Tuesday, September 14, 2010
I just finished a six-minute meeting.

Prior to that meeting, we had had three or four rounds of e-mail with increasing frustration on all sides; even getting the meeting scheduled required multiple re-schedulings. Everybody thought the problem belonged to someone else.

But the meeting itself lasted six minutes, and everybody left it happy with the result. (And with the 54 minutes they got back on their calendars!)

What happened?

Of course, there are some specific factors relating to the actual question at hand in that particular meeting; but I've seen this kind of thing happen too often to think that that's all there is to it.

I love e-mail. I can send an e-mail when I'm thinking about it, even after hours; in an e-mail, I can take my time and phrase things as carefully and accurately as I can, I can stop and research a question if I'm not one hundred percent confident of my answer, I can re-read and make sure I'm not leaving out important information, or saying something in a way that will be easy for the recipient to misunderstand. And of course, e-mail lets me interact conveniently with people who aren't on the same schedule I'm on, or whose time is so limited that catching them "live" is really difficult.

E-mail works really well for a lot of things. When the parties know (and trust) each other, when the issue is straightforward, or when all that's needed is to communicate a lot of information fairly efficiently, e-mail is wonderful.

But where the parties haven't interacted a lot, where the issue is confusing, where there's disagreement about the basics, or where there's a need to share information back and forth, a six minute meeting can replace hours of reading and replying to increasingly frustrated, and frustrating, e-mail.

(How to make that meeting efficient, useful, and productive? That's a whole other topic.)

The solutions we found in our six-minute meeting this morning will be implemented by the developers and the client; my take-away is that the next time I see an e-mail exchange that boils down to "can so!" "can not!" I'm scheduling the meeting right then, not waiting for another round or two of e-mail first.

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I've been working as a technical writer, business analyst, and project manager for more than twenty years. I've worked on many projects in many industries, and I've come to believe that the top-down culture and the CYA process design that's common to many companies regardless of size is profoundly counterproductive, and I'm looking for ways to change that culture and those processes.

In looking for a different way to organize people and projects, I found the Agile Manifesto. The Agile principles of valuing human interactions, collaboration, and openness to change sound wonderful; the focus on sustainability, simplicity, self-organization, and flexibility sounds good too.

I'm starting to study Agile; I'm taking a two-day class in October 2010, and planning to begin an Agile Management program at Berkeley in November 2010. I'll be talking about what I'm learning as I learn it; comments, feedback, questions, and advice are all very welcome.