Meeting hacks: playing the right cards

originally by Michael Mahlberg on agile-aspects
Meeting hacks: playing the right cards

Some meeting run very smoothly. Others don’t.
For today let’s look at one special kind of meeting – requirements preparation (refinement meetings –to use scrum-inspired lingo– are one instance of this meeting type, but there are many others that fall into the same category). Those meetings share some common attributes:

  • Usually they are time-boxed
  • The intention is to talk about numerous topics of a similar nature
  • All of the discussed items should be elevated in quality, depth or detail to reach some –more or less well defined– threshold
  • [optional, but very common] Often those meeting tend to overrun and annoy a lot of the participants

How to make it better

With experienced participants or an experienced facilitator, these meetings tend to run much better – neither breaking the time box nor annoying the participants. What can we do to make this kind of meeting work better for teams without a facilitator, or those just starting of with the practice? Over the years I have seen two behaviors that seem to drive up both the annoyance-level and the time required for the meeting more than most others.

Too much detail

The first behavior we tend to fall into, is to discuss an item in way more detail than is required for the current level of decision making. A special case of this is bike shedding where almost everyone is discussing details of an irrelevant topic because that happens to be the easiest way to contribute. But even without this phenomenon, it happens all the time and with the best of intentions.

Off-topic discussions

Another driver for the discussion going ‘off the rails’ is exactly that: getting off-topic. Often by deepening the discussion on topics triggered by talking about the original item, but actually straying away from the context of the item under discussion. Even worse, many of these spontaneous discussions completely disregard the purpose of the meeting and morph into heated arguments about unrelated issues.

Cards on the table

Oftentimes, some of the people in the room may notice these effects, but due to a number of phycological barriers, it can be hard for them to voice their concern. Reasons not to speak up might be the impression that they are the only ones with that concern, past experience that trying to stop an argument only extends it, a difference in rank and many others.
Using playing cards (or planning poker cards) as a means to assist in the management of the two behaviors mentioned above, has proven to be an effective self-facilitation tool. I typically use the Aces and the Jokers from a traditional card deck or the question mark and the coffee cup from a planning poker deck.

  • Ace indicates that the discussion is lost in detail
  • Joker is used to denote the fact that the discussion has run off-topic.

When using planning poker cards I tend to use the question mark as a symbol for too much detail and the coffee cup to indicate getting off-topic.
In any case it is a good idea to post the rules visibly so that the group doesn’t have to remember –or even discuss– the meaning of the cards.

Rules of engagement

Just discussing the meaning of the cards and being physically in possession of them already raises everyone’s awareness of (at least) these two ways to derail even well-structured elaborations, but some additional rules on how to use the cards make this technique even more valuable.

I suggest these three rules:

  1. If one person holds up an, card nothing happens. The discussion may continue. (This allows for a simple verification of the personal impression without interrupting the potentially important discussion and simultaneously gives permission for other people to ‘voice’ their opinion.)
  2. If a second person holds up a card of the same type the discussion is tabled for the moment, and a reminder to pick it up again is posted on a jointly visible spot. (I also reduce the time of the main discussion by a minute or so –depending on the group– for each Ace.)

    Furthermore, I tent to use two different spots for the different types of cards, because those different concerns need to be addressed differently. In most cases I find it important to make sure that the Aces (too much detail) get picked up before the meeting is closed.

    It is up to the participants whether they want to do anything about the Jokers after the meeting, but for the Aces the next (third) rule seems to be an extremely valuable practice:

  3. Take time at the end of the meeting to agree on a further course of action for each of the topics posted under «too much detail». For those items the ‘course of action’ tends to be an agreement on «who is going to clarify the details with whom until when?» (Pro tip: Don’t elaborate on the details in this meeting, just schedule a follow up meeting and agree to convene again to share the results of that meeting.)

Since I started using this approach, I’ve seen a steep improvement in the way people conduct refinement meetings, Sprint-Plannings and other “lets discuss this number of similar topics in a fixed time” meetings.

Maybe this approach also works for you?

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

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