Status update meetings are ones where no decisions are made and no forward planning takes place. As such, they can be considered superfluous to well-run organisations and effective collaborations. There are better ways to manage people and projects.
I find that status update meetings are a bad habit that organisations get into for one of several reasons. It could be that they don’t know better. With these kinds of organisations, working with WAO and organisations like us can be a revelation. In fact, that’s been the case many times, especially with smaller charities.
Another reason for the status update meeting can be a lack of standardised toolset. In these kinds of organisations, everyone uses their own ‘to-do’ list, from pen and paper through to some complicated digital workflow. The status update meeting therefore acts as an inefficient kind of ‘API’ (or translation) between these siloed systems.
A third reason that status update meetings exist is that people are employed to work fixed hours. This is the most pernicious. It might not even be a conscious thought, but if you’ve got hours to fill, there’s nothing as low-bar as a status update meeting to while away the time.
The easiest way to get out of the habit of status updates is to know what the alternative is, to decide on a standardised toolset, and to turn those meetings into co-working sessions.
At WAO we used the simplest tools possible to get the job done. Over-complicated toolsets and workflows are the enemy of collaboration and, in fact, can be thought of as a form of procrastination.
Essentially, all you need is a place to put three lists: To Do, Doing, and Done. If you’re physically co-located this could even be on a wall. WAO uses Trello as we find it everyone just ‘gets’ it. You can add extra lists as necessary (we use ‘Epics’, ‘Feedback’, and ‘Zombie Garden’).
What this means is that status update-related conversations happen on the Trello board. The meetings that used to happen to keep everyone up-to-date can now either be eliminated or turned into co-working meetings.
At WAO, we have at least one co-working meeting per client every week. In these meetings we check in, bringing our full selves to work, prioritise what needs doing, and then either work on those things together, or divide and conquer. As we’re fully-remote, the latter looks like muting audio and video for a set period of time (usually 15, 30, or 45 minutes) and working on a task. We can can unmute and ask questions if necessary.
The above can sound like it might drain the fun out of work. I can assure you it’s the opposite. Status update meetings drain energy out of people and projects. Co-working and representing progress visually is invigorating.
As a consultant, I find that there are, broadly speaking, three types of teams and organisations when it comes to project updates:
Synchronous updates (only)
Aynchronous updates (only)
Asynchronous and synchronous updates
The purpose of this post is to explain why the third of these is by far the better option.
1. Synchronous updates (only)
The most popular (the default, even!) are those only doing synchronous project updates. This means that the team, group, or other unit of organisation finds out the whole picture of what’s going on in the weekly team meeting.
Advantages: every project update can come with full context and, if someone doesn’t understand, or has a question, this can be addressed immediately. If the project team is meeting face-to-face or via video then facial expressions and body language can convey additional information.
Disadvantages: if the project team is only receiving updates on the day of the meeting, then the information they have can be up to six days out of date at any given time. Also, anyone who misses the meeting has to rely on the notes.
2. Asynchronous updates (only)
Other teams, groups, or other units of organisation only do asynchronous project updates. This means that meetings are rare, and the main way to find out what’s going on is to check the place where updates are made.
Advantages: anyone with the necessary permissions can get involved, which is why this approach is common to Open Source Software projects. What you see is what you get, and combined code repositories and issue trackers (e.g. GitHub) provide a decent workflow to get things done.
Disadvantages: with the human element removed, it’s difficult for the full context (including relative importance) of an update to be conveyed, and for serendipitous links to be made between projects.
3. Asynchronous and synchronous updates
The best teams I’ve come across do a combination of asynchronous and synchronous project updates. They meet regularly face-to-face or by video and provide updates in a dedicated space between meetings.
Advantages: everyone on the project gets full context around an update, either in the dedicated space or by asking a question about it in the meeting. There is now more time in meetings for forward planning and innovation.
Disadvantages:none that I can think of!
N.B. Workplace chat solutions such as Slack are great for many things. Given the potentially low signal/noise ratio, project updates are not necessarily one of them. Instead, I recommend using a dedicated space — e.g. Trello or Nextcloud Deck.
My latest post for DMLcentral is up. I’ve been thinking about agile workflows and team productivity a lot recently and, in this post, I attempt to apply it to (formal) education environment. Give it a read and see if you think it works!