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The Secret to Successful Review Meetings: Finding Opportunities for Improvement

Where check-in meetings are fundamental for ensuring healthy, productive, on track teams and projects (as covered in our blog, The Secret to Successful Check-ins: Project/Team Status Updates), review meetings are a powerful tool for evaluating if the processes and approaches are healthy and productive. In the journey analogy, check-ins are to check “are you on the intended path”, reviews are “is this the right path?”

Of course, for such meetings to be powerful, they must be useful. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.

For example…

Have you ever been in a review or feedback meeting where every stated problem or area for improvement is met with reasons why it can’t be changed or fierce defense as though you have just called someone’s baby ugly? Have you been in meetings where passions rise into a frenzy of arguments and counter arguments, cutting others off and drowning out less forceful voices? Or, a meeting where the first challenge eats up 30 minutes talking about all the ways it can be resolved or debates on if it is worth resolving? Or, have you attended a meeting where all the great ideas are written on a board or paper never to be seen or heard from again or one where the only acceptable answer to ‘is there anything we should do differently’ is “no, you and your process are perfect.”

If you have, you are not alone. Many review meetings quickly degrade, lose focus, fall too early into the swirling frenzy of solutions, or are insincere in their purpose. And when this happens, they are useless.

As useless meetings have no place in productive environments, the first improvement you need to make to this process is to change the meetings (again).

Luckily, like with check-ins, all the work for designing efficient, effective review meetings is already done! Another big thank you to the Agile Methodology.

Agile solution to the other 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. Part of this continuous adjustment is to the process itself. At the end of every cycle of work, there is a period of team self-reflection to identify opportunities of improvement to make the next cycle more productive and smoother. For that self-reflection to be valuable, it must be well defined, inclusive, controlled, and impactful.

This brings us to the often-ineffective review meetings which, with a little Agile wisdom, can become the perfect tool for perfecting programs.

Here’s how:

1) Start with design – listen, learn, improve

Like with Agile development, TA review meetings are for listening, learning, and improving. This requires well-controlled meetings focused on collecting feedback and ideas in a respectful way that are used as a starting point for action. To do this, like with any good meeting, start with an agenda and rules.

Split the agenda into three parts – listen, learn, improve. Ideally each part should take around the same amount of time. These meetings are typically one to two hours.

1) Listen

  • What went well and why?

  • What did not go well and why?

  • What can we do better?

2) Learn

  • Group ‘what to do better’ into those with similar concepts.

  • Clarify any concepts/feedback that require clarification.

3) Improve

  • Organize ideas into now, soon, future, never.

  • Assign ‘now’ owners and next steps.

  • Schedule follow-up for ‘soon’ ideas.

  • Store ‘future’ ideas into a backlog to revisit in the future.

For the Improve part of the conversation, consider using the prioritization exercises covered in the prioritization blog.

Along with the agenda, each part has its own rules to ensure a productive and smooth conversation.

1) Listen

  • Each participant takes a turn to answer the questions.

  • No individual gets more than 5 minutes to speak.

  • All answers are recorded in a visible format (whiteboard, projection, note cards, etc.)

  • Everyone must complete their turn before moving to ‘Learn’.

2) Learn

  • Choose a facilitator to lead the discussion before beginning.

  • Clarify conversations must not take more than 5 minutes per topic.

  • Organize and clarify only - no judgements or debates on the quality, validity, or usefulness of an idea.

3) Improve

  • Prioritization conversations must not take more than 5 minutes per topic.

  • Schedule prioritization conversations that require more time for a later date.

  • All now and soon ideas must be assigned owners and next steps.

4) General rules:

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

  • Focus on process not people (i.e. no blaming)

Like with check-in meetings, review meetings can run under, should not run over, and, ideally, the review team is limited to 10 people or less, otherwise, it can become challenging to manage.

2) Set expectations – why are we here again?

Like check-in meetings, review meetings are not for catching up or talking about those great weekend plans. They are also not for complaining, blaming, defending, or arguing. Review meetings are for process improvement. They give participants an opportunity to honestly evaluate the current process and provide feedback and suggestions for how to improve it.

However, critical feedback is not an easy topic for many, especially if the owners and/or designers of that process are in the room. Therefore, it’s very important to communicate the purpose, expectation, agenda, and rules upfront.

Don’t forget to build in time for practice. If process review and critical feedback are new disciplines 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), keep strict control over conversations to shut them down before they get personal or agitating, and build in ample time for breaks to give people a chance to cool down in the wake of heated debates.

3) Intent outweighs words – rephrase and validate

As critical feedback is not the most well-honed skill for many, not everyone will have the best, clearest, or most diplomatic way of expressing themselves. Rather than let unintentional or needlessly stinging words linger, capture the intent of less elegant feedback. Rephrase and validate.

“So, what you are saying is by changing this…”

By rephrasing and validating, not only can you clarify the intent of the feedback (good, bad, or what can be done better), it also resets it in the minds of the other participants, defusing potential situations before they can start.

Note: this may take a couple of tries before you get the validation of “yes, that’s what I meant.” Even if it gets frustrating, get that validation or the participant will feel unheard or dismissed. If you can’t get the validation, put the feedback aside and address later in a private conversation.

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

Great ideas for process improvements that never make it beyond the meeting have no value.

Take notes!

Record everyone’s responses, the next steps for ‘now’, ‘soon’, ‘future’, ‘never’, and all resulting assignments and next steps. Share these notes with the team. Bonus points if there’s a way to connect the improvements with project plans, success metrics, and updates.

The best part about good notes – when it’s your turn to report up and/or around about the team, project, process, or program, the work is done!

Bringing it all together – improve the process

The purpose of the review meeting is to drive continuous process improvement. Collecting feedback and suggestions, prioritizing ideas, and assigning next steps is only the beginning. Without the follow-up, there is no value to the effort.

Improve the process! Executing on the agreed improvements not only makes your processes continuously better, it also drives engagement, team satisfaction, and empowerment by showing the team that their opinions and experiences matter and they can make a difference.

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