Sometimes holding a meeting is like holding an intervention, where everyone has an agenda - and not necessarily the one you've included in your meeting request! Add to the mix the fact that people are inundated with meeting requests, spending more time in meetings than actually working, and you may wonder how anything gets done at all.
As a business analyst, you will spend a lot of time facilitating all types of meetings. Some of these meetings will only occur for the life of a project, some are one-off or ad hoc meetings, and others will be ongoing. Some meetings will be internal and some will be client facing, while others will be a combination of both. Meetings come in all forms: stand-up meetings, walking meetings, on-site, off-site and even those held outside. Meeting types you might facilitate or participate in, as a BA, include (but are not limited to):
- Process/Product Improvement Meetings
- Brainstorming Meetings/Sessions
- Project Approval Meetings
- Kick-off Meetings
- Elicitation Meetings
- JAD (Joint Application Design) Meetings/Sessions
- Update/Status Meetings
- Enhancement Prioritization Meetings
- Requirements Review & Sign-Off Meetings
- User Acceptance Testing Meetings
- User Training or Train the Trainer Meetings
- Sales/Marketing Meetings
- Project Meetings
- Departmental Meetings
So you can see where developing a skill set around meeting management is essential for the business analyst.
A key factor in efficient, meeting management, is deciding whether you need a meeting at all. In this case the old adage "Time is Money" can be applied. Don't waste peoples' time holding a meeting, if your objective can be obtained by a phone call, email, or a quick visit to someone's office or cube.
If you still need a meeting, check out the following meeting protocols you can use to ensure a productive, focus driven, and streamlined meeting that will keep people engaged.
Before the Meeting
An agenda is a must have in order to ensure a productive meeting. To create the agenda (the list of talking points/objectives), first, determine the overall purpose of the meeting. For example,
- Come up with ideas to create a new product or program
- Improve a customer service process
- Draft a three year product roadmap
- Outline the flow of data for a new intake channel
- Prioritize what application/software enhancements should go in the next release
- Provide a demonstration (e.g. first-look) of application/software features
- Get decisions/sign-off from key stakeholders
Once you've decided what the overall purpose of the meeting is, you can:
- Create a list of topics (discussion points) that need to be discussed.
- Prioritize the list based on importance and/or order in which they need to be discussed.
- From your prioritized list, select the topics that you think can be covered during the meeting (be realistic). Try to keep the agenda focused by only selecting three to four topics. If an agenda item has been assigned to someone, list his/her name and title (in an informal setting, the title may not be necessary) next to that agenda item.
- Optionally, you could add some background information to each agenda item in the the form of sub-bullets or a few sentences/paragraph.
There are other agenda items you should list and allow time for (if applicable):
- Updates - on previously assigned tasks, project progress, etc. Put this item at the top of the agenda. Updates, in general, should be handled in an email and not a meeting. However, for consistency, you as the facilitator can aggregate those updates prior to the meeting and inform everyone that the status of the tasks will appear in the meeting minutes and also quickly mention if there are any issues or problems with completing the tasks or whether in the process of completing them, other tasks have been identified. Keep it short and sweet.
- Unfinished Business - this would be an agenda item(s) that was not completed (e.g. tabled) in a previous meeting and should be at the top of the agenda items for discussion for the current meeting.
- Next Steps - allow some time at the end of the meeting to quickly recap the meeting, review items tabled for the next meeting, review task assignments, review potential topics for the next meeting, and any unplanned business that the participants need to discuss.
The format of an agenda can range from a bulleted list in the meeting request (the most common), to a formatted and/or custom template.
Don't forget to:
- Send any additional documentation, relevant to the meeting, with the agenda and/or ensure that participants have access to any online documentation.
- Give everyone a reasonable amount of lead time to review the documentation.
- Send the agenda with the meeting request, and at least two business days in advance of the meeting, as a reminder.
Having an agenda will not only boost your confidence, by keeping you organized and on topic, it will, also, clearly set expectations and allow participants to be prepared.
