This article was published on July 22, 2018

My team used to suck at meetings, but now people are begging us to share our secret sauce

My team used to suck at meetings, but now people are begging us to share our secret sauce
Tony Scherba
Story by

Tony Scherba

Tony Scherba is the president and a founding partner of Yeti LLC, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco. Yeti par Tony Scherba is the president and a founding partner of Yeti LLC, a product-focused development and design studio in San Francisco. Yeti partners with small teams, either inside larger corporations or run independently, at the early stages of the product development process.

Think you hate meetings? My colleagues and I were so sick of them that we teamed up with Chelsea Handler to build an excuse generator. Can you guess what one of the main use cases was? Getting out of meetings.

For years, our team’s meetings didn’t move us forward; they were “party meetings” that threw wrenches into projects. At best, we’d brainstorm, socialize, and draft a few action items. Agendas were absent, and more people than necessary were present. Deadline discussions often devolved into finger-pointing.

In fact, the phobia my team and I had of meetings is pretty common. Of the 2,000 individuals polled by Clarizen and Harris, 18 percent said they’d rather be at the DMV than sit through another status meeting. More than one in three said that meetings are nothing short of wasted time. 

But for our team, the problem wasn’t the meetings themselves; it was our meetings. Now, our meetings are so productive that clients actually pay us to teach them our secrets.

What changed? Let’s just say it started with a little “wagility.” 

How we accidentally learned to love meetings

“Wagile” was our firm’s attempt to shore up the drawbacks of waterfall, a development framework we used as a small company that calls for cascading design, development, validation, and iteration stages.

Our plan was to transition to agile, a more modern, respected methodology involving two-week design and development cycles called “sprints” because we’d heard it would help us work more quickly. 

Sure, breaking out work into two-week sections brought some benefits. Shorter, function-based projects provided a nice balance of speed and flexibility. But our customers? They weren’t so smitten.

To them, the process felt like a waterfall project with less accountability. We brought in project managers, which helped, but it created a new problem. When we’d meet, the developers and designers felt like their input wasn’t welcome.

We knew we needed to tweak our approach. Wagile had increased our work pace, but it had also killed long-term strategic thinking and created misalignment between our team and our clients.

We searched high and low but ended up finding the answer right in front of us. At the time, we were implementing the EOS/traction method, which emphasizes regular staff check-ins and prescribes a regular “meeting pulse” to help the organization zoom in and out at appropriate times rather than get hung up on one perspective. 

While my team and I had started doing this internally, we weren’t providing this regular communication and long- and short-term thinking to our clients. And that, we realized, was the missing piece of the puzzle.

Our clients — executives — are all about this sort of high-vision thinking. They also, however, need to have a team that is accountable and communicative because they are held responsible for the end result.

In our experience, agile, while great for development teams, rarely plays well with an executive’s long-term vision. To keep everything aligned around the executive’s vision, we added a management layer atop agile’s sprints and scrums.

The difference has been night and day. No more directionless meetings. No teams of micromanaging project managers. No going weeks without status updates and demonstrable progress. Just a more structured, alignment-focused approach, which we like to call “applied agile.”

Meet the right kinds of meetings

Applied agile doesn’t require a large team, nor does it take away from any of agile’s core tenets. However, it does keep the team accountable and aligned with product stakeholders.

All this, you might ask, from measly meetings? Trust me, these aren’t just any meetings. Applied agile prescribes a series of regular, purposeful meetings to keep projects on track, minimizing the total time cost, and providing decision makers with the information they need.

Now, we kick projects off with a meeting that includes all stakeholders to set expectations and develop a communication strategy. Then, we set up two sprints to plan and prototype the product, which help us spot key stumbling blocks before building. We spend one getting acquainted with the end user and the other putting together conceptual proofs and validating risky assumptions.

Each meeting happens in a regular cadence and has a set agenda. That way, all team members know what’s going on, and decisions can be made transparently. Plus, nobody in the company is told how long a task should take. Our teams play “points poker” to electively decide the weight of a task.

They are then accountable to complete it in that amount of time. Our team feels less burnt out, more productive, and more heard. I’ve also seen that our executive sponsors, meanwhile, feel confident that their projects are on track.

Now, our teams can create new versions of products on a weekly basis — with just three meetings. After those, Applied Agile’s only meetings are alignment workshops, in which we periodically relay progress between development teams and executives.

With a few strategic meetings focused on different levels of granularity, we’ve solved everything from our alignment ailment to our pace problem. We like to think of these meetings as the drumbeat of our company. They are short and effective, but they provide a rhythm that keeps us rocking through client work.

Our clients have started singing along, too. In fact, one of them told us he gained even more value from the way these meetings drive our process than the product we helped his team deliver. We look at our process as our product, so we took that as a big compliment.

Yes, meetings without a purpose suck — Cameron Herold even wrote a book about it. But even Herold accepts that meetings are necessary. They don’t have to be soul-sucking corporate vampires, though. In fact, with a little structure and strategic planning, meetings can make all the difference. 

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