Soul Crushing Meetings by FisherPrice

How do you avoid soul crushing meetings?

We spend a lot of our time in meetings, some of them completely soul crushing. You come out of a 2 hour session feeling fatigued and frustrated having achieved relatively nothing. But it doesn’t have to be that way…

The overhead of scrum

If you are an agile team running scrum then you will be well aware of the amount of time spent locked in a box with your fellow team members.

This is the Scrum ‘overhead’.

This overhead consists of the various scrum events: Sprint Planning; Sprint Review; Sprint Retrospective and Daily Scrum. Also, most teams do some form of Backlog Refinement. This can be ad-hoc and/or in a fixed meeting each sprint.

If you refer to the scrum guide then in a 2 week (10 day) sprint there will be:

  • 10 Daily Scrums (each 15 minutes long)
  • 1 Sprint Planning event (up to 4 hours for a 2 week sprint)
  • 1 Sprint Review event (up to 2 hours for a 2 week sprint
  • 1 Sprint Retrospective event (up to 1.5 hours for a 2 week sprint)

plus optionally

  • 1 Sprint Backlog Refinement session (2 hours)

Here’s the algorithm for calculating the sprint overhead:

(NumEvents * NumTeamMembers * DailyScrumLength) + 

(NumEvents * NumTeamMembers * SprintPlanningLength) +  

(NumEvents * NumTeamMembers * SprintReviewLength) +  

(NumEvents * NumTeamMembers * SprintRetrospectiveLength) + 

(NumEvents * NumTeamMembers * SprintBacklogRefinementLength)

So in my 2 week sprint example based on a team size of 5 the calculation is

(10 * 5 * 0.25) + 
(1 *  5 * 4) +
(1 *  5 * 2) +
(1 *  5 * 1.5) +
(1 *  5 * 2) = 60

This totals 60 hours in meetings every 2 weeks! And this is just the scrum events. There are always other meetings to attend.

For each person on the sprint they are ‘tied-up’ in meetings for 12 hours every 2 weeks. This equates to 6 hours in a week – effectively a day each week.

If we’re spending this amount of time in meetings then we owe it to ourselves to make sure that they are productive and enjoyable.

If you’re a ScrumMaster or Agile Coach it is highly likely that you will be facilitating many of your teams meetings therefore you have a great responsibility. You can demonstrate the example of a great facilitator and hopefully by observing your behaviours others will become great facilitators too.

Its time to say NO to soul crushing meetings!

Techniques to avoid soul crushing meetings

No

The easiest solution to avoiding soul crushing meetings is to just not attend. However, how do you know that the meeting is likely to be a soul crusher?

Here are some of the warning signs:

  • a large distribution list (anything over the typical scrum team size will be painful);
  • no agenda published or the agenda is too woolly – look for verbs like ‘discuss’, ‘investigate’, ‘talk’;
  • there is no chair/facilitator;
  • preparatory work is not required;
  • the meeting is scheduled over the lunchtime period / really early in the morning / late in the evening.

I make a point of telling my scrum team members that they do not need to attend any meeting that does not have at least a purpose and an agenda. That clears about 90% of meeting requests alone!

Focus – Purpose – Objective

Before sending out a meeting request, take time to think about the purpose – why is this group of people meeting together?

Work out what your objective is. This is the physical, tangible output from the meeting. Can this be achieved in the time available with the set of participants? Work out if it is good value. For example, a 2 hour meeting with 6 participants is 12 hours invested (i.e. 2 days).

What pre-work is necessary? Can you reduce the time spent in the meeting by preparing the participants?

You may even consider if there are particular roles that each participant should have. For example, nominate a facilitator, a minute taker etc.

Asking these questions will help to keep you focused on what you are trying to achieve. You may need to reduce the scope of your objective, redefine your purpose, or find another way of achieving your outcome without having to call a meeting.

Try using this template for every meeting you organise. If you can’t provide the information then it is highly likely that the meeting is unnecessary so it behaves as a checkpoint.

Meeting Invite Template

I’ve found this template useful for any meeting I arrange.  This helps to cut out a lot of the needless, unfocused meetings from hell.

CONTEXT: {Set the context behind this meeting - explaining why this meeting has come about}

PURPOSE: {Explain what is the purpose of meeting with this group of attendees. What is the outcome you are looking for?}

OBJECTIVE: {Explain what output you want from this meeting}

AGENDA: {Give a bullet pointed agenda, using the questioning technique}

Example Agenda for the Sprint Retrospective

CONTEXT: As an agile team, we regularly meet every iteration to inspect and adapt on how we do our work

PURPOSE: To devise some experiments/actions that we can execute next iteration

OBJECTIVE: At least one experiment/action with acceptance criteria scheduled as a peer level story in the next iteration

AGENDA:
1. What did we do well last iteration?
2. What did we do less well last iteration?
3. What improvement(s) should we make?

Questioning Agenda

Questioning Agendas are agendas that pose questions (as recommended by Roger M. Schwarz, author of Smart Leaders, Smarter Teams: How You and Your Team Get Unstuck to Get Results and The Skilled Facilitator: A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Coaches, and Trainers, Third Edition

What’s good about this approach is that the questions naturally lead to decisions or actions.

For example, instead of an agenda item such as ‘Review release status’ this could be rephrased as ‘When can we go live?’

I always use this approach for my meetings as it helps to focus on what we want to achieve.

Top tip : Make the meeting subject a question.

For example, instead of calling your Daily Scrum meeting, ‘The Daily Scrum’ you could rephrase this to ‘What’s our plan for today?’ It eliminates any misunderstandings and clearly shows why we are getting together and what the outcome will be.

Time-box

There is nothing worse than a soul crushing meeting that overruns.

If you are facilitating a meeting then ensure that conclusions are reached within the time-box. If you need more time, don’t assume that the participants are happy to continue. Ask them if they would like to continue and if there are any objections then let them go.

It’s helpful to give the participants a time check at various points during the meeting. This helps them to focus and be aware if they are running out of time.

Get a visual clock and display it prominently in the room for all to see. I love using my TIME TIMER PLUS. What I like about this clock is that it shows what time is left (not the usual time expended). There is also an iPhone and iPad app if you don’t want to carry the clock around with you.

Pomodoro

Stay focused throughout the meeting by using the Pomodoro Technique.

The Pomodoro Technique is a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s. The technique uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.

In a long meeting its useful to break up into smaller sessions with a break in between. Short focused sessions of 25 minutes with a 5 minute break in between. The technique was developed for individuals but can be used in a team situation. Not only does it help to maintain focus but it’s also a good time-check tool.

Energisers

If you notice the energy levels dropping then livening up proceedings with an energiser can help.

When all else fails

So you’ve employed all the techniques but you still find yourself in a soul crusher? And what’s more its a conference call too!

There’s only one thing to relieve your boredom. It’s time for Conference Call bingo.

Check off each time you hear the phrases on the card. First to complete their card must stand and shout ‘Stop crushing my soul’ – works every time.

Conference Call Bingo
Conference Call Bingo