Timing is Everything
How much time should you spend on each agenda item? This can be tricky when dealing with external client meetings, but you want to try for that happy medium between getting valid input and those far away looks from participants, wondering what the dog is chewing on at home. There is no hard fast rule, but start with 15 to 20 minutes per agenda item and a total meeting length between 30 to 60 minutes.
Obviously, there will be meetings that will exceed 20 minutes per agenda item and 60 minutes per meeting (for example, an off-site client meeting to gather requirements for a customized software solution), but generally the 20/60 minute limit is a good starting point. Here are some other timing issues to consider:
- Time of day/night - other than participant availability, there are other factors that you should consider when selecting the time for your meeting, such as:
- When are you and/or the participants most productive and easily engaged
- Consider participants living in different time zones, different countries, etc.
- For recurring meetings, create consistency by staying with the same day and time
- Don't schedule (unless absolutely necessary)
- Working lunch meetings. Give your brain a break and people shouldn't talk with their mouths full (some things you can't un-see).
- Meetings that begin late in the day on a Friday or prior to a holiday - people will be disengaged. With one exception - if you are trying to get sign-off or agreement. In that case participants tend to be in a good mood and are more willing to give you what you need, but keep it short.
- Before or after the official workday starts or ends - nothing will kill participation quicker and create resentment, than cutting into someone's personal time. There are exceptions - such as emergency meetings and remote meetings where participants live in different time zones, different countries, etc.
Who you invite and how many you invite, depends largely on your agenda and your objective for each agenda item. Once you've nailed down what you want to achieve in the meeting:
- Make a list of the key people who can help you achieve the meeting objectives.
- From that list determine who, actually, needs to be in the meeting vs. who you can approach prior to the meeting for input and/or who you can notify via email after the meeting.
- Keep the number of attendees as small as possible (such as 5 to 9), while ensuring a good cross-representation of people with varied opinions/input. Smaller groups are easier to coordinate and are more cost effective. If you have ever tried to schedule a meeting based on the availability of 20 people, you already know that smaller is better. When you need input from large groups of people, consider using survey tools as a pre-requisite to the large meeting in order to focus your agenda.
- If you need a decision-maker to attend the meeting and that person is not available for that date/time, you have three options: The preferred option is to, meet separately with the decision-maker and get his/her decision and bring it to the meeting vs. have the decision-maker appoint someone else to make the decision, or rescheduling the meeting.
- Don't invite someone: as a courtesy, because you're afraid not inviting them will offend them, or as a way to keep them in the loop or to inform them. Their may be instances where you'll need to invite someone who is more of a spectator than a participant, but this should be more the exception than the rule.
Like a good party, the mix of people invited can make or break its success. Choose wisely.
Just creating an agenda doesn't guarantee that your meeting won't go off the rails or provide the outcomes you were hoping for. Preparation before the meeting will keep you and the participants focused and on track. Here's a quick pre-meeting prep list:
- Prepare a list of questions for each agenda item that you can refer to during the meeting, in order to direct the flow of conversation and provide you with the information you need.
- Create and distribute any supporting material. Make sure the material is concise and supports the agenda.
- Create and present potential options to a problem (e.g. three options) to spark ideas and conversations that may have stalled.
- If you are a presenter, rather than a facilitator or a combination of both, consider conducting a dry run (rehearsal) of the meeting and time each agenda item. A dry run is essential if you are presenting to a client or a potential client.
- Check the meeting room for: white boards, flip charts, markers, and functioning equipment (audio, visual, Wi-Fi, and conferencing capability). In addition, for off-site meetings get a contact name of someone who can assist you with ensuring everything is set-up, functioning and can provide you with any necessary passwords, etc.
- Make sure you have a bunch of your business cards with you. Hand them out at the beginning of the meeting to everyone you haven't previously met.
- Don't forget the creature comforts: Keep the temperature of the room around 70-72 degrees Fahrenheit, provide a break every hour, and if providing meals, include vegetarian selections, and ask participants if they have an other special dietary needs or allergies.
During the Meeting
This meeting will come to order - after that it's up to you.
