Having an outcome defined, whether it’s for an event, phone call or meeting is very important. To quote Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland:
“Alice came to a fork in the road. ‘Which road do I take?’ she asked.
‘Where do you want to go?’ responded the Cheshire Cat.
‘I don’t know,’ Alice answered.
‘Then,’ said the Cat, ‘it doesn’t matter. If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”
This eloquently explains how important having an outcome is. Without an outcome in mind, any direction will do.
How often have you attended a meeting, either one on one or with a group? After reviewing the agenda did you feel confident that you understood what the meeting was about? Have you ever been in a meeting where the agenda flew out the window? Have you ever attended meetings where discussions head off in a direction that the agenda didn’t cater for?. The agenda provides the framework, but is it understood that the items on the agenda are the reason everyone is there and wanting to have a discussion? How do you think the meeting could turn out if everyone attending had an outcome in mind, and that outcome was shared at the start of the meeting? Do you think the meeting could be more focused?
From my experience, having a shared outcome encourages a more focussed and productive meeting. The fact that everyone attending has a shared understanding of the intended outcome, any discussion deviating from the agenda/outcome can be challenged in terms of whether it is adding value towards the desired outcome.
In my opinion, a well-defined outcome is more important than having an agenda. An agenda, in a project management context, is similar to a waterfall approach. Planning is carried out upfront when the least about the project is known. Having a fixed agenda means that anything that is discussed, that is not on the agenda is like scope creep, and the agenda is no longer the agenda. This often results in additional meetings required to discuss the items on the agenda which weren’t discussed in the last meeting. We don’t know where we are going, so any road will do. Having a flexible agenda, or a very loosely defined one, and having a well defined outcome for the meeting, means that you are focussed on the outcome rather than trying to stick to a rigid agenda. There is a common destination, so the direction can be discussed upfront on how to get there. Going through a list of items on an agenda, could mean that all you are discussing is a number of possible directions you could take, without knowing where you are going. As a group, you can share and decide what the common destination is and in that way, you can choose the best road to get you there.
How can this be applied in an Agile environment, or in fact any environment?
Lets start by looking at a few of the Scrum ceremonies.
In the daily stand up, what is your expected outcome for the stand up? What is the team’s outcome for the stand up? It may be assumed that they are the same, or maybe you are just following the process and expect the outcomes to based on Scrum theory i.e. what did we do yesterday, what have we done today and are there any blocks?
What about retrospectives? Generally we all expect that we will use the retrospective as an opportunity to reflect and come up with one or two improvements. So far, these two ceremonies fulfil a relatively specific need, and maybe the assumptions are correct; maybe!
Looking at the backlog refinement meeting, which could serve multiple purposes. What are your expected outcomes? What about the team, PO or other stakeholders? Do they have an outcome in mind?
Having your own outcome for every meeting and sharing it is very important. Looking at a retrospective as an example, you could invite the team to discuss what their own outcome, in general, for retrospectives would be. These could then be discussed and a set of outcomes for the retrospectives could be agreed on. This would be a general guide for retrospectives. It would still be worthwhile discussing what each individual’s outcome for each meeting is, at the start of each retrospective, or any other meeting.
Not everyone attending a meeting will be aware of the fact that they should have an outcome in mind. Simply start the meeting by asking “What is your expected outcome of this meeting?” Equally important, would be to check if those outcomes had been achieved at the end of the meeting. Did you arrive at the destination you had in mind?
As mentioned, this is not restricted to an Agile environment, or even meetings per se. It could be a meeting with a new prospective client or a business phone call as an example. Have your own outcome in mind, and try and elicit the outcome of the person you are having the discussion with. This can be direct e.g. “What are your expected outcomes from this meeting” or you could use other questions to be less obvious, either will do. The difference depends on your relationship and, you guessed it, what your outcomes are.
In the end, if you don’t have an outcome in mind, any decision you make will do. So like Alice, once you have decided where what your outcome is, how much easier is it for you to select which road you should take?