“Half (of the meetings I attend) are completely bizarre and accomplish nothing except bewildering me as to why people don’t run out screaming.” That’s a real quote from a real person about real meetings. Yes, it’s sad. It showed up in an informal survey I did some time ago. Folks told me they spend approximately 40 per cent of their time in meetings, a number consistent with data Perlow, Hadley and Eun found in their 2017 Harvard Business Review Article, “Stop the Meeting Madness.” The authors also found that:
– 71% felt that meetings waste their time
– 65% said meetings keep them from doing their real work
– 66% claim meetings inhibit spending time on deep thinking
Calculate the hard cost of bringing minds together to explore issues, make decisions and plan action. It’s often thousands of salary dollars for a one-hour meeting. (And that doesn’t count travel, doughnuts or the opportunity cost when we delay getting to our other work.)
Then ponder another response, from my survey. “We can’t make decisions or agree on priorities. So, we have the same meeting over and over. Literally, the same meeting.”
Imagine if every meeting you went to felt like a good investment of your time. It can happen. Good facilitation enables conversations that lead to good decisions. It requires planning – a whole lot more than finding a conference room and sending out a meeting notification.
The first step is identifying the purpose of the meeting, the desired outcome. That leads you to determine who needs to be there – really – and what they need to provide or do. How will you engage people? How will you gather information, analyze it, decide what to do and follow up? All this should be planned before the meeting.
That’s Plan A. You’ll need a Plan B, too, since humans are involved. And you’ll need to be ready to change your plans. Still, to go into meeting a without a plan is almost guaranteed to be a time waster. The more thought and time you invest in planning the meeting, the more relevant and useful the discussion will be – for you and for the participants.
Given that today’s working environment requires collaboration, teamwork and communication, learning to facilitate well may be the most important skill for the 21st century. A facilitator doesn’t do magic. It just looks that way.
+++++++ At It’s Understood Communication, we care about facilitation. Facilitation Skills for the Agile Workplace is a two-day workshop that offers a solid foundation in facilitation, including using visual thinking to build clarity and understanding. Ellen Grove and Sue Johnston are offering it in downtown Toronto, May 6-7, 2019. There are still a few spots left. To learn more and register, visit nobadmeetings.ca At that site, you can also download a PDF copy of our Facilitation Planning Canvas.
There’s an old saying, rooted in journalism, that a picture is worth 1,000 words. While we might ask for scientific evidence or challenge the math, most people agree that visuals add enormously to our understanding of things. Humans drew pictures before they developed written language.
And graphics still convey much important information in our physical world.The visual cortex is the largest system in the human brain – and half the brain is devoted to processing visual information. So it makes sense to supplement our messages with visual information. There are communicators, myself included, who believe we should adapt the Media Richness Theory, which puts face-to-face communication at the top of the scale for conveying information, to add a higher level, face-to-face with a whiteboard.
All this has led to the evolution and growing popularity of visual facilitation, in which we create images, in real time, to stimulate, focus, enhance and record a discussion. You don’t need to be particularly good at drawing to do this well. The key skill, according to experts, is listening. Sound familiar? That’s the key skill for coaches, facilitators, communicators, product owners, user experience experts and, well, pretty much anyone in a leadership role.
How does visual facilitation help meeting participants?
- Visuals add to their understanding. With more neural tissue devoted to vision than anything else, you stimulate more of people’s brains with images. They also understand faster. We read images faster than we read text. We “get the picture” with just a glance.
- They’ll remember more of what was discussed. Not only will visual stimulation enhance understanding, it will improve retention and recall. People remember what they see.
- They stay on track. Drawing the discussion encourages focus and prevents people from getting lost in the weeds. If the meeting is about the weeds, that’s a different drawing.
- They may see patterns. As you capture the flow of the discussion, you or the participants may see patterns emerge that might not be noticed with traditional note taking. The picture can depict the flow of ideas, process or products as well as connections between them and their impact on people and things.
- They can see what has been covered in the discussion. Better still, they can clearly see their input has been captured.
- They stay interested longer. Images are just more fun than lists on flip charts. So people will pay attention for longer.
How does visual facilitation help me, as a meeting facilitator?
- You get people’s attention. It’s a big shift from powerpoint, note taking or capturing ideas in an online tool.
- You can capture emotion. Your illustrations can move beyond cold facts and depict the concerns, feelings and reactions of people involved in the discussion.
- You can help people focus on the key elements. What you draw is what they will pay attention to.You don’t have to cover old territory. People can see what has been discussed.
- You can use the finished drawings to share the story with people who were not at the meeting.
You don’t need to be able to draw!
There’s a “visual vocabulary” that anyone can learn. One of this is “bikablo,” a method that emerged in Europe and has caught on worldwide. You master basic techniques for simple illustrations that you can mix. match, adapt and use to tell the story of your meeting. (Leanintuit is bringing bikablo training to Canada – November 27-28. See below for registration details!)
