Meetings are like dental hygiene: No one likes them, but delaying leads to bigger pain 

Once, I believed in meeting magic: chasing the perfect formula from trends, books, and blogs. And I went even further, applying (for real) those ceremony tricks with great expectation. Spoiler: I failed.

Senior software developer for mobile stuff at Infobip. I like to hide acrostics in my articles, in case you are wondering.

Francisco Fortes

Senior software developer for mobile stuff at Infobip. I like to hide acrostics in my articles, in case you are wondering.

From Caribbean-Pirates-inspired Scrum boards (with cheap Island and ships drawn in a jpeg) to “Describe your Sprint with a movie gif” kind of challenges, nothing worked. Can you guess why? 

Those ideas had something in common; aside from being dumb, they tried to hide the nature of the meeting: a boring, repetitive routine. And they also required extra effort. But your colleagues, for the most part, are not stupid. They see what you are trying to do and think: “Man, it is Friday at 4 PM, and you are asking me to be creative. Are you nuts?”. 

So here is the first red pill of this article: Do not avoid the reality of how boring our repetitive ceremonies are. Embrace their nature: it is part of the job and needed. 

Now, is there a way to make them suck less? 

When Less is More because Less is Less

For the sake of the argument,  let’s go with these made-up formulas: 

  • Meeting efficiency = amount of agreement / time   
  • Meeting quality = acknowledgment of what was agreed / amount of agreements

See what I did there? I put a bull’s-eye on the two targets critical for the success of a meeting: the time spent and the agreement of the participants generated

It is now easy to understand why fancy new Agile trends or distracting and time-consuming additional complexities are not going to help. Simplicity helps. And so does going straight to the point. 

But there is more to what a facilitator, the driver of the ceremony, can do to avoid the bumps of the road.  

More is Less, too. Wait… what?

We all have complex tasks in our backlog: The never-ending XL specs and two-digit story points. But you never, ever, want to address those with a meeting marathon. What you actually want is more meetings – but make them shorter

I could bore you to death talking about what short attention spans people have and how much better our brains perform when working hard but for short periods of time. I will tell you this instead: try it. Have three 30-minute meetings in three consecutive days instead of a single 90-minute meeting.  

Whatever the nature of the meeting (decision-making or pure exposition, it doesn’t matter), you will be surprised by the result. 

It just works

Go raw 

All the tricks I’m talking about here can be combined, but this one specifically, and for obvious reasons, should only be applied with colleagues you know and without externals or customers on sight

It is an oversimplification of what the Japanese call “wearing different masks” and implies removing your “mask of correctness.” In a meeting, if you trust the others enough, there is no need for formalities or even an excess of politeness: you all just want to get sh*t done, so go informal all the way. It can be actively applied to concrete scenarios: 

  • During brainstorming, when you don’t want other thoughts to interfere.
  • It helps (correctly applied) with new or junior members who are refraining from saying what they really think out of shyness.

As a general rule, and based on my empiric and scientific field research, the formalities of Agile are better replaced with the black and white of visceral feelings: “Tell me what made you happy, and tell me what p***ed you off. Now, what do you want to do about it?“. 

Setting up the mood

I am not talking about going to the extent of playing some chill music or lighting up some candles. Still, as a meeting facilitator and even as a participant, you need to break the ice accordingly

Is it too soon in the morning, and the caffeine has not kicked in yet? 

Did we just come from lunch, and would everyone prefer a siesta instead?  Drop some jokes or add some memes when people would less expect it. If you think the price of a little fun time will earn your attention, go for it. Once the time is booked, any off-topic talk can become a team-building situation. 

Be water, my friend

As Bruce Lee wisely implies in his quote, the liquid form adapts to the container, and adaptation is a reaction that implies learning from circumstances. 

We already mentioned that mood depends on the situation, but sometimes that’s not enough: you cannot change the participants’ personalities in a meeting. 

But you can guess those personalities and react to them for the benefit of the meeting

I will barely broach the topic of psychology, not because of a lack of interest but because of my ignorance; instead, I will offer an example of what becoming water actually means: 

Imagine there is a technical challenge ahead. Some team members are ironic, skeptical, ambiguous, or suspiciously quiet about it, but you need their agreement and commitment, and fast. 

Instead of addressing them equally, try, for a better outcome, the most (respectful) inequality you can come up with when addressing them

  • Asking a quiet but emotional person: “Your opinions are always useful <optional blink or tap in the back>. What’s your take on the topic?” 
  • Asking a quiet but rational person: “I think we need your brain on the topic. What do you think about it?” 
  • When the know-it-all person monopolizes the discussion, ignore them and ask the quiet ones: “What do you think about her/his opinion?” 
  • Asking someone with a negativist, inflexible position: “Did others succeed, and how? Leaving aside what’s bad, can you point out some good points?” 
  • Replying to a variant of the negativist, the complainer: “Let’s be constructive: could you elaborate on how you would do it instead?” 
  • If someone talks too much but says toolittle: “Rephrase now with just a few words, please.” 

Remember that the language used and the personas above are also liquid: they will respond to you responding to them. 

It’s easier said than done, though. Look at this mess of arrows and interconnections between them: 

And finally, know when to stop 

It is rare that doing homework before a meeting actually saves it from chaos. And for the most part, it makes sense: if preparations make a meeting an easy walk, perhaps that meeting was not truly needed to begin with. 

What’s more probable is that, even with the best of your efforts, the ceremony will likely take a bad turn and reach what can be best described as a total dead end. 

You know what I am talking about: the case when the arguments appear to enter a loop, and the parties just keep repeating themselves over and over. Sometimes, the stagnation can even be smelled in the room. 

The solution? Stop. Not a single more word about it. The topic, perhaps the meeting as a whole, is better as postponed

Because there is no better move than knowing when to end. 

May 13th, 2024
6 min read
Senior software developer for mobile stuff at Infobip. I like to hide acrostics in my articles, in case you are wondering.

Francisco Fortes

Senior software developer for mobile stuff at Infobip. I like to hide acrostics in my articles, in case you are wondering.