Leadership, Software Development, Tech Industry, &c

What Color Are Your Staff Meetings?

Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of being part of a few teams: development teams, architecture teams, management teams.  I’ve also been privileged to manage a few teams of my own.  In my experience, I’ve seen that staff meetings tend to fall within two distinct styles or “colors”, and of course there’s room for many intermediate shades as well.  In this post, I outline the styles and make the case for my favorite meeting color.

The Status-Centered Staff Meeting

In one well-known style of staff meeting, the team leader brings along an agenda of work items she wants to follow up with the team.  The items may belong to specific individual members, to sub-teams within the team, or in some cases even to the entire team.  The leader then goes over the items, one by one, and the entire team listens as each item’s owners provide status updates on it.  At times, a “round” will take place where each team member is given a turn to provide feedback on their relevant items or raise other issues as needed.

There are many advantages to the status-centered staff meeting.  For the leader, in particular, it is highly convenient to count on the entire team being available at the same place and time every week in order to go through important work in progress.  This can be a boon if everyone has a busy, hard-to-sync week and there are many open loops to follow up – especially if they are important, but not particularly urgent (those would require more frequent follow-ups).  The status-centered staff meeting is also a valuable way to build and share knowledge about the job: if all members in the team carry out similar duties, or if they have to collaborate between them substantially to accomplish their job, the staff meeting becomes a natural place to learn and share best practices among team members as part of their weekly ritual.

Despite its advantages and its being appropriate in some settings, this is not my favorite shade of staff meeting.

The Non-Status-Centered Staff Meeting

Instead, when I’ve had the chance to lead a new team, I begin by telling them that I’d like to consider our staff meeting a special time.  A time with as little disruption from “the world out there” as possible.  A place where we can leave our mental footwear at the door, think comfortably, and generally feel relaxed and separated for a while from the daily grind – just enough to think about that grind and how to carry it out better.

Perhaps this stems from leading high intensity teams throughout my career.  Developer teams.  IT project teams.  Solution delivery teams.  Teams with a very active and dynamic day-to-day.  Where most of us will have instinctively (and, for me as the leader, thankfully) settled on rapid-fire email and IM as our preferred method to communicate among us.  In those settings, the realities the team faces day to day will all but ensure we keep tabs on each other and on all important work items and open loops.  If left unchecked, the same realities will ensure that strategical thinking, process improvement, organizational climate issues, and many other types of work that are not directly related to the daily bread and butter of the team, either move forward at a glacial pace or don’t move at all.

But There’s Life Beyond Staff Meetings!

You could argue that good leaders make time for these things.  That just as the team doesn’t have to limit themselves to the staff meeting to follow up issues, they can also meet at any other time to deal with issues that don’t relate directly to their chief raison d’être.

And I’d say that is true.  But judging from my experience, and from what I’ve heard and read about countless other teams and organizations, the trend seems to point elsewhere.  “The cobbler’s children have no shoes”.  “There’s never time to do it right, but there’s always time to do it twice”.  The team is so busy working for their stakeholders that they can barely catch a breath to deal with many other issues – a dynamic that also dominates the staff meeting and many other contacts between the leader and her team.

Perhaps I’ve painted too bleak a situation.  Perhaps not everyone feels they barely have time to think about improving the way they work and not simply going at it.  Even if “barely catch a breath” doesn’t resonate with you, try to measure how much time you devote to BAU issues as opposed to the other kind of issues.  Chances are high the proportion will be lopsided concerning the latter type of tasks.  Indeed, I’d say that’s one strong reason modern organizations deal with training and consulting the way they do: as rather big, special, externally-driven events (many times, both people- and location-wise).

What About Shades Of Gray?

I didn’t read it.  It’s not my type of book.  Oh, right – staff meetings.  I’m sorry, I veered off as I heard Sally repeat the same key points as last week about her challenging, seemingly-stalled, multi-year project.

In all seriousness, though, of course there are hybrid staff meetings.  Many times, a leader will bring along valuable information that’s pertinent for the entire team (notoriously, the most juicy bits from the leader’s last staff meeting with her own boss).  Staff meetings may be the setting par excellence to ensure crucial information that must travel down the hierarchy gets properly communicated, discussed and/or understood.  They are also excellent settings to enhance the work and social dynamics of the team, by virtue of small celebrations of important milestones and achievements, or sharing a treat over a team member’s birthday, or simply a seasonal celebration.  These types of activities should feature more or less regularly on your staff meetings, regardless of whether status constitutes their core essence.

Nor am I advocating an “ivory tower” style of staff meeting, where status reports or absolutely everything that smells of day-to-day minutia is rigorously banned, in order to better wax poetic about seemingly interesting or important topics at the expense of proper management and execution focus.  If you plan to leave out status reports as the core item of your staff’s agenda, let it be because you’ve assembled a sensible list of items that you need the team to think about and work on together above and beyond daily duties.  Change management.  New paradigms.  Organizational structure.  Processes, conventions, policies.  Personnel issues.  Human or professional growth (such as reading together).

I know a lot of you will tell me that these things feature regularly in your otherwise mostly status-oriented staff meetings – you make room for them “as needed”.  You may not think or talk about it like this, but in practice that usually comes across me as though you had to apologetically push through a myriad urgent things to look after, in order to make room for what in the end you’ll agree is the really important stuff you “wish you had more time to address”.

I’d rather look at it the other way around.  The really important stuff is developing the team.  Casting the vision.  Bringing us all there.  Raising the level at which we perform together.  That’s what staff meetings are for.  Reality will find a way to creep in – make it fight hard to earn a spot in that place, lest it encroaches and smothers it, just like it tends to do with the rest of your time all week long.

While I may be biased due to the nature of my jobs so far and the level I’ve reached, it actually excites me that I’d like to believe as one moves up the ladder, the teams' essence and dynamics rely a lot more on having this kind of interaction (seeing the forest as opposed to the trees) in an ever more focused and intentional way.

I’d love to hear about you.  What is your staff meetings' color?