Running an effective meeting seems relatively easy in theory. But anyone who’s participated in any kind of sprint refinement, sprint planning, retrospective or general problem-solving session will probably agree that a lot of meetings can leave you frustrated and without answers.
How can software development managers make sure all calls make the best use of everyone’s time? Let me share some of the meeting facilitation tools, preparation techniques and strategies to improve the effectiveness of your Scrum-related calls and team management meetings.
Meeting facilitation strategies for an ideal meeting
Meetings take different forms and serve various goals, but the common goal is usually to reach a call’s objective effectively and to maintain the participants’ attention. To achieve this, try these strategies to devise a productive meeting:
Carefully choose the meeting participants and make sure they can truly contribute to the discussion. Especially when you need to involve people with different areas of expertise, you’ll want to ensure that each person can share relevant information. Otherwise, you run the risk that participants will grow disengaged and disrupt it and that they’ll bring no real input or value to the discussion.
Send out an agenda before a meeting so that participants can prepare for it. When you inform people what you plan to cover and achieve in a meeting, ahead of time, they know exactly what to expect. They won’t wonder about the point of the meeting, which could derail the discussion from the start. The agenda also helps them bring their own ideas and thoughts to the meeting – more on this later.
Make the goal of a meeting as clear as possible to everyone. A good agenda will include a clearly defined goal, so when you invite participants, you can ask them to prepare their ideas for a solution beforehand. This will streamline the meeting and make people feel appreciated and listened to even before a discussion takes place. They’ll be also more motivated to share their ideas and take ownership during a call.
Don’t overload the meeting with too many goals. If you want to achieve too many things at once, group dynamics and the general nature of meetings will inevitably get in the way. With the focus pulled in too many directions, participants will most likely disengage and the meeting will fizzle out without reaching any concrete conclusions. Focus only on one or two things at once instead.
Enable participants to achieve the goal of a meeting. An ideal meeting leaves people feeling accomplished. The steps of the agenda need to follow a logical sequence, and everyone should have a clear understanding of what has been achieved when the meeting ends. One way to ensure that is to spell out what the next steps are and to assign relevant tasks to specific people. You will find some more ideas on that in a further section of this text.
How to prepare for a meeting
Many people find agendas trivial and don’t bother to prepare them. However, they’re the secret to great meetings and a great tool for a facilitator. Preparing a solid agenda can be a difficult, complex process, but it’ll guarantee you success. It can help you prepare answers for each moment in a meeting and highlight all the potential gaps.
The key is to focus on a meeting’s objective. Set actionable goals so that participants understand what to do. Remember not to go overboard with goals – realistically, you’ll have to dedicate some unplanned time to provide extra explanations or assure people they’re going in the right direction. Additionally, as you plan each item on the agenda, ask yourself what the goal of this item is and how you want to achieve it.
As a facilitator, you’re responsible for setting up an effective process of sharing opinions. To do that, you need to factor in the form of the meeting and group dynamics into your preparations. It’s natural that participants will have different personalities and favor different collaboration styles. Accept that and prepare for it.
It’s your role as a facilitator to make sure that one group doesn’t dominate a meeting and drown out the rest of participants. As you prepare your agenda, you can plan for participants to work in smaller groups so that everyone has room to share their perspective. Another idea is to get everyone going from the beginning by starting a meeting with ice breakers which encourage participants to be more receptive to each other.
Agendas can also benefit when you anticipate a group’s reactions to planned items and prepare accordingly. Consider what each activity can result in and how to proceed from there. For example, if you decide to vote on generated ideas, expect that people will want to discuss the results. If you don’t plan for it and move on to the next item, participants will derail the meeting anyway or feel frustrated and disengage. You will also get confused as you will have results but no plan to deal with them.
6 effective meeting facilitation tools
There are several simple, yet powerful techniques facilitators can use to ensure meetings inspire productive discussions. The tools below can help you avoid misunderstandings, improve communication and activate participants.
