Monday, August 9, 2010

Action items

I had joined the company a few weeks earlier and was sitting in yet another raucous meeting. The latest attempt at a new product had failed, and the blame-casting and finger-pointing were at full tilt. Finally I sighed, and added my own say. "Look. I'm new here and I don't know what all has gone on, and really don't care who's to blame for what, blame isn't going to get anything done. What I want to know is, what do we need to do now?"

Person 1: "Well, we failed because we weren't using software engineering system X" (where X is some software engineering scheme that was popular at the time).

"Okay, so we'll use software engineering system X, I have no objection to using any particular system, as long as we use one. What's the first thing we need to do, in that system?"

Person 2: "We need to figure out what we want the product to do."

"Okay, let's do that. What is the product supposed to do?"

We discussed it for a while, then from there the meeting devolved into a list of action items, and eventually broke up with another meeting scheduled to work on the detailed functional requirements. But on the whiteboard before we left, I had already sketched out the basics of "what we want it to do", and eventually that turned into an architecture and then a product that is still being sold today, many years later.

So what's my point? Simple: Meetings must be constructive. One of the things my teacher supervisors told me, when I first entered the classroom, was to always ask myself, what do I want the students to be doing? And then communicate it. A classroom where every student knows what he's supposed to be doing at any given time is a happy classroom. Idle hands being the devil's workshop and all that. The same applies to meetings. Unless it's intended to be an informational meeting, meetings should always be about, "what do we want to do". And meetings should never be about blame-casting, finger-pointing, or any of the other negative things that waste time at meetings. No product ever got shipped because people pointed fingers at each other.

Everybody should have a takeaway from a development meeting -- "this is what I am supposed to be doing." Otherwise you're simply wasting time. So now you know why one of my favorite questions, when a meeting has gone on and on and on and is now drawing to a close but without any firm conclusion, is "what do we need to be doing? What are our action items?" We all need to know that we're on the same page and that we all know what we're supposed to be doing. That way there are no surprises, there are no excuses like "but I thought Doug was supposed to do that task!" when the meeting minutes show quite well that Doug was *not* assigned that action item, and things simply get done. Which is the point, after all: Get the product done, and out the door.


* Usual disclaimer: The above is at least slightly fictionalized to protect the innocent. If you were there, you know what really happened. If you weren't... well, you got my takeaway, anyhow.

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