Other ideas to explore:
- Teach your team members to express themselves visually. It encourages collaboration when you all draw together. It’s also a way to engage quiet people and those whose first language is not the team’s working language.
- Attract people to your booth at conferences or trade shows. It will immediately make you stand out from the crowd because something is happening live and in person.
- Capture the proceedings from conference sessions. That way people can see what happened in the concurrent sessions they missed. Or they can gather at the recording of the keynote talk and discuss particular elements. (This graphic, by Sam Bradd, depicts a keynote session I attended at a Communitech conference. A great reminder of Susan Cain’s excellent talk.)
- Create your own illustrations for your presentation slides. This can save you hours of searching through stock image sites. When you create it yourself, you get exactly what you want.
- Draw your presentation. Jeff Patton (see image) and Dave Gray, leaders the agile and user experience communities, respectively, use overhead projectors and sketch out their presentations while they talk. Super engaging!
Training in Toronto – November 27-28
If you can get to Toronto for a couple of days at the end of November, you have a unique opportunity to learn visual facilitation from the best. We’ve invited Andrea Rawanschad, of the bikablo academie , in Cologne, Germany, to return to Canada and run a second two-day workshop. The first Canadian session, earlier this fall, sold out quickly and was a hit with participants. For those who couldn’t attend the first session – or didn’t know about it – we’ll be gathering in downtown Toronto on November 27 and 28. With a maximum of 12 people in the class, there are just a few spots left, so don’t delay. To learn more and register for this unique experience, follow this link.
If you have questions – contact me.
Face-to-face communication is the most powerful business tool we will ever have. So why don’t we use it more often? Or more effectively? Or more consciously?
For over a decade, I’ve been encouraging people to get out from behind their tools and technologies and talk to each other. People nod vigorously. Then they send off an e-mail with a .ppt attached. Or they type something into Jira and feel the product user’s needs are well described. Maybe they post a Tweet, hoping the right people will read it. Have you ever said, “Yes, I talked to [Whomever],” then recall later that what you actually did was correspond in Slack? Tools can fool us into thinking we’re communicating.
Tools create contact. They can also share certain kinds of information. That is all. We mustn’t confuse that with connection, communication, conversation, dialogue or real interaction that leads to fresh ideas or new ways of working. Yet we do. We see a situation that will create a problem for our project and we send a memo. We need executive support for an initiative and we give them a PowerPoint. We would rather type than talk.
When we use text, whether it’s paper, email, text messages or something else, we may be transmitting information, but not necessarily communicating. Even when we actually are together, we can fail to communicate. Are your meetings a series of broadcast monologues? “I did this yesterday. I’m working on this today. Nothing’s blocking me.” Or do people actually talk about the work they are doing together?
The first value of the Agile Manifesto for software development emphasizes “individuals and interactions over processes and tools.” The meaning of the world “interaction” is a mutual or reciprocal action. In its scientific meaning, it’s a situation in which two or more objects or events act upon one another to produce a new effect. That’s the sort of thing that can happen in a good conversation.
But it’s easy to be distracted by our tools and processes. Maybe it’s because these are things we can measure. Are we having daily stand-up meetings? Tick the box. Retrospectives after every sprint? Tick again. All user stories in the system? Another tick. Tools and ceremonies are useful in creating good work, but they are not going to substitute for a conversation. At best, they can provide a reason to talk. We say, “A user story is an invitation to a conversation.” Do we truly understand what that means?
The Media Richness Theory, developed in corporate communications in the mid-1990s, ranks communication methods according to how well they reproduce the information sent through them. Face-to-face communication sits at the top. When we’re talking together, we have the benefit of emotional and social cues, through body language and tone. Importantly, we also have a very short feedback loop. We know, at once, if our message has been received. We also have the opportunity to ask for and provide clarification and confirm understanding.
More recently, Alistair Cockburn created a similar model, based on his own observations on projects. Modified, first by Scott Ambler, later by Chris Chan, it suggests that having a meaningful visual depiction of the information adds even more richness.
A conversation at a white board, for example, can provide even more meaningful conversation than conversation alone. We have all the richness of a face-to-face conversation with the additional ability to visualize and manipulate information as we discuss it.
Some of the most productive conversations are those that are well facilitated. A good facilitator creates a container for thinking together and makes it safe for people to express their ideas. Facilitation provides enough structure to engage people and enough freedom for them to be creative. It encourages full participation and ensures the outcome of the discussion is “owned” by the group and can be implemented. While it often falls to the agile coach or scrummaster, facilitation can be anyone’s job. Helping people talk together is a learnable skill that will increase in value as teamwork and cross-functional collaboration become the norm.
