Friday, 14 December 2012

How does it feel to say no to meetings and managers?

"Oh no, not another meeting. How will I get my job done if all I do is attend meaningless meetings just to make the managers happy?"
How many times have you had that exact thought over the last month? Can you sum the number of hours you've wasted from that 37-40 you have a week?
My team's answer is 0 and 0 again. Yes, I do have a job and no, I'm not working alone.


While crafting the Next Big Thing, the business people have identified some well framed parts of the system, and several teams started working on distinct features of the product. Each team was living in their own little bubble, doing their best to deliver the feature they were trusted with. Collaborating when and where necessary. The average setup was a handful of devs, some tester minded folks, a business representative, and a manager of some sort, let's call them masters of The Process. Every morning, we had stand-up meetings. Sprint demo and retrospective took place on Wednesdays, and each new sprint started on Thursdays with a planning meeting. We held a story-kickoff meeting with each story we picked up just to make sure we're all on the same page. Everyone was happy, the stories progressed, and the sky was blue, and the world a better place.
It all happened on a not so shiny day, when it struck us. It hit us like an ascending plane hits a fly before his first fly-coffee. It turned out that we have not even scratched the surface of the Thing from the Next Big Thing, and that it should have been done by the time. Done, done, and done correctly.

Now what normally happens when organisations face such problem? They gather around it. Observe it closely and scientifically for a long period of time. Shiny gantt charts hover around them while they point and blame one another to a point where it all goes quiet. They all stare at the problem without a single breath taken. An imaginary light bulb lights up above the group as they come to the same conclusion. Suddenly out of the nothing they start throwing bricks of money at the problem. Solved! Happy days! Did you know that you can fix a flat tire with some notes?
Fortunately the smart people behind the Next Big Thing decided to live up to their names, and be smart. They've appointed 2 guys from 2 different teams to solve it. I was one of the lucky ones, but at the time I didn't feel that this glorious context switch could be remotely connected to being fortunate, and that I will be potentially able to bust a myth. They told us that this is the most important part of the Next Big Thing, and that the Thing must not fail! We will get all the support we need, but we cannot fail. Having said that, we spent the first week of our 8 week time box on meetings to assure managers that we will deliver the Thing. We spent numerous hours by identifying pieces of the puzzle ahead of us and naturally ordering them in the cone of uncertainty. We estimated what we could, and left the ones we couldn't. The Process wasn't like that though. The Process needs a backlog with estimates, and cannot have items without one. We needed to be strong and consequent.

When this small team was assembled, we decided to prove several points. One of this was that The Process is just a guideline offering tools that we could use for our benefit. We chose to use estimates on stories we were confident with, and we didn't use estimates on stories we needed to learn more of. We knew that the closer we get to implementing it, the story would either disappear from our crystal ball, or emerge from it in a much clearer state. We decided to use a Kanban board to visualize our work, and told everyone that our input column is a dynamic backlog, and that anybody could re-order it whenever they want to. These changes alone were quite a shock to The Process, and the best part is yet to come.
It was pretty obvious, that getting things done is more about getting the Thing done than talking about doing the Thing. Since it was important to the company that "the Thing succeeds" (which would've been the correct terminology from the start) we started declining meetings we did not feel important enough. Then we declined all of them.
People were angry with us. Meetings were the way to communicate in an organisation from he beginning of time and suddenly two rebels in the corner started boycotting them. We had to use logic where we felt it is enough, or pure passivity where logic could not win. I will not lie, we did upset some managers. The response we used to explain our way of operating was: "You know where we sit, come and talk to us when you want to. If we have a question, we know where you sit and we'll go and ask you." Some took it well, some didn't. Honestly, we couldn't care less. In couple of weeks of delivering instead of justifying our process, we've managed to lose the managers and the meetings completely. People interested in our work regularly stop by for a chat or an ad hoc demo. Whenever we have to rely on someone else's input, we go and sit with them at their desks, or at the canteen. Casually and focused. Instead of being managed by a manager, we now use them to manage others to our advantages. As a compromise to giving constant progress reports, we agreed to hold a brief 5 minute stand-up each morning with anyone who wanted to attend, only once did someone turn up and then 20 minutes late, we've not had one since.
Now all of the above does not mean that all meetings and managers are evil. We wouldn't have succeeded without having managers who let us experiment in the first place. Their role did not disappear, it only evolved from managing the way we work to managing what we will work on. Sometimes a meeting is inevitable. When you need to align several distant teams, or you only have hold of a valuable asset for a short time frame it might be the best option to get all interested parties together for a few moments. The general rule of thumb is to defer a meeting until it is unavoidable.

What did we learn from this?

Here comes an unordered list of things we observed:

  • Communication is about communication, not ceremonies. People enjoy conversations better than ceremonies. 
  • Meetings tend to be the product of mistrust, therefore they can be avoided by building trust. It seems like the chicken and the egg problem, but the best thing to do is either eliminate the meetings and build trust, or the other way around. 
  • Exchanging organized gatherings to ad hoc discussions results in less time spent more efficiently for less number of people, therefore reducing waste, increasing flow.
  • Uncertainty can be fun. Accepting that we are not sure about something is not a weakness. It sparks discussions, raises flags. Eventually everything will fall into place, once you've started examining the things you know. It turned out that working with uncertainty is more fun than following crystal clear requirements.
  • A team is a group of people who are constantly and directly effected by each-others work. Yuval Yeret used the explanation that "... who say relevant things to each other on standups". This little experiment proved my theory that though synchronous communication (real life conversation) only grows to be an interruption if the goal of the communication differs from the goal of your task. Therefore when a team is solving the same problem, verbal communication between them will unlikely be perceived as an interruption.
  • Defer a meeting until it is unavoidable. Though most meetings turn out to be waste, some are not. Make sure a meeting you attend to has an agenda, and a clear goal.

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