The time has arrived. You've done all the prep work, and you have an agenda. Now it's time to focus on facilitation and collaboration. This is where your communication skills will be put to the test. Just as we had prepared prior to the meeting, structuring the body of the meeting will help you to become a more efficient facilitator. Let's review some strategies that can be used for each stage of the meeting.
Arrival - Get there early and start on time.
If possible, get to the meeting a few minutes early. If applicable, access any conferencing services. Start the meeting on time and close the meeting room door to indicate that the meeting has started. Give everyone a second to settle, say hello, exchange business cards, etc., and then take a breath with a power pause.
From a scientific perspective it takes a few minutes for your brain to disengage from it's last task and refocus on something new - so have everyone close their eyes and take three deep breaths. Yes, I know it sounds, so, new age and not something you would normally do in a meeting, but you will be surprised at how well it focuses and de-stresses everyone. Namaste baby!
Rules of Engagement
Setting expectations is one of the most important skills you can develop as a business analyst. An agenda sets the expectation of what is to be accomplished. Rules of engagement, sets the expectation of acceptable behavior in the meeting. Creating three to five rules and getting agreement from all participants, will help focus and streamline your meetings. Here are some common rules of engagement to get you started:
Rule #1 - Turn-off devices and Tune-in.
Have everyone attending the meeting, turn-off all devices and put them out of reach, with the exception of anything you, as the facilitator, or another presenter, would need in order to conduct the meeting.
- Asking attendees to temporarily turn-off smartphones, laptops and other devices, allows them to tune-in and focus their attention on the meeting. We've all been in countless meetings that go on too long with little input/resolution due to distracted attendees' responding to texts, emails, messaging one another, playing games, checking social media, etc.
- What about business or family emergencies?
- I usually take notes on my laptop.
- I can multi-task.
Response to Push-Back
- Emergencies - If the meeting is longer than 1 hour, assure attendees that ample time/breaks will be given to periodically check their devices. For shorter meetings, attendee/device detox should not be an issue.
- Notes - No need for your laptop - meeting notes will be distributed to the attendees, within 24 business hours. In addition, allow hand-written notes.
- Multi-task - Maybe you can, but not without sacrificing quality or missed opportunities.
Rule #2 - If you're late, don't expect an update.
Meetings should start and end on time. Attendees should make every effort to get to the meeting on time. If they are late, they will take their seat quietly, no "hellos", "sorry I'm late", and they will not be updated on what has happened (at the expense of everyone else's time). Anyone late will be directed to read the minutes for any information/decisions that they may have missed.
We've all been overbooked on meetings and sometimes you may get to the next meeting late. Sometimes. Then, there are those attendees who are chronically late for no reason at all. In either case stopping a meeting to update one or more people, interrupts the flow, slows down productivity, and distracts and frustrates everyone else who got there on time.
- I have no time in between meetings.
- I have overlapping meetings.
- I lost track of time.
Response to Push-Back
- Anyone not on time can read the meeting minutes and provide any feedback to the business analyst via email after the meeting. Feedback will be included in the minutes as a late addendum.
- For the chronically late, discuss whether their attendance is needed or if an alternative representative should be invited in their place.
- Lost track of time - there's an app for that!
Rule #3 - Be Respectful and Considerate - No Judging or Condescension.
Every person, idea, question, plan, etc. should be treated with respect. No one in the meeting should allow someone to judge, bully or behave condescendingly.
- This type of behavior shuts down communication, squashes creativity, and is non-productive. Enough said.
Once agreed to, the rules of engagement should be, quickly, stated at the beginning of each meeting (e.g. electronic devices off and away, late comers can review the minutes to get them up to speed, and let's be considerate of one another). Simple.
So how many people do you think, actually, read your agenda in the original meeting request or your meeting reminder? Hmmm? Just in case, you can quickly run thru the agenda items and/or write them on a white board or flip chart.
Now smile. Never underestimate the power of a smile or a sense of humor. You are the facilitator - set the tone. Make people want to come back for your next meeting. Here as some other protocols and interventions to keep your meeting moving.