Can we recover the art of conversation? Generations of thinkers and writers have moaned that conversation is becoming a “lost art.” There’s new evidence that it’s true. The most recent call to action comes from Sherry Turkle in her 2015 book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age (Penguin Press, New York). A sociologist, psychologist and MIT professor, she’s been observing the impact of technology on society for over 30 years. She contends that our tools, particularly our “always on” mobile devices, are limiting our ability to hold meaningful, impactful conversations.
We can rediscover and recover this dying art by reminding ourselves of the importance, impact and value of real conversation as a workplace tool – and then doing something about it. We can recognize our tech tools and processes for what they are – processes and tools. We can use them for their intended purposes – but not indulge in the illusion that we are interacting when we use them. Step away from the screens, apps and devices. Step towards the white board with someone who matters. Can we talk? You bet!
In case you missed it: Can we talk? Getting back to conversation – Part 1
Yesterday, at Agile Coach Camp Canada, I had the privilege of leading a group conversation about taking care of yourself as a coach.
The Big Idea is like the instruction flight attendants give us, “If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask first, and then assist the other person.” As coaches – or as anyone – we don’t have much to give others if we don’t take care of ourselves.
The coaches who gathered for the session agreed that people attracted to the work of helping others often put our own needs behind those of our teams and our organizations. That habit can result in fatigue, stress, and burnout. It impacts relationships both at work and at home.
Here’s the list we built in the conversation:
What can we do to take care of ourselves?
Notice when you’re feeling depleted.
Show yourself some compassion.
Give yourself some space.
– Close the door
– Go for a walk – preferably outside, in a pleasant place
– Physical activity – “I bike to work.”
– Announce it, in a light way. “I let the team know I may be a bit of a Grumpus today.”
Do something you enjoy and are good at
– “I do some real, individual coaching. That lets me see I’m making a difference. It’s almost like a gift to myself.”
Use your network
– “I call another coach and I know I’m not in this alone.”
– “I get coached myself. It’s time I have to focus on me.”
Make your work and success visible
– Personal kanban
– Read your fan mail
– List your successes
– Find a win, however small
Spend some time in reflection
– Mindfulness practice
Let people know what’s fun for you
– yours and others
– “Accept that our work is messy and it’s a journey.”
Say “no” to more work
– “If you can’t say “No” then your “Yes” can turn into a “Maybe” ”
– “I’d rather disappoint you now, with a “No,” than disappoint you later by being unreliable.”
– Think of things you’re grateful for
– Practise thanking – and accepting thanks
– Appreciate it when others thank you – and show it
– Savour the kudos
Know your purpose and only do what’s aligned with that
Spend some time just doing nothing
– “The brain needs to rest just like any muscle.”
– More hugs
One in our group, Gitte Klitgaard, was on her way to a tech conference in New York where her talk was “Stress and Depression – The Taboo and What We Can Do About It.” A link to an earlier version of that talk is at vimeo.com/106927863
Our conversation reminded us that we need to recognize we’re human and show ourselves the empathy and compassion we show our teams and coaching clients.
Note: If you are an agile coach and have never been to an Agile Coach Camp, plan on attending one when you can. They are impossible to describe and they are amazing. There’s one, this weekend, in Calgary, Alberta and one coming up in Washington, DC, August 1st.
Agile is like keeping your balance when someone rocks the boat.
Every few weeks, someone I know learns what I’m up to and asks, “Who are these ‘agile coaches’ you work with?” So I try to explain. It’s not easy. But I love trying.
First I have to explain what ‘agile’ is. “It’s like the real meaning of the adjective,” I suggest. “Quick, co-ordinated, flexible, nimble. It’s like not losing your balance when the boat rocks. When we’re agile in our lives and businesses, we can adapt to changing circumstances.” They get that. They want that. We all do.
One of the businesses that’s wanted to be adaptive forever – or at least since the ’80s, when I first worked in it – is software development. In 2001, a gathering of industry luminaries set out four values and 12 principles they believed would help create better software. Today, the Agile Manifesto and Agile Principles are touchstones for thousands of teams around the world working to create products. And not just software. Marketers, HR folk, medical people and others are exploring agile methods in a bid to create better work and better workplaces.
The big deal with the Agile Manifesto is that it values people over process. In a world of unrelenting demand for things to be better, faster and cheaper, people issues plunged to the bottom of the priority pool. Processes, metrics and tools rose to the top. These are attractive to humans. We’re wired to seek predictability in times of uncertainty. These are tangible things we can see, measure and fool ourselves into thinking we can control.
People stuff, on the other hand, is untidy, unpredictable, uncomfortable. We don’t even pretend we can control people. Those who try, fail miserably. What might have worked in the industrial society, or even for our dads, will not float with today’s work force.
