Put Time On Your Side! Changing Your Company Culture Through Your Meeting Cadence
Agile is disciplined, not reckless.
If you walk into any conference room in any company that’s undergoing an Agile Transformation, you’re likely to hear the same complaint:
“We have to go to even more meetings?”
We get it. Agile is scary. And process can be overwhelming, but the big secret is that Agile will shine a light on all your overhead. Agile is not just process for the sake of process. It’s targeted and deliberate process where appropriate, and more importantly, when appropriate. You’ll start to see all the superfluous meetings and procedures fall away and your organization will be unburdened, free to deliver quality work faster than before.
You might be thinking it sounds too good to be true; there’s no way to make that happen. Well, there is. And it starts by changing your meeting cadence. According to a 3M Meeting Network survey, “25-50 percent of the time people spend in meetings is wasted.” As a result, a strong Agilist can walk into a new organization and understand a lot about the company culture and process just by looking at the meeting schedule and attendees.
An organization’s meeting cadence is a reflection of its culture. Does this organization value centralized or de-centralized control? Does that organization value quick response to change or comprehensive sign-offs? As a result, changing your meeting cadence is essentially changing your company culture. According to BusinessInsider.com, you can improve your organization’s meeting culture by giving meetings a structure, establishing ground rules for conduct, and empowering a moderator. You may notice that these are all qualities of an Agile meeting cadence. Change at this scale doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen without resistance, but it is absolutely essential to a strong agile transformation.
Recall that there are five major agile ceremonies plus backlog refinement (presented here in chronological order during sprint execution):
Sprint Planning (Development Team, Product Owner, Scrum Master ) [120 minutes/sprint]
Daily Standup (Development Team, Product Owner, Scrum Master) [15 minutes/day]
Backlog Refinement (Dev Team, Product Owner, Scrum Master) [90 minutes/sprint]
Scrum of Scrums (Scrum Masters, Tech Reps from each team) [30 minutes 2x/week]
Sprint Review (Development Team, Product Owner, Scrum Master) [30-60 minutes/sprint]
Sprint Retrospective (Dev Team, Product Owner, Scrum Master) ]60 minutes/sprint]
Observe that these ceremonies are simple, clean, and not time-consuming. Over the course of a 2 week sprint, your teams should be spending about 10% of their time in meetings; no more than that.
If you are running these meetings, and you are finding that there are still other meetings necessary for your organization to function effectively, there’s a strong chance that you’re not running one of these six meetings properly. In an Agile mature environment, these six touchpoints provide a forum for status updates, decision making, inter- and intra-team communication, and the establishment of shorter, quicker feedback loops.
According to LeanKit and research done by Gloria Mark, Professor of Informatics at the UC - Irvine, it takes people an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to regain focus after even a brief interruption. Now imagine how many times you’re interrupted during your daily routine, and see how quickly it multiplies.
Creating shorter feedback loops will allow teams to produce higher quality software by limiting the amount of work-in-process (WIP), creating environments for quicker communication, and allowing teams and organizations to inspect and adapt on their process, progress, and behavior.
Now that we’ve talked about the why, the value in changing your meeting cadence, we have an opportunity to talk about the how, as well as how making these changes will impact your entire organizational culture.
If we were to take a close look at the 9 Scaled Agile (SAFe) principles, we would quickly see that these principles are all closely aligned to the various agile ceremonies.
Further, consider that when we implement an Agile meeting cadence, we tacitly endorse these principles to our organization.
Take an economic view: By minimizing the amount of time people spend in unnecessary meetings and maximizing efficient keyboard time, we realize the most return for our investment.
Apply systems thinking: By evaluating the purpose and value of meetings within the context of the “big picture” we again realize the most value for our time by making sure that we use our limited meeting time effectively.
Assume variability; preserve options: By establishing a consistent agile meeting cadence, we create an environment of collaboration at frequent pre-established ceremonies.
Build incrementally with fast, integrated learning cycles: By using the touchpoints offered in an agile meeting cadence we create opportunities for our teams to react to changing circumstances quickly.
Base milestones on objective evaluation of working systems: By using the demos at the team, program, solution, and portfolio levels we provide our stakeholders the opportunity to participate in the agile process and put their hands on working software.
Visualize and limit WIP, reduce batch sizes, and manage queue lengths: by timeboxing our meetings we limit our ability to take on more work than we can handle in a given timebox. This effectively manages our WIP, batch sizes and queue lengths.
Apply cadence, synchronize with cross-domain planning: By using regularly scheduled, known, touchpoints, we create opportunities for cross-team dependencies to be handled on a regular basis.
Unlock the intrinsic motivation of knowledge workers: By empowering team members to participate in our agile ceremonies, we enable them to guide the scope of work and future vision of the organization.
Decentralize decision making: By providing opportunities for team discussion and guidance, we allow the teams to own the decisions that are frequent, short-term, and financially stable.
The next step is to explicitly empower organizational representatives to act as change agents. Find the team members that have consistently recognized and pursued opportunities for improvement, and make them your front lines of change. These shepherds of innovation will act as the watchdogs of inefficiency and meeting bloat. Over time, many organizations fall into the trap of having more and more meetings to address needs that develop over time. It is the change agent’s responsibility to protect the organization from wasted time.
For example, consider a status meeting that starts out with two developers having a conversation. Over time, some external stakeholders may ask to be included, “for awareness,” and then a supervisor may want to attend because there are now customers there, and two weeks later, this status call has fifteen people, thirteen of which aren’t paying attention anymore because they don’t need to know what the original two developers are talking about.
A change agent can protect their organization not only by identifying time-waste, but also by driving conversations, managing people and agendas, and identifying and challenging anti-patterns. An anti-pattern in this context is anything that an organization is doing, “to make it work.” It’s the duct-tape and wishful thinking that allows an organization to say things are going well because you’re getting results. Anti-patterns frequently ignore both the physical and mental cost it takes to keep things going. If your developers or team members are working 7 days a week for 12 hours a day, it’s not working. It doesn’t matter if you’re getting results, because you won’t be getting them for long.
If you are having trouble identifying and empowering your change agents to address this problem, or if your change agents are not making the cultural changes your organization needs, there are tools and resources to make the transition easier, and I look forward to hearing from you about your own organization’s issues.
Eliminating anti-patterns, slimming down your meeting cadence, and driving delivery through short feedback loops and quick, purposeful communication will allow your organization to achieve strong strength of unity and purpose. You will consistently deliver high quality products while encouraging a positive, high-energy environment for your teams. If you’re still not convinced that an Agile meeting cadence is the best way for you to achieve these results, I will leave you with one final thought:
Wouldn’t it be nice to go to a meeting that you know would start and end on time? With clear direction, a focused agenda, and a targeted list of attendees? And if you finished the agenda early, the meeting would just end instead of finding something else to talk about until the allotted time is over?
I know I’d work for that company.