it from another perspective. If people in the meeting aren't intrinsically engaged, why not?

When people in the room aren't completely focused on the topic, look for a root cause. Are the right people in the room? Are they being bombarded with higher priorities? Has the topic drifted? Was the topic well defined to begin with?

I believe engagement is largely the responsibility of the meeting owner, who can make sure the meeting includes key factors that encourage engagement: 
  • A well-defined purpose 
  • Logical agenda that supports the purpose 
  • Focused conversation driving toward the purpose
  • A goal that will be met before the end of the meeting 
  • Action items defined with owners assigned and due dates 

Additionally, we can add to these factors meeting functionality: 
  • Start on time 
  • End on time 
  • Have the right people in the room 

After these pieces have been taken care of by the meeting owner, some of the responsibility for engagement will still lies with attendees. However, rather than painting all attendees with the same "engagement enforcement" brush, wait to see if any of the attendees show a pattern of non-engagement, then go to them individually to find out why they're not engaged and resolve the issue one-on-one. 

For example, working with IT operations teams, I find that they often need to be included in cross-functional meetings but only need to be actively engaged for about 10% of the time. I find that it works well to allow operations people to self-monitor in meetings, meaning that when they need to be engaged, they become engaged, but if they are in the room for the portion that doesn't apply to them, they should be allowed to work.  

Each individual in a meeting should be viewed as a person with unique needs regarding engagement. A little thought and effort by the meeting organizer can produce a successful meeting that builds intrinsic engagement while being respectful of the individual circumstances of the attendees.

Jen Stone Browne

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