Starting at the End + Avoiding Pointless Meetings

Every week I spend my days coaching design leaders. In these videos, I reflect upon common themes and questions that came up.

This week, getting started by starting at the end and avoiding pointless meetings.


[00:00:00] Andy Polaine: Hello, my name is Andy Polaine and every week I spend my days coaching design leaders and in these videos, I reflect upon that the common themes and questions that came up in the week. And this week starting at the end and meetings.

Starting at the end

[00:00:14] Andy Polaine: A journalist friend mine once gave me the best writing tip ever and that was to take the last paragraph you’ve written, cut it and paste it at the top of your writing, because at that point in time, you actually know what you’re talking about and what you want to say. Now often when you have some kind of end goal or ask of you such as, build up a design team or greater cross-functional collaboration, where to start can be daunting because the possibilities are infinite almost. Where do I get started? I could do this. I could do that. And it’s very, very hard to get started and you get blocked. Last week I mentioned inverting the question and asking why is this not happening already? As a way to reveal the tangible things that are getting in the way.

So you might go, well, it’s not happening because we’re siloed. We’ve got these wrong cadences we’re aligned and all of those things. But another classic coaching approach, which is similar is to start at the end.

So imagine you have achieved the goal and the outcome already. You have your team and they’re collaborating across the business. So, first of all, what does that look like? And this is also the classic, "What does good look like?" question. If you’re struggling to imagine that then you might need to go back and question that goal in the first place, because if you can’t really think, what difference would it make? That may be a problem with the way you’ve got it initially framed.

I once got asked if I could train 3000 people in design thinking at a bank and it was always my favorite question to ask a potential client about this and say, "Okay, well, imagine I’ve done this. How do you think people are going to be working differently? What do you think the effect of that will be?" And they couldn’t answer it because they hadn’t really thought about why they would really want this and what the difference a bit at the end, they’re just going to new design thinking’s the thing and so we should get everyone doing that.

If you do have an answer though, then you can work backwards. So if you would think about, well, we would be able to work faster or we’d make fewer mistakes or we’d have a much more harmonious working environment. Then you can kind of think backwards from that. So what would have, have to have happened last in that process, say, for the collaboration. Would it be alignment amongst department leaders, or maybe that’s the first thing? Would it be some operational things like we’ve got the tools and we’ve got processes in place, or maybe it’s things like places and rituals and, and cadence of connections and communications that we’re not scattered across a whole bunch of different tools and platforms and things, but we have a kind of really clear, aligned way of working together.

Whatever your answers are, you can then ask what would have, have to have happened for that to be in place. So what would have to have happen to say for the tools and processes to be in place? You can go back and say, well, we would have had to have gone through a process of deciding and talking to each other about what we think the best tools would be for us to be using for this. Deciding and agreeing upon the communication channels, where should we talk about this thing? Where should we talk about this kind of thing? And so on.

And then what happens? You just keep stepping back and you go, well, what would have to happen for those things to be in place? And that way you get back to where you are. But now, you know, the first steps. If you know, the five why’s technique of, you know, asking why something’s gone wrong or asking in user research, when people say, oh, I want this thing. And, well, why do you want this? And so on you keep laddering it. It’s kind of like a reverse version of that, except you’re starting at the end but you go the what. So what would have to have happened? Then what would have to have happened for that? And then you’ve got a nice kind of chain of events at least to aim for. As you go through each one of those things.

And the very best thing about it is you have your first couple of steps. Once you get going, then you will actually start to know what you’re talking about. You can’t do like you can with writing and cut the last thing and put it in the end. But at least you can kind of think about it mentally like that.


[00:04:06] Andy Polaine: I want to talk about everyone’s favorite thing meetings or their mostly their calls now, not even coming together. I want heard someone at a conference say, make every meeting a workshop. I think it was Johanna Kollmann. If she’s watching this video, let me know. But it really stuck with me because I have run a lot of workshops and, and there’s kind of a thinking about workshops and an intention to them, partly because of the cost, partly getting all those people together and if you’re the facilitator then you really have to think about it a lot.

