Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Things I promise to never do in a meeting

One of the things I like about working as a Business Analyst is that, in the right environment, there is quite a bit of variation in the actual work I do. So much so, that when people ask me "what does a BA do?" my usual answer is "it depends on who's hiring me." Depending on the nature of the contract, I might be involved in some early stage requirements gathering, researching options for new software or a website, putting together a tender, writing up Business Requirements and/or Functional Specifications or maybe coming in towards the end of a project to write user documentation and/or help with implementation.

One of the things I am often called on to do is run workshops or meetings to work with users to develop business requirements. The internet is a wealth of information for running effective meetings (Google is my co-pilot) and I frequently search out new ideas. My current contract was no exception so when I was planning some meetings I looked online for some ideas on how to structure the sessions.

I found one particular guide on a number of UK government websites. It seemed aimed more at community groups than corporate bodies but there were some useful tips. The full guide ran to about 10 pages and as I worked my way through it I started to notice something a little odd about the tone that was developing.

It seemed to have been written by a passive-aggressive hippy.

There was a lot of the expected touchy-feely, positive atmosphere, support everyone vibe. But every now and then I think the author let a little more of their inner psyche show than they intended. There were recurring warnings about trouble makers ("watch body language", "Note digressions and remind members to stay on task", "Guide members who speak a great deal to be briefer"). And every time the author gave a suggestion for what to say to a troublemaker, the comment was always directed at a female. I'm sure the author would say they were simply being gender inclusive but I couldn't help thinking there might be some... issues behind this.

Then we come to the part that made me really think the author was a hippy: make everything FUN! This isn't a completely terrible idea but it ended up getting more than a little overdone. Apparently, if you start each meeting with something fun, people will come on time because they don’t want to miss the fun part of the meeting. Silly me, I try to make meeting relevant and concise to encourage people to come. This advice was followed up with some real doozies. The "ideas for launches and fun" went like this:

  • Sing your name and have the group sing it back to you.

I stared at this suggestion for a full minute. Seriously. If I ever do this in a meeting, someone stab me in the eye, please. Because I'll sure as hell do it to anyone who sings their name at me.

  • Break into small groups and do a mime skit about an agenda item.

Oh my god. All I could think of was that the group would be more likely to be plotting ways to murder the meeting presenter.

  • Become someone else, mime it and have people guess.

"You're a moron." "You're an escapee from a mental institution." "No, I've got it, you're a brain damaged weasel."

  • Sing and dance the song, the hokey pokey

Personally, I'd start a conga line right out the door at this point.

  • Do a weather report on how you are feeling. "Sunny and warm. Cloudy with chance of grumpiness..."

I am a tornado. You are a trailer park.

  • Dress up in costume and make a story about the history of an agenda item.

What the hell? If I get a meeting request asking me to bring along a costume, I'm staying the hell away.

  • Have everyone write their middle name on a piece of paper then try to guess what name belongs to whom.

I would conspire with the others so that everyone wrote "dildo" and then every time we'd guess it was the presenter's middle name.

  • Have everyone write something about themselves nobody knows then try and guess who wrote what.

Again, I would conspire with the group. This time we would all write "I'm going to kill the presenter before the end of the meeting."

So much for fun. Another good piece of advice was "praise people twice as much as you criticise them." My previous, obviously misguided, strategy was to not criticise people at all if I could avoid it but with this advice under my belt I was free to go "Excellent point Bob, thanks for sharing... Wonderfully illustrated Bob, thanks for that... Shut the hell up Bob, you're a moron."

If anyone is looking for serious advice on running meetings, here's mine. Plan it out. Know what you need to achieve. Set an agenda and stick to it. Make sure everyone attending knows ahead of time what's expected from them and what you're aiming to get out of the meeting. There are times when you need to get creative to keep people engaged, particularly with longer sessions (anything over two hours needs serious planning and some variety). But whenever possible, keep it simple. Cut the bullshit and people will thank you for it.

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