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Three New Meetings Worth Having

Leadership and Management

Three New Meetings Worth Having

Sometimes it can feel like meetings are both the lifeblood and bane of an academic leader’s existence. Everyone wants to see you, even when a meeting could have easily been an email. They take up time, leaving virtually none for your own work or the projects you and your team have prioritized.

So, for me to suggest there are three additional types of meetings you should add to your calendar, especially as we move into the new academic year, would be ludicrous, right?

Maybe not. What if there were meeting formats that allowed you to regularly prioritize the work of important projects, allow everyone to see progress made on those projects, and improve collaboration among yourself and your team members? Let me introduce Scrum.

Much of my faculty development work before burnout focused on productivity strategies for managing research, service, and teaching. Specifically, I adapted Scrum project management practices to academic work. Scrum is a process for organizing complex work projects that falls under the umbrella of “agile” methods created in software development. A project management framework, Scrum is built on the foundations of empirical control theory, through which cross-functional teams break down complex into smaller chunks and associated actionable tasks. These chunks are then prioritized and visualized to ensure transparency and capture progress in real time. I initially started using Scrum with my undergraduate students to teach them a process for effectively managing team projects and quickly saw how effective the practices were when applied to service work like committees as well as to individual project management tasks.

In Scrum, a project team works in time boxes called sprints, usually two to four weeks of focusing directly on the most important project tasks as defined at the beginning of the sprint. Project tasks come from a prioritized list called the backlog—essentially a list of all the projects a team is working on, each broken down into chunks or pieces that the team can then further divide into actionable tasks members can work on during the sprint.

Sprints have a defined meeting and work cadence that allows the team to find a rhythm of working together and accomplishing important work. I highlight three of those meetings here because adding these meetings to your team’s calendar can have a real impact on productivity and team functioning.

The “making sure we’re on the same page” meeting

First, prior to planning exactly what projects and tasks the sprint will focus on, the team might hold a backlog or project refinement meeting. In a refinement meeting, the “owner” of each project would work with the team to break it down into smaller chunks of work and prioritize both the projects in the list and those smaller chunks of work. Working together to refine the backlog of projects and tasks allows the team to actively think about the work that needs to be done, what needs to be done first, and who can accomplish each task.

For example, a faculty affairs (FA) team might have a number of projects in their backlog, such as improving dual career services, conducting a faculty pay equity study, and completing a variety of technology upgrades to support faculty hiring processes, among other regular responsibilities. These are large projects spread out over multiple members of the team, each with its own project leader. This FA team might hold a backlog refinement meeting once per month to look at the projects, brainstorm what needs to be done on each in the next month, and prioritize those tasks across the team. They could decide they need all hands on deck to address the faculty pay equity study because of a coming deadline, so they list tasks that need to be done and assign them to different members of the team, giving those people permission to put the dual career services project on the back burner. People leave the meeting with a solid sense of what they need to do next and what the team’s priorities are.

The “look what we’ve accomplished, give us feedback” meeting

The second meeting to consider adding to your calendar is a review meeting. Scrum teams hold a review meeting at the end of a sprint—essentially to showcase the work they completed during those weeks. For a software team, this would likely be a demo for stakeholders and anyone interested in learning about what they’ve done (other teams, for example). The purpose of the review meeting is to both hold the team accountable for the work they committed to completing during the sprint and get feedback from people outside the team on how to move forward.

As for our FA team, they might have a review meeting at the end of the month to which they invite the whole team and perhaps a few administrative or faculty representatives if their input would be valuable. During the meeting, they might show the final data they collected and processed and an infographic they will use in the final faculty pay equity report. They can also work attendee feedback into the final report or direct them as to next steps before the deadline. People leave this meeting confident in the work being done and with ideas for what to do next.

The “how well did we collaborate and what can we do better” meeting

The last meeting I recommend adding to your monthly calendar is called the retrospective in Scrum. It’s the second meeting held at the end of the sprint, and while the review meeting is for the team to showcase their work to those outside the team, the retrospective is a meeting for team members to discuss their team process. The retrospective is an opportunity for the group to gather and discuss what went well in the last sprint, how effectively (or not effectively) they collaborated to achieve the shared goals they set for themselves, and how they can improve their collaboration for the coming sprint.

These discussion-based retrospective conversations can often be facilitated through an activity that allows team members to be open and honest with each other while still maintaining discretion. For example, here are two of my favorite retrospective activities: the starfish and the sailboat. You’ll need a whiteboard, sticky notes, and Sharpies for both.

  • The starfish: Draw a five-armed starfish and label the sections Keep Doing, Start Doing, Do More of, Do Less of, and Stop Doing. Thinking about the team’s process in the last sprint or month, have each person brainstorm as many points for each section as they can in three to four minutes. Everyone writes one idea per individual note and, when time is up, places each note in the appropriate section of the starfish drawing. Once everyone has posted their sticky notes in the appropriate locations, have someone from the team summarize the comments for each section and allow that to lead to natural discussion, again focusing on the team’s process as a unit. Once discussed, commit to something you can do as a team to improve your process in the next sprint, and write that commitment down somewhere everyone can see or keep track of it.
  • The sailboat: Draw a sailboat representing the team as well as an anchor hanging from the boat and wind in the sail. Then, on individual sticky notes, brainstorm aspects of your process that are holding you back from achieving your goals (anchors) and aspects that made you most successful (wind). If you are feeling extra creative, you can add a shoreline with palm trees to represent your “promised land” or goal and sharp rocks hiding under the surface to represent danger ahead. After putting the sticky notes in the appropriate places on the drawing, summarize what you learned as a group, and again commit to one or two changes you can make to improve your process.

Our FA team might hold a retrospective to discuss how well they worked together and met their goals for the faculty pay equity report. Using the sailboat activity, the director of FA asks her colleagues to think about what they should start, stop, keep, do more, and do less of. Once all the sticky notes have been brainstormed and placed appropriately, she asks a member of the team to summarize the feedback, and as a group they identify themes in the comments. From those themes, they have a conversation about how they were sharing data and what they can do to streamline their process next time. Everyone leaves feeling heard and ready to move to the next task.

As you begin the new academic year, consider how you are using meetings with your team and if having a refinement, review, or retrospective meeting (or all three) would help you meet your goals more effectively as well as improve collaboration and productivity. You might be surprised.

Rebecca Pope-Ruark, PhD, is the director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at Georgia Tech in Atlanta. She is the author of Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Research, Service, and Teaching (Chicago, 2017) and Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal (Johns Hopkins, 2022).


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