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The Secret to Successful Check-ins: Project/Team Status Updates

Check-in meetings are a fundamental tool for managers to ensure that their programs and teams are healthy, productive, and on track. When it comes to any project or initiative – from launching a new applicant tracking system, to candidate screening process improvements to drive diversity – a well-run check-in matters. It can be the difference between success, by keeping the team informed and engaged while rooting out problems before they can take hold, and complete and surprising disaster.

And yet…

How often do “check-in” meetings provide little more than a waste of time? Chatting about various disconnected details of an effort, spending endless minutes droning on about how to solve a small detail that doesn’t have much impact, and sloshing through discussions that eventually deteriorates into endless rounds of complaining about Dave over in compliance… again. By the time the meeting is over 20, 30, or 60 minutes later, the team has no better understanding of the state of the program, no more clarity into what they should be doing, and 60 minutes less time to get it done.

When this is the case, the first change you need to make to ensure programs are healthy and productive, is to change the meetings that serve to ensure programs are healthy and productive.

Luckily, all the work for designing fast, efficient check-in meetings is already done! For answers, we turn to the Agile Methodology.

Agile solution to the meeting problem

Agile, a discipline born in product management and honed in software development, is a process that blends small fast ‘sprints’ of work with continuous communication and adjustment. The idea is to take small steps and always be aware of where you stand. Therefore, if you inadvertently veer off course or if the path is blocked, you can catch it early and fix it quickly. But to make ‘continuous communication’ work, it must be short and highly efficient, otherwise teams will get nothing done.

This brings us to the dreaded check-in meetings which, with a little Agile wisdom, can become the perfect tool for running healthy, productive programs.

Here’s how:

1) Start with design – Fast, Focused, Frequent, Free of pain

Like with Agile development, TA process check-in meetings must be fast, focused, frequent, and free of pain. This requires a frequent recurring meeting (typically daily) with a tight agenda, and strict rules.

The agenda is simple – just three questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?

  2. What will you do today?

  3. What help do you need to be successful?

These three little questions run the whole meeting. Nothing more, nothing less. Not so bad, is it?

The rules are also simple:

  1. Everyone must take a turn answer the questions.

  2. No person gets more than 2 minutes to speak.

  3. All requests for help must be assigned and have a clear next step (but not resolved in meeting)

  4. Everyone must be respectful (no interrupting, pay attention, don’t take up more than your time).

Meetings should be scheduled for 2 minutes x the number of people in the meeting. For example, if you have a team of 5, schedule a 10-minute meeting. Meetings can run under, should not run over, and, ideally, the check-in team is limited to 10 people or less (otherwise, it gets too long and hard to track).

2) Set expectations – we are gathered here today…

Check-in meetings are not for catching up or talking about those great weekend plans. They are not for planning or trading ‘you wouldn’t believe’ stories. They are not for solving problems or brainstorming ideas. Check-in meetings have only one purpose, to check-in. It’s not that all those other things aren’t important, they are just not for this meeting.

Communicate these expectations before the first meeting. Send the agenda and the rules and clearly state the purpose and expectations. Doing this will mitigate the need for those awkward interruptions to stop all the other conversations (or at least provide a pre-emptive reason for why the conversation about the fantastic episode of the latest best tv show must be saved for later.)

Don’t forget to build in time for practice. If fast, focused meetings are a new discipline for your organization or team, it will be like any new skill and require some practice before it’s done right. Be liberal with the feedback (positive and constructive),and build in a few extra minutes for the first few weeks to remind and reinforce the team of the rules.

3) Follow the agenda – while standing up

With the agenda and rules set and communicated, you’re ready for the first Agile check-in meeting. Running the meeting is just as important as designing it. Have the agenda front and center (projected, posted, printed, laminated, flashing on a screen – whatever works) so everyone remains focused throughout the meeting.

A trick in the development world – stand, don’t sit (if you can). This little trick helps focus people for several reasons. 1) People are less comfortable standing up so less likely to linger. 2) When standing, people tend to be more ‘at attention’ and focused. 3) You can’t juggle coffee, computer, mobile device, etc. while standing up so people are more likely to pay attention and end the meeting so they can return to all those things.

In fact, this trick is so prevalent, in Agile, the other name for this meeting is the “daily stand up”.

4) Take and share notes – and then she said…

This check-in is the daily tactical evidence of effort, progress (or lack there-of), and help. If it’s not recorded, then you have no proof that it happened and no reference to go back to if something goes sideways.

Take notes!

Record each person’s answer and request, and all resulting assignments and next steps. Share these notes with the team. Bonus points if there’s a way they can augment the notes with updates or outcomes.

The best part about good notes – when it’s your turn to report up and/or around about the team’s progress or what everyone is doing, or how the team is working – the answers are all right there!

5) Follow up on actions – help is on the way!

Remember that third question “what help do you need to be successful?” – that is not just for fun. When someone asks for help in a check-in, they must get help. Not only will that keep the program/project/team on a healthy, productive path, but it will also reinforce the value of the check-in meeting.

For any help request, assign who and what. Who will help the individual and what is the next step. Remember, the check-in is not for solving problems, but it is for making sure they get solved. Next steps could be as simple as a quick conversation after the check-in to learn more, it could be work reassignment (“help, I can’t get this all done”), providing a missing document, or any other number of things. The important thing is to define it, assign it, and verify it happened.

Don’t forget to follow-up (outside the check-in meeting) to make sure the issue was resolved or is on the path to resolution. Bonus points if you update the notes with the resolution.

Bringing it all together

Check-in meetings don’t need to be long, tedious, dreaded time wasters. By using wisdoms of the Agile Methodology, you can run fast, focused, frequent, free of pain. You can have check-in meetings that ensures your team and projects are healthy and productive and take action before those inevitable bumps in the road completely derail your efforts.

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