Use paraphrases to bridge gaps in communication, boost overall clarity and signal that people are listened to. When someone shares their opinion or asks a question, you can ask the other participants to paraphrase what has just been said. If someone voices disagreement, another option is to ask them: “Could you explain how you understand what the other person said?” Additionally, as a facilitator, you can occasionally rephrase someone’s statement and ask them to confirm that you understood correctly.
2. Context – Option – Expectation
This tool enables you to smoothly transition from one topic to the next without losing participants’ attention and keep the meeting structured. First, you present the context (which item in the agenda you’ve just covered), then you move on to the option (which item you’re going to cover), and finally you establish the expectation (what you want the group to achieve next). This technique also gives you room to adjust the process as you go.
3. Constructive criticism
Shallow criticism is a result of oversimplification and stereotypical thinking. Facilitators need to make sure that the feedback participants offer to each other has substance. Participants are encouraged to challenge ideas, but need to remember that criticism without merit leads nowhere. Instead of countering opinions with but, they can try stating they’re offering a different perspective or building on a proposed idea. As a facilitator, you can teach people to follow this approach.
As a facilitator, you need to pay attention not only to the content of statements (or lack of one) but also to the communication surrounding it, such as tone of voice and body language, so you can spot misunderstandings or increasing disengagement. Often, people won’t say what they feel to avoid being perceived as difficult – for example, they might confirm that everything so far is clear, but their expressions tell a different story. By observing everyone carefully, you can immediately address potential issues and curb frustration.
Once people start exchanging ideas, they’ll likely generate more material than you’ll be able to discuss during a meeting. Some of these ideas will probably have nothing to do with the goal of the meeting, but can be still valuable. To avoid this outcome, without discouraging brainstorming, acknowledge interesting ideas, then put a pin in them and say you’ll return to them in a different discussion.
6. Questions, questions, questions
A facilitator should constantly ask questions aimed at improving the quality of communication. But questions also help encourage participants to be more open and active and to explain their perspective when disagreements arise. As you pull people into discussion, they become more eager to take ownership and reach a meeting’s objectives.
What to do after a meeting
It’s important to go through the wrap-up activities no later than one day after a meeting – when they are still fresh in everyone’s memory. Otherwise, people might forget about what they need to do.
Send a summary of the meeting to all participants. This task doesn’t have to fall to a facilitator, but it should be assigned to a specific person. A summary confirms and clarifies the decisions made during a meeting, clears up any confusion and ensures that everyone is on the same page, regardless of distractions or disengagement during the call.
Include an action plan in the summary. It should reinforce the next steps you agreed on during the meeting and specify people responsible for them. Make sure that you also attach all materials created during the meeting. The files should be named in a way that makes them easy to navigate.
Thank the most engaged participants for being active in the meeting. This way you’ll motivate them to stay active in the future and encourage participation from others.
Reach out to participants for feedback. Don’t stop at general questions about whether everything was okay or clear, but rather go for a retrospective angle. For example, try asking: How clear were the goals to you? Do you think everyone understood them all the way through the meeting? Which actions positively affected engagement, and which disrupted it?
This feedback will help you analyze the meeting and your facilitation performance. Did you accurately match activities to the participants? Did the tools and techniques you used work well in this meeting? Feedback from participants makes it easier for you to assess whether you’re using tools correctly.
Remember that meetings never go exactly as planned. Something unexpected will always happen, but a skilled facilitator can quickly find their footing in a surprising situation and draw from their previous experience to deal with it.
Effective collaboration paves a way to outstanding products
Whether you’re a CTO, software delivery manager or team lead, you understand the importance of a motivated team and efficient problem-solving. For more best practices that’ll help you get the most out of your Scrum and leadership-related meetings, check out my other blog, How to Facilitate Meetings Effectively and Motivate Participants to Contribute – Part 2 of Meeting Facilitation Best Practices.
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About the authorHubert Ochmański
Software Delivery Manager and Scrum Master
A Software Delivery Manager and Scrum Master with 10+ years’ experience in Agile and Waterfall project management, Hubert combines conventional and modern approaches. Co-creator and co-implementer of Agile transformation in multicultural, international projects, he works with cross-functional development teams, product owners and customer management specialists to build efficient software delivery processes. Outside of work, Hubert has spent over 1,500 hours training others in project management.