Democratize Meetings with Personal Kanban

Agendas are so 20th Century.

Personal kanban and meetingsLos Angeles’ Hollywood Hills are known for their exclusive neighborhoods, sprawling estates, and the people who inhabit them. They aren’t (but should be) known for their perilous and serpentine roadways. Among the most treacherous is Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Those familiar with the area don’t seem to give the twisting roads a second thought. They maneuver down snug stretches of this automotive obstacle course at 60 mph, because it’s become second nature to them. In contrast, newcomers to the area – sweat beading up on their temples – cautiously crawl along at a snail’s pace, at once in awe at the glorious homes around them and terrified they’ll veer off the road and through a gilded gate at the very next bend.

When you are familiar with something, you take it for granted. You aren’t critical of it and so you tend to blast right through it. Just consider what happens when we call a meeting. Are we looking for what we are already familiar with? Are we basing the meeting on our assumptions and expectations that come from past experiences? Are we just going to “blast through it?” Or are we taking it slow – as a learning opportunity – in an attempt to expose hidden insights that can actually help us achieve our goals?

“The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste we do not recognize.”
– Shigeo Shingo (Toyota)

When you set an agenda, you control the conversation. In essence, you define your own road. When you control the agenda, you control the lessons learned. Since we enter a meeting with only our assumptions to guide us, agendas follow our assumptions. Our assumptions are based on what we already know. But what about the things we don’t know? Quite often, it’s the conversations we don’t plan on that give us the most insight. Why not instead run our meetings to learn or to discover?

About a year ago, Jeremy Lightsmith and I discussed starting a professional organization around Lean management. We figured that if we controlled the agenda, we’d control the thought. If we controlled the thought, we’d never get beyond our own thinking. Jeremy and I wanted to grow a community – starting in Seattle – but we also wanted to grow as individuals.

So we set up Lean Coffee. This popular, agenda-less weekly meeting has taken us in directions we never anticipated. Held in a local coffee shop, and with a totally open format, we begin each gathering by setting up a table-top Personal Kanban. Participants vary from week to week, but whoever shows up is free to grab some sticky notes, and populate the backlog with items they’d like to discuss.  Everyone gets two votes for which topics they want to discuss first. This builds the prioritization. The agenda and the order are both popularly devised.

It’s that simple. A kanban for a Lean Coffee might look like this:
Personal Kanban Ends Endless Meetings

Lean Coffee has spawned an active community in Seattle and increasingly in other cities like Stockholm, Toronto and San Francisco. More are coming. The best thing about Lean Coffee is that it has already outgrown its founders. Since we never set the agenda in the first place, Jeremy and I could start the ball rolling and step back.

Lean Coffee takes place every week at 8:30 am in Seattle whether we are there or not. It is now truly an open forum for learning.

Learning from a Meeting

“Time waste differs from material waste in that there can be no salvage.  The easiest of all wastes and the hardest to correct is the waste of time, because wasted time does not litter the floor like wasted material.”  ~Henry Ford

Conventional wisdom suggests that businesses hold far too many meetings attendees deem a waste of their time. Among the most common complaints are how certain individuals hold the floor too long, that the information being disseminated is worthless, and more often than not, the meeting is held merely to satisfy egos or fulfill political requirements.

To combat this, some call for meetings with rigid agendas. They want to know in advance exactly what they’ll get in exchange for their time, and so they assume that having a control in place will prevent the meeting from wandering off-track. That sounds like a pretty good idea.

Or does it?

Suppose for a second that there is more than one reason for a bad meeting. Certainly poor planning is an easy culprit, but perhaps the bigger issue is that we assume etched-in-stone agendas lead to better results. We assume we know what we need ahead of time, we also assume that we know what the attendees need ahead of time. What is more likely is that we know what we need to discuss, which is different than an agenda.

An agenda is your personal, politicized reason for gathering people, while the discussion of a stated topic is a conversation. In fact, the entire reason we are calling the meeting is to have a conversation.

Why then, if we feel it is inappropriate – rude, even – to dominate the conversation in every other aspect of our lives, would we codify dominating the conversation in a meeting?

Perhaps the reason meetings go off track is that the agenda doesn’t actually address topics of concern to the attendees. People come to your meeting and – becoming bored or frustrated with the content or the direction the meeting takes, or feeling their input is not valued or that they can’t be fully engaged – they switch topics to something that interests them or initiate side conversations. Since there is no established mechanism for discussion in the meeting, a power struggle ensues between the person who called the meeting and the people in attendance. This is not good.

If we want to learn from our meetings, we need to allow the conversation to be set by the very professionals we invited to the meeting in the first place. If they were worth inviting, they must be worth including. If they aren’t, your meeting should serve another purpose: to hand out pink slips.

Allowing the group to have a say in setting the agenda gives them buy-in for the importance of the topics. This helps prevent people running on at the mouth or providing information that goes off topic. Everyone has a stake in an efficient meeting because they all have discussion topics in the backlog. Group ownership means the person who called the meeting no longer serves as the traffic cop directing the conversation.

Instead, as the person who called the meeting, you can now direct the overall topic and even seed a few of the initial sticky notes. Yyou can even set a few “must discuss” stickies at the top of the board and prioritize them the highest. But the group must be able to discuss what their professional direction drives them towards.

The steps for doing this are simple:

  1. Framework: Draw a Personal Kanban
  2. Personal Agendas: Invite all attendees to write their topics on sticky notes
  3. Democratization: Invite all attendees to vote on the topics on the table (each person gets two votes)
  4. Group Agenda: Prioritize the sticky notes
  5. Discuss

And voila! We have brought democracy to meetings. No longer do we tolerate meeting despots and spontaneous rebellions through filibuster or hijacking. Before these were power plays between the meeting organizer and the person acting now. Now they are interruptions of the group. Let society sort it out.

After the meeting, you can construct your meeting minutes outline by simply gathering up the topics in the order discussed.

(Want more on Lean meetings? Tune in tomorrow for a discussion of flexibility and democratization.)

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10 Responses to Democratize Meetings with Personal Kanban

  1. Bob Marshall says:

    Hi Jim,
    Great post – just wanted to signpost you to Lencioni’s “Death By Meetings” which offers another great (and compatible) take on reinventing meetings (in case you haven’t seen it yet): http://goo.gl/Fg1CN

    Recommended!

    – Bob

  2. Don Cox says:

    I love the idea. I have some questions about how it is put into practice.

    Do you time box the stages? How do you keep the the administrative activities from consuming a disproportionate amount of the meeting time?

    Do the participants have to agree what constitutes done for discussing a topic?

    Thanks.

    Don

  3. Jim Benson says:

    Don,

    There are no administrative activities, once the rules (all three of them) are in place, people are in and talking in under 5 minutes. Many times, they will come with stickies pre-made.

    It takes the place of the preamble from the agenda meeting where the host has to explain what is going to happen in their agenda driven world.

    The topic is set by the host in the invitation to the meeting.

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