running a status meeting

This post contains my recommendations to help you run a highly productive status meeting. In Part 2 of this series, I will outline exactly how I use Instant Agenda to make this easier and even more productive. You have probably been in a few status meetings if you’ve been a part of any sizable project, program, or product development effort. There are plenty of descriptions that outline what a status meeting is and how to run one.

Personally, nearly every status meeting I have ever attended was a moderate to severe waste of time. I believe this is because people fundamentally misunderstand what makes a good meeting, and how to run one. They often get some of the nuts and bolts right, but misunderstand the core strengths and weaknesses of meetings.
Meetings are (usually) a miserable format for providing or communicating information. We have a word for this, and that word is “presentation”, not “meeting”. There are rare occasions when presenting material is very effective (think TED talks). Presenting what Red Team did last week…not so much. Far too often, meetings are used for presenting information. What’s more, those presentations are typically poorly prepared, poorly executed, rambling stories that leave people with more questions than understanding.
Meetings ARE an excellent activity when you have a group of passionately engaged, highly informed people who need to resolve problems, make decisions, or adjust their alignment to shared goals. In-person (or virtual) meetings are extremely high-bandwidth and low-latency. When everyone is highly informed and mutually engaged, you can make more progress in one hour meeting than you could in 10 hours of emails or team chat.
“The key mistake people make, particularly regarding status meetings, is that they spend most of the time presenting, and far too little time solving, deciding, and taking action.”
I’ve detailed why it’s hard to consistently run great meetings. One of the key mistakes people make, particularly regarding status meetings, is that they spend most of the time presenting, and far too little time solving, deciding, and taking action. This behavior often causes a lot of lost time. The time is lost due to people trying to clarify and make sense of what was presented. The end result is very little time is left in the meeting to solve problems or make decisions. In order to “speed things up” the most valuable part of the meeting (deliberation and problem solving) gets cut short and is kicked down the road to additional meetings.

 The Foundation of a Status Meeting: KPIs 

When it comes to status, one of the great sources of frustration and wasted time arises from the fact that many projects or groups have not agreed on reliable KPIs. Progress and status are often judged in terms of “percent complete” or other nebulous measures. I am not arguing that there is a perfect set of measures – only that the organization must agree on them, and that they must have been established as reliable for that organization.
The reason this KPI foundation is key for productive status meetings is that, without it, much of the discussion revolves around “reading the tea leaves”. That is, the metrics are ambiguous and not agreed on so people spend time debating and interpreting the metrics rather than solving problems. Even if you can get agreement, that agreement usually takes too long and relies too heavily on narrative spin.
A good test of your organization is whether any discussion or presentation is required for a group to establish a shared understanding of high-level status. If the answer is “yes”, you don’t have a solid foundation.
With this foundational issue out of the way, let’s move on to meetings.

Scheduling a Status Meeting 

Many commentators have argued loudly against regularly scheduled meetings. Given how meetings are typically run, I can certainly understand the angst (most of the problems reported are indeed true). In a small organization, I think it is often possible to do away with regularly scheduled (recurring) meetings. However, I think that this general advice is misguided and misdirected. In medium and large organizations, it is far more effective to have regularly scheduled meetings.
In larger organizations, you have far more people and more dependencies. If you don’t establish regularly scheduled meetings, you make it very disruptive to deal with problems as they come up (you can even kill business agility altogether). In a 10-person organization it is easy to have an impromptu meeting. Setting up a meeting on the spot is not particularly disruptive. In a larger organization, this becomes a huge challenge. People are in different time zones, and have multiple responsibilities. Interrupting them as issues come up is both time-consuming and disruptive for all involved.  
Another major reason to have regularly scheduled meetings is so people can prepare appropriately. In complex environments most problems involve multiple variables. It is rare that a problem can be addressed on the spot without proper preparation. Such an attempt often results in 15 minutes of discussion only to determine that some other person or some other information is needed to proceed.
Encourage attendees to contribute to and comment on the agenda before meeting to ensure preparedness
I favor short, recurring meetings on a fairly frequent cadence. Participants should be able to queue up issues between meetings as they arise. This behavior effectively builds the agenda as you go. Participants should be able to see and interact with this agenda as it builds. They should be able to comment on topics, ask questions, and make suggestions leading up to the meeting. This practice ensures two things. First, it ensures that the topics are well vetted and well understood before the meeting. Second, it ensures that those topics that can be dealt with outside of the meeting are usually resolved off-line.

Preparing for a Status Meeting

The first major step in preparing for a status meeting is ensuring a highly visible dashboard of the organization’s agreed KPI’s. The dashboard data should be generated automatically and objectively from the organizations day-to-day workflow and project tools. When this is true, there is very little reporting or presenting that needs to happen. Everyone can see a high level general status without the need for discussion.
The second step in preparing for a status meeting is to establish a shared, collaborative agenda. This agenda functions as a queue of problems and ideas that require attention. It is not a traditional agenda in which a generic set of topics are fixed in advance. Instead the agenda builds over time in the lead up to the recurring meeting. Participants can review the topics and comment on them between meetings. This allows participants to make observations and ask questions. Much of the “status” communication and clarification occurs before the actual meeting, and some topics may even be completely resolved before the meeting.
The only thing that should be on the agenda when it comes time to meet are outstanding actions, issues, problems, or decisions to be made. A good way to ensure that this happens it is to make sure each topic is written in the form of a question to be answered. If you’ve done it right, most of the groundwork has been prepared. Everyone attending the meeting will be able to jump into a highly productive discussion.
Finally, if there are no such topics remaining on the agenda when the time comes to meet, cancel the meeting.

