Welcome back to our series about how to facilitate meetings with people who have challenging personalities. In the last article, we discussed how to work with “silent geniuses” — people who have great input, but don’t voice that input. In this part of the series, we’re talking about “swoop-and-poopers” — people who provide late round feedback that sends you back to the drawing board.
A Cautionary Tale
Soon after I started my role as a facilitator, I found myself leading a three day discovery session. The client had a strong business built on what was once a revolutionary technology. However, they wanted to extend that technology into a new product that would allow them to enter new markets. The problem was they saw several markets as potential fits and couldn’t decide which to pursue first.
Over the next three days, we worked primarily with three different stakeholders – Cindy, Tim, and Mark. At the start of our first session, Cindy explained that she had just been promoted into a new position and her responsibilities had dramatically expanded. She apologized and informed me she would attend as many of the discovery sessions as possible but would need to come and go throughout the next three days. Tim and Mark seemed very sharp, so I didn’t think it would be a problem.
Over the next two days, I walked Tim and Mark through some structured exercises to brainstorm different markets. We noted potential customers they could target and problems the new product could solve. Cindy popped in from time to time but missed a majority of our conversations on the second day. A day that was crucial to our strategy because we decided which business model was best to target and validate.
At the end of the second day, Cindy returned. As we described the business model we wanted to validate, I watched in angst as she became increasingly confused.
“We already do that,” she explained.
It turned out, the client had an entire professional services team that offered a service similar to the service we had decided to validate. Mark and Tim had very little involvement with this team and never made the connection.
So, at the end of Day 2, it was back to the drawing board. We had essentially wasted a day. One day might not seem like a big deal, but remember — this was a three day project.
This experience showed me just how disruptive late feedback and changes can be to a project. In our case, the late feedback drastically affected our project timeline, scope, and budget.
I learned that good facilitation goes beyond what happens in meetings; it starts with involving the right people at the right time. While it’s important to accept that software is iterative and things will change over time, we want to avoid going down the wrong path simply because we didn’t get feedback from the right people. This introduces a tough challenge because a company’s most influential people are also its busiest.
Whether or not you become one depends more on how much time you have than your personality. Despite the title of this series — the swoop-and-pooper isn’t exactly a personality type. In truth, anyone can become a swoop-and-pooper. For example, when Cindy was able to attend our meetings, she was thoughtful and attentive. The problem arose because she had just been promoted and her plate was extra full.
That being said, certain personality types are more likely to provide late round feedback. In our last article in this series, we discussed “the silent genius,” or people who have great input but don’t voice it. Someone with this type of personality is very likely to provide game-changing feedback after it’s too late, so I recommend giving that article a read.
Personality types aside, you’ll face the dilemma of trying to find enough time in people’s schedules often. Finding a solid block of free time for everyone is sometimes impossible in today’s busy corporate world.
The RACI Model
Making the judgment call on who to invite to a meeting is much easier when we fully understand each stakeholder’s role in an organization. Many of us work in small scrum or design teams. To understand different roles in your company, it’s important to interact with people outside your immediate team. It may seem tedious and not immediately relevant, but you should spend time to understand and even map out the organizational structure. What are the different teams? How do products interact with each other? Once you have answered these questions, you can start to focus on the people in your organization. At Modus, we use the RACI model to do this. The RACI model separates people into four different roles: responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed.
- Responsible: owns the project or task at hand.
- Accountable: signs off on the work being done.
- Consulted: must provide information and/or input to complete the project.
- Informed: should be kept in the loop and may provide feedback.
You can map these different roles out across teams and departments.
Set Expectations About Availability
It’s not enough to just define these RACI roles though. You still need to communicate which roles should be in each meeting. For example, if you’re making any decisions in the meeting, then responsible, accountable, and consulted roles should all be in that meeting.
So how would these roles have applied to Cindy, Tim, and Mark? We treated Cindy as someone who should be informed, when in retrospect, she was actually playing the consulting role. Meanwhile, Tim was accountable for the project. In an ideal world, Tim would have recognized that Cindy, as the consultant role, should be included in all discussions about entering new markets. But because I never drove the team to define these roles, we ended up in a bit of a mess.
Show Attendees You Mean Business
What happens if you make expectations clear, but people still don’t show up? Well, sometimes you need to make a strong statement to show your meeting attendees how serious you are when you say attendance is required. One way to do this is to postpone the meeting until the most important stakeholders can attend.
Explain The Risks
When someone chooses to skip your meeting, it’s often because they prioritize other work or other meetings over your meeting. If they don’t know the risks of skipping your meeting, the decision to skip it becomes that much easier. So you need to fill them in on why it’s important to give timely feedback. Clearly explain that as fidelity increases, the time and cost of implementing a change exponentially increases. We explain this concept in more detail in our article about investing in customer research.
Set Aside Time For Feedback
Now, let’s say you have all of the right people in the meeting. You shouldn’t need to worry about receiving late feedback, right? Well, not so fast. The inconvenient truth is that no matter how well you explain something, people process information differently when they have time to review it individually. Don’t expect comprehensive, on-the-fly feedback during meetings. Instead, use meetings to give context to the thing being reviewed. After the meeting, give stakeholders time to really focus on reviewing. I even recommend setting a deadline to provide feedback and explaining the implications of receiving feedback after the deadline.
Let’s take an example. You have some low fidelity wireframes on which you want feedback. Once you feel the wireframes are relatively agreed upon across the team, you’ll move onto creating a high fidelity prototype. In this case, present your wireframes then share them with stakeholders and ask for detailed feedback within a day or two. Justify the deadline by explaining that changes will likely take much longer to implement once you have moved to higher fidelity. Being transparent about the effects of receiving feedback late will help your team understand the importance of paying attention to detail.
Wrapping It Up
The ol’ swoop-and-poop is perhaps one of the most disruptive things that can happen to a project. Try some of our recommendations above and let us know how they work in the comments, or let us know how you’ve handled this situation. And keep your head up, because while a swoop-and-poop may not be fun to experience, it’s definitely fun to say.
The Rest of The Series
Intro and Part 1: The Silent Genius
Someone who has great ideas or input, but doesn’t speak up.
Part 3: The Great Debaters
A pack of attendees who relish debate, side conversations, and talking over one another.
Part 4: The Multitasker
An attendee who thinks they can simultaneously check their email, reply to slack messages, juggle oranges, and pay attention to the meeting.
Part 5: The Unclear Communicator
A first cousin to the tangential thinker, the unclear communicator speaks in long, rambling sentences and uses unnecessarily complex terminology.
Looking for more information on how to handle challenging personalities? We have more for you coming soon.
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