Picture yourself leading a requirements meeting early in the project. You show up 5 minutes early, get yourself settled, spread out your notes, and fire up your laptop. You review your agenda so it’s top of mind.
The clock strikes the top of the hour. The first attendee of three wanders in, checking their smartphone and quickly looking up to say hello. They obviously didn’t bring print outs of the documents you sent ahead of time. You are glad you brought back-up copies.
You have a big agenda and the meeting is already running late. You decide to get started.
You pass around printouts of your prep material. You open the meeting – explaining why you are here and what you hope to accomplish. One of the latecomers chimes in right away.
“Oh, we can’t talk about that now. In the meeting Bob and I just left we decided this project needed to go in a completely different direction. I think you’d better talk to Amy before continuing on with this meeting.”
If you could have a picture of your face at that moment, you wouldn’t want to see it. That’s an extreme example, but I’ve had it happen to me. Let’s go through a scenario that’s even more common.
Going Off Track a Minute at a Time
Everyone is settled in to the meeting about 5 minutes past the hour. You introduce the meeting topic, why you are here, the research you’ve done to get to this point, what you think about the project so far, and begin talking through your document. About 5 minutes in, you see Bob checking his smartphone. Jessica is reading ahead in the document you gave her. Emily looks bored.
You pause for a moment to get feedback on a particular part of the document. No one says a word. You move on.
Five minutes later, Bob looks up from his smartphone and starts whispering to Emily about an email he just got. You have a lot to cover so you keep talking through your points. Soon Bob and Emily are talking about how Bob should respond. They catch Jessica’s attention. She disagrees and pipes in with a different idea. You’ve officially lost control of the meeting.
What do you do?
I don’t have a silver bullet answer for you, but I do have a few practices that have helped me keep busy, distracted professionals engaged in my requirements meetings. (In fact, someone once told me that one of my best traits as a business analyst is that I could make boring work fun. I found this interesting as I simply never thought of it as boring! But I digress.)
Engage People Where They Are At
If someone comes into the meeting talking, engage in the conversation. Ask a question and listen to the answer. See if you can’t make a connection between their topic and the discussion you are about to facilitate.
People don’t just switch their attention from one topic to another automatically. We can help create a shift of attention that gets our meeting on track early.
Ask a Question Early
When people are distracted or reading ahead, they aren’t listening to you. To continue talking is pretty much fruitless, even if it matches up with your vision of how the meeting should have gone. Stop talking and ask a question. Listen to the answer. Realize the answer could mean that you need to make mid-stream adjustments to your agenda or your elicitation plans.
The irony is that the more prepared you are for an elicitation session, the more intellectually able you are to reframe the meeting on the fly, but the more emotionally difficult it is to do so because you are attached to your plans. Be aware of these emotions and allow yourself to detach from the outcome of the meeting.
Address Side Conversations Head On
If a side conversation pops up in your meeting, stop until everyone can have one discussion. One of the easiest and non-confrontational ways I’ve handled this is to simply say,
“Bob and Emily, I realize something important has probably come up. I just want to make the best use of everyone’s time and ensure we’re having one conversation. Is what you are talking about something we can talk about as a group?”
If the answer is “yes”, then ask the group for input on the importance of the topic relative to the topic at hand. If the answer is “no” then ask Bob and Emily if they’d rather reschedule this meeting until they have had a chance to address their urgent issue.
Often this tactic reveals the issue wasn’t all that urgent in the first place and the side conversation is ended. This can seem like a risky move – after all your meeting could be derailed completely. But you are actually setting the stage so that your future meetings are less likely to run off track.
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