Meet the agilists
So along come these people who’ve adopted that agile, “people first” mind set. They talk about experimentation, self-organizing teams, collaboration, learning from failure. They deliver value to customers incrementally and often. No waiting for years for products with every imaginable feature in place, whether or not customers still want them. Agilists point to places where they’ve introduced new ways of working that discourage firefighting, last-minute heroics and adrenaline addiction and, instead, promote sane work practices. Sometimes, the agile mindset and practices can help companies bring better products to market sooner and at less cost. The evidence is there. Better work. Better workplaces. Better workers. Better products. Better service.
Their daily meetings are super short, more because they’re focused on what needs to happen next than because they don’t use chairs. Premises Department does not understand this. Agilists put sticky notes all over the walls. They may even write on the windows. More confusion for Premises. And for anyone else who doesn’t quite get what’s going on with “those funny people on the third floor.”
Some people take to these new ways of working like tadpoles take to water. Still, most take time to adapt to new roles and ways of working. The old notions of power and status seem as old-fashioned and just plain wrong as smoking on an airplane, but the habits aren’t easy to break.
- Project managers, used to giving people directions, are now being asked to “take it to the team.” Charts full of wild-ass guesses (WAGs) about what would be built when and long, boring status meetings have given way to Post-It notes on whiteboards and walk-by meetings. Many have been directed to coach rather than direct people. For some, “Coach” sounds like “Ouch!”
- Developers, once happy solving design puzzles and process problems all alone, checking in their code after long periods of time, can be uncomfortable when asked to co-ordinate tightly with others. Sometimes, they even share a computer and write code as a pair. For some, that’s exciting. For others, not so much.
- Product owners, folks from the business side, are charged with deciding what gets built first and next and after that. Once upon a time, they had sticks known as Requirements Documents and Work Schedules to shake at the project managers, whom they saw only at status meetings and communicated to with documents. Now they’re part of the development team and even have desks far, far away from their marketing department homeland.
- Managers, once believing they were “in control” of things, now wonder where they fit into the new framework of self-organizing teams and product that emerges a slice at a time.
Enter the agile coaches
Agile coaches are among the most interesting and fun people you will ever meet. They live the agile values and practise the principles. Their job is to help people make sense of the new ways of working – and then support teams as they work that way. They have process smarts, content smarts and a knack for combining those to bring out the best in people and teams.
In one day, they may facilitate several meetings, train a team in a new process or tool, mentor a new team member, coach a team that feels it’s losing momentum as well as one one that wants to sustain momentum or accelerate. They may coach an individual with a professional or interpersonal challenge and have a conversation with someone from another department to remove a roadblock for their team. Their days are full of surprises.
In becoming agile coaches, one of the biggest shifts they have to make is to be comfortable transforming from the person with the answers to the person with the questions. Coaching – whether agile coaching or life and business coaching – relies on questions. Being curious is as useful as being smart – sometimes more so.
So how did I get mixed up with these people?
Friends in the project management world invited me to tag along to an Agile Coach Camp and I went. I rode in on my high horse ready to do battle. As a highly trained and certified professional coach who had worked in a big coaching school, I wanted to know about these dudes daring to call themselves “coaches.” It took me about five minutes to get over that and fall in love with this community of smart individuals who want to bring out the best in themselves and others.
As I got to know the agile coaches, I learned that the coaching part of their work was where they felt the least confident. That wobbly, untidy people stuff made them uncomfortable. I got to know Lyssa Adkins, author of ‘Coaching Agile Teams,’ founder of the Agile Coaching Institute, one of just a handful of people training agile coaches. “You may not be able to teach them to be agile,” she told me, “but you can teach them to coach.”
So I put together a training program with a big focus on the professional coaching skills, skills I’d practised for 10 years and had taught to others. And people came. And they learned the techniques professional coaches use. And they gained confidence. And they’re out there changing the world, one conversation at a time.
Learn about our distance learning program.
We’ll be introducing an in-person three-day program later in 2015.
When I trained as a coach and was working towards certification, over a decade ago, a lively topic of conversation amongst some of my fellow learners was ATPCTCWDHAC (all those people calling themselves coaches who don’t have a clue). “Anybody who has a life thinks they can be a life coach,” we moaned. “Everyone without a job sets up as a business coach,” we wailed.
As someone who had a life but didn’t have a work permit, to some degree, I fit the profile of the clueless imposter. Still, to me, it seemed that coaching without training was a bit like driving without knowing the rules of the road – possible, but a really bad idea.
It’s true that anyone can call themselves a coach. There’s no requirement to be trained or certified. Some untrained people are fine coaches, just as some with training can be ineffective. No amount of instruction guarantees good performance and no certification can replace experience, empathy and effective communication. On the other hand, no amount of passion, interpersonal skill or drive can replace sound knowledge and time-tested approaches to coaching conversations. Coaching needs a foundation.