- Keep an eye on the time. Ask for a volunteer to keep track of time in 15-minute increments (setting a timer also works).
- Take notes. I prefer to write my notes on a white board (where everyone can see them and then use my phone to take a picture of the board before I erase it (make sure you write clearly). Flip charts are also a great option, because they allow you to break up topics into sub-topics and tape them up around the room. If there is more than one BA in the room or if someone wants to volunteer (from your own company) as a "BA Buddy", have them take notes, as well. You'd be amazed at what someone else will pick up during a meeting and it provides another perspective.
- Start with your first agenda item. Use the question list you created in your pre-meeting prep to get started. Refer to the list, to stay on track and/or if the conversation stalls.
- Listen. Don't talk - really listen, with an open mind, when someone speaks. It's important for people to feel that they have been heard and you might actually learn something.
- Engage. The art of conversation/engagement has changed as technology has advanced. Two people can be sitting right next to each other and would rather text than talk to one another. As the facilitator, you need to initiate the conversation and keep it moving. Don't forget to engage the people that have joined via teleconference or online.
- Key Decisions & Action/Tasks. As you take the meeting notes, identify any key decisions that have been made and/or future tasks or action items that need to be completed. For actions/tasks, identify who will complete them and when it will be completed by (get an actual date for completion, don't accept "soon" or within a "couple of weeks" as a timeframe).
- Detour to the "Parking Lot". Conversations will often trigger other ideas, topics, flows, etc. These slight detours from the agenda are fine. As the facilitator, you need to quickly identify and acknowledge the detour and respond by saying something like, "That's a good point or great idea, let's add it to the parking lot for further discussion." The Parking Lot is a bulleted list of additional items to be investigated/discussed at a later date. Designate an area on the white-board or a flip-chart page, labeled "Parking Lot" to track these items.
- Assess Agenda Item. At the end of the allotted time (or sooner) for the agenda item, assess with the participants if the agenda item is complete. If it is not complete, again, determine with the participants if you should continue or move on to the next agenda item. Sometimes it is better to go over the allotted time and finish an agenda item, while everyone is still in the same mind set. Stick to your agenda, but be flexible when it makes sense. If you have a hard stop, then make a note to revisit the agenda item.
Handling group dynamics is a mixture of skill and art that you will acquire over time, but here are a few intervention tips to practice:
- Observe and intervene. Observe and learn to interpret the body language of the person speaking and that of the people listening and then quickly intervene in a positive way to keep the participants engaged. Are you letting someone: talk to long, dominate the conversation, go off topic, complain rather than inform, etc.
- Observe and adjust. Use observation and body language to determine if you need to adjust your style as the facilitator. Are you talking: too much, not enough, too low, too monotone, in a manner not geared toward the type of audience or, off topic. Are you not effectively controlling a chaotic situation, etc.
- Get them talking. Make sure you get everyone to participate. Periodically, ask different people for their opinion/feedback (e.g. Betty, what do you think?). Play devils advocate by providing "what if" situations.
- Minimize negativity. People need an outlet to vent their frustration. Control the negativity by having them create a definitive list of issues (when negativity is rampant, issues can be vague) and a list of potential tasks/solutions to resolve the issue. Then follow through to address those issues.
- Recap. Prior to ending the meeting, quickly review any key decisions, tasks (e.g. Task, Task Assigned To, and Due Date).
- Next Steps. Review and confirm next steps (e.g. agenda items for the next meeting). Confirm the next meeting date and time.
- Ask for a business card. If you are meeting someone for the first time (e.g. a new client team) and you have not exchanged business cards at the beginning of the meeting, ask for their business cards as you wrap up the meeting. You may need them to document the minutes and it's a great way to network.
After the Meeting
Follow-up communication is key to a successful meeting. Send out the meeting minutes within 24 business hours so that details are still fresh in your mind and to remind participants of assigned tasks. Don't skip this step! Minutes ensure that everyone stays on the same page and provides an audit trail of what occurred.
When it comes to meetings, there are no set rules - just guidelines. Meetings can be as unique as the organization, the facilitator and the people who attend. What's on your agenda?