When you become a leader, one of the things that happens, you just get more and more meetings. You’ve got all your one-to-one. You’ve got some kind of design leadership meeting, you’ve got some on a product leadership meeting, got some global leadership meeting, whatever it is, senior leadership meeting. You end up with all these regular things and if you’re across two or three projects, you might be having stand ups all the time. And all of a sudden your calendar is completely blocked out. So there’s a few things to do to really have a qualification criteria. So ask in advance if the, the meeting partner has anything, if you’ve got a regular one, so you might have one to ones, for example, And say listen, you know, we’ll leave that in here, but a couple of days beforehand, "do you have anything to talk about?"

It’s okay to say no. Default to no meeting. But it’s in there if you need to have it. And if "No, I don’t really have anything to discuss." That’s fine. Then don’t have the meeting. And then you’re going to clear that time out. One of the things that happens with meetings and particularly regular ones, is that everyone thinks "Ooh this meeting is coming up and I need to come up with some stuff to fill the time. I better have something to say."

And then a load of people have a meeting together. And if you do one of those, you can get those meetings salary calculator things, they cost anything between 1,000, 2,000 up to $10,000 per hour of meeting, if you’ve got a lot of people there, I mean, it’s an extraordinary waste of resources. So default to no meeting and then only put it back in, I mean the most radical way to do it, which is what Salesforce did recently, is just get rid of them all. So take out all recurring meetings and then you only start to put back in meetings if you need them.

But if you’re going to have meetings where someone’s added it to your calendar or someone is asking you to come to a meeting, ask them some questions.

Is there an agenda? Is this some kind of intent to this meeting? Why is it happening? What do you want to do here? And a real red flag is if you’ve got a really long agenda. It’s much better to have two or three things that you’re going to do and you get deep into them, or even just one thing. Rather than 10 you’ll ever get through.

And if you ever seen a meeting agenda that’s got 10 items there’s no way you’re going to get through them. There really isn’t. And sometimes with recurring meetings, people just sort of copy and paste the agenda each time. And so you end up in this ridiculous situation of keep going over stuff that you don’t really need to go over.

So that’s the first thing, is there an agenda? If there isn’t my suggestion would be just decline the meeting or tell the person to give you the agenda and if they can’t, then don’t turn up. Because really what they’re doing is they’re saying "I would like to waste an hour of your time, I’m not really sure what about."

So the second thing around the intention is, is this an alignment meeting? Is this an agreement meeting? Is it generative? We’re coming up with some ideas. Is it that we have to make a decision upon something or we just need to discuss stuff. But what are the intended outcomes? What would we like? So agreement, decision and so forth.

Are there any intended outputs? There probably aren’t, unlike a workshop, but there might be, there might be a thing that you have signed off on or agreed to. And then there’s the personal bit. Why am I here? In what way am I contributing value? And is there information I need to be here for that I can’t get another way? The classic, it could have been an email. And if you can’t really answer yes to either or both of those, probably not worth you being there. There’s a lot of FOMO in meetings. And the truth is you’re not as important as you think you are, you might not want to miss out what happens if there’s a an important decision that I haven’t been part of. Yeah. That may be true, but also what happens if you’re not getting any work done because you’re in meetings all week? This is this busy work is the junk food of work.

So, go through those and feel free to turn down meetings if people can’t give you those things. And in return, if you are setting a meeting, if you’re asking a bunch of people to come together, then please try and have those clear to people so that then they can decide. Really what you’re doing there is just giving people criteria and information by which to decide.

I leave you with two books. One is Meeting Design by Kevin Hoffman. It’s a Rosenfeld book. And then there’s another one called Magical Meetings by Douglas Ferguson and John Fitch from Voltage Control. Both of those useful books to give you some ideas of structure and ways of thinking about those things. And you might think, well, you know, I don’t need a book about meetings. I can guarantee you, if you’ve ever sat in a boring one, you will really wish the other person had read a book about meetings. We have them all the time, it’s a large part of your work so make them valuable.

That’s it for me. I hope that’s useful for you. If you would like to check out my coaching practice, it is at and I’ll put the link below. If you’ve got any of your own ideas and suggestions or you disagree. Please put those in the comments below as well.

Thanks very much. I will see you again soon.

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