Starting a Status Meeting

If you followed the previous steps, all the participants of your meeting will arrive prepared for a highly engaging problem-solving session. Here are three key steps I use to open a meeting of this type.

1. Capture Last Minute Topics

It is useful to start by capturing any last-minute topics that could’ve come up. Take just a minute or two to let participants add the additional topics to the agenda. Ideally most of your topics have already been added and vetted, but it is important to collect anything that may have come up just prior to the meeting.

2. Prioritize Topics By Voting

Next, quickly review the available topics and have all participants vote on which they feel are the most urgent or most valuable to address. Your votes will be used to determine the agenda order. We recommend giving each attendee three to five votes. This step is critically important so that the most valuable topics are addressed first. Following this practice ensures that the topics are given the time that they deserve, and that there is ample time to resolve them. This way, if you do run out of time, it is the least valuable topics that are postponed or dropped.

3. Required Topics

Finally, determine if there are any mandatory topics that must precede the voted agenda. This step is not intended to countermand the vote of the group, but rather to address certain topics that must precede the others logistically. A good example might be to review all open action items from the previous meeting session.

Discussion & Facilitation

Now that your agenda is fully prepared, you’re ready to move on to discussing topics. Start the first topic and make sure that everyone understands the desired outcome or goal of the discussion. This discussion should be relatively easy if you have stated the agenda item in the form of a question to be answered. If you have, the outcome is an answer to the question. If you frequently find yourself starting topics that do not have a clear stated outcome, it may mean that you need to spend more time in the preparation phase of meeting.
As a facilitator or moderator of the meeting, it is your job to ensure that discussion generally drives in the direction of the stated outcome. You know you are on the right track when you are recording decisions or action items.
Facilitation is an art form, and the specifics are going to vary by the nature of the issue. For example, brainstorming possible solutions to a problem is a very different activity from deciding between two accepted alternative solutions. The critical point is to keep your eye on the desired outcome and steer discussion in that direction.
If discussion bogs down, it is often because the participants don’t have the necessary information. Check in with the group frequently by asking, “Can we move to action or decision on this topic, or do we need to take it off-line to get more information?”  Regardless of the response, you have just moved towards taking an action!
The other major roadblock to progress results from fundamental value disagreements. If such a disagreement is uncovered, it is unlikely to be resolved during the course of meeting. The best approach is to take that discussion off-line, and then reevaluate how you will make a decision. Some of the individuals involved may need additional time to understand each other’s perspectives.

Use a Topic Timer

One of the great mistakes with most status meetings is that people either set a fixed time for topics or don’t use a timer at all. Either one of these approaches has negative consequences. Most of the discussions in a problem-solving meeting have a natural flow that requires a flexible approach. However, you don’t want them completely open-ended either.

The best solution it is to prioritize your topics as described above and then set a short timebox to start the topic (for example, five or ten minutes). The timer helps keep everyone focused. When the timer runs out, take a quick vote on whether there is value in continuing the discussion. Add more time if the group wants to continue. If a majority votes to stop discussion before the desired outcome is reached, ask someone to take an action item to figure out next steps to move the topic forward offline. In most cases, the issue has come down to one or two people who must settle a few details – you don’t need to take everyone’s time for this.

Essentially, you’re using frequent check-ins to manage your time. This keeps everyone moving towards the goal and also makes it obvious when you are not making forward progress. 

Timeboxing is a great way to ensure your discussion stays on track. Start with a short timebox and adjust as needed after checking in with your team.

Collaborative Notes, Action Items and Decisions

It is extremely useful to take notes, create action items, and make decisions in a visible way. You can share your screen, project on a wall, or use a virtual meeting tool. The shared visibility helps keep everyone engaged, and prevents you from missing important items. Meeting participants will often suggest corrections or clarifications to notes.

Wrap Up

Eventually you run out of time or finish all of your topics. Do not run discussion right up to the last minute. Save time to close the meeting well and clarify next steps. If there are topics that you didn’t get to, establish how are you will handle them. Perhaps a subgroup can meet to resolve the topics or you can wait until the next scheduled session.

Conclusion

A properly run status meeting should be very focused and engaging. No tangents. No presentations. As a last thought, it’s worth noting an underlying assumption of everything I’ve written so far. A good status meeting is not about reporting status upward. Reporting status upward should happen automatically “off-line”. This off-line upward status report is a result of your agreed upon and reliable KPIs that are available via dashboard or information radiator. The true function of a status meeting is for all players involved to resolve issues and collectively move a project forward. While managers may be present and contribute to this process, it should not be a process of “reporting up”. If you find yourself consistently meeting to report status to management, it speaks of a deeper cultural issue that is beyond the scope of this article.
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Michael Ball

Co-founder, Product Lead at Instant Agenda
Michael was born a squalling, helpless MVP and has struggled ever since to obtain product-market fit. Experiments have included Peace Corps volunteer, ops engineer, scrum master, product owner, agile coach, husband, father, armchair philosopher, and, most recently, lean startup founder. Michael is still working on his exit-strategy, but his earliest angel investors seem generally proud of his accomplishments.
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