Why you should always have an explicit agenda

I started my journey into the world of programming using PHP. Then there were no regular meetups in the community or at the very least I did not know of any.

Being one of the most popular languages of the day, it did not make sense to me why this was not happening, so I made a call for the first event. This was the first time I was organizing a community event, was not sure how it was going to go but my purpose was clear, meet and discuss all things PHP.

The turn out was good, the session started and essentially I said, welcome and discuss!

Nothing happened, everyone just stared at me blankly.

After a few painful minutes, Kirui, my boss at the time, swooped in to save the session. He took over and on the board wrote:

What will do for the next year?

What kind of events are we interested in?

What speakers are we interested in?

As if by magic, this constraint on what is to be discussed infused the session with energy and I learned a valuable lesson, one in which I hope to pass on to new group leaders today.

The group has now over a thousand members who communicate regularly on telegram and meetup.com

In this entry, we will be looking at why your meetings should have an explicitly stated agenda.

Provides clarity and support to the meeting purpose

A meeting without a purpose is a useless one. The purpose of the meeting answers the question, why are we having this meeting?

Even if you have one, you need to know when you have been successful in the meeting. This means you not only need the why you also need the how.

An agenda communicates your plan of action to meet the purpose.

In this way, you are able to iron out any inconsistencies within the group and have an objective way of knowing when you are done. No one likes 2-hour discussion sessions.

Help in self-governance

Life is what it is, at times you may need to step out of the meeting midway, perhaps leave someone else to deputize you. A clear and agreed on agenda means you have the confidence to do this and when you come back, find the meeting is still on track.

What I have come to realize about good teams is they give you leverage, allowing you to do 10X or 50X what you could do by yourself. But the only way to achieve this is if you are in alignment.

For directors, ie your direct reports are managers themselves, it is useful to thrash out what their agendas with their reports will look like. In this way, you get more clear and consistent results without having to attend each and every single meeting.

Agendas are not meant to be dictated from on high. By having a short discussion on what the agenda items should be, you reinforce within them the mindset they are in charge and you get viewpoints which would otherwise be inaccessible to you.

Understand when the agenda needs to change

There is a saying by Lewis Carol:

If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there

Even as you run your meeting, you must remember, the agenda serves the purpose of the meeting and not the other way around.

An explicit agenda by definition specifies what is not to be covered. This provides a chance for the team to tell you what you may be missing and just as importantly what need not be there.

You then have the chance to remove what is not absolutely necessary to achieve your purpose.

Meetings should be time-boxed, if the allocated time is 30 minutes and you realize there is absolutely no way you can cover everything, then reduce the scope, remove some items from the agenda.

With an implicit agenda, such value budgeting is not possible, so what happens is you either blow past the end time or worse cover only the first items with no concern to their value in relation to the purpose.

Do you normally have a stated out agenda at the start of your meetings?

Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex


Growing commitment within the team

In any organization, you will find two types of people, those who work to be part of a mission, and those who work for a paycheck. Ideally, you want to skew your developers towards the former.

This can be challenging owing to the nature of work developers do. You wouldn’t be able to tell if your developer is seriously churning code or trolling people on Reddit. Especially, if you don’t have a technical background yourself.

Thankfully, you can bank on people wanting to be part of something greater than themselves. You can tap into this intrinsic motivation to get great results both for your organization and your team.

In this entry, I will be discussing what I have found to work in my own practice.

Jointly come up with stories

The idea requirements are out there to be gathered is a truly misleading one.

I believe the act of story writing is a creative one. Out there what you will find is a problematic situation, your job with your team is to interpret the situations as problems and come up with stories which can then solve these problems.

By being involved in this initial problem setting, your team is able to see the meaning to the work they do.

As Fred Brooks put it:

The programmer, like the poet, works only slightly removed from pure thought-stuff. He builds his castles in the air, from air, creating by exertion of the imagination. Few media of creation are so flexible, so easy to polish and rework, so readily capable of realizing grand conceptual structures

By allowing the whole team to participate in this process, you get creations which are in line with the complexities of the business.

Regularly reflect on purpose

Kieran Setiya in his article on How Schopenhauer’s thought can illuminate a midlife crisis starts with this phrase:

Having jumped the hurdles of the academic career track, I knew I was lucky to be a tenured professor of philosophy. Yet stepping back from the busyness of life, the rush of things to do, I found myself wondering, what now? I felt a sense of repetition and futility, of projects completed just to be replaced by more. I would finish this article, teach this class, and then I would do it all again. It was not that everything seemed worthless. Even at my lowest ebb, I didn’t feel there was no point in what I was doing. Yet somehow the succession of activities, each one rational in itself, fell short.

You don’t need to be approaching midlife to get this sense, write-commit-push-deploy can feel as grinding.

Your best developers joined your organization for why you do what you do. It is easy to assume this sense will always remain there after all the company has not changed right?

I would posit you need to regularly remind your people why they what they do. At iHub we built communities, it was always satisfying to see the uber successes in the industry trace their roots back to our organization. At Twiga, we are helping bring food security to the country. From this perspective, each commit matters that much more.

Identify and manage freeloaders

I came across this interesting video showing monkeys understand the concept of fairness


Unfortunately, in any team, there will be those who will be looking to do the least amount of work possible. Even if they never mention it, the other teammates notice and I assure you they don’t like it.

Ben Horowitz called it the law of crappy people:

For any title in an organization the talent in that level will eventually converge to the crappiest person with the title. Everyone at the lower level will naturally benchmark themselves against the crappiest person at the next level.

Present growth opportunities

If you did your interviews right, your people are smart motivated and ambitious. The last thing they want to feel is stuck. Paradoxically, your best devs will resist promotion to management. This is no excuse to give up on them. Instead, provide them with opportunities to grow within their interests.

This means actively monitoring what they are working on and scanning for new opportunities to challenge them even more.

How do you grow commitment within your own team? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex


Why we are moving to microservices

Ever since I joined Twiga, there has been talk of switching to a microservice architecture. This idea had been baked into the product from the beginning so the switch should not be as hard.

I don’t actively code so there is no technical satisfaction but am still excited about what is coming next.

In this entry, will be talking about what I foresee coming.

The project becomes more expressive

In a previous entry, we delved into what it means to properly name entities in your code.

Having a big vocabulary is useful because we are better able to attend to concepts we have a name for.

By breaking up our system into microservices, we are able to have multiple entities to talk about. For example, it will be possible to have a meeting to discuss authentication and have its code cast in the background that is functionally separate from the rest of the system.

This tallies well with our brain which is wired up for affordance. Briefly described, the theory of affordance states we don’t see things as they are but as what they mean to us. Eg a cup as something to reach towards. Thus our code will now express meaning.

Evolution on multiple timelines becomes possible

Working for a fast growing startup has turned out to require far more versatility than I originally thought. The core product needs to serve multiple parties each having their own goals, values and tech readiness.

We could always work out what would be the best processes for the organization and then code it but of what value would that be to the person using it?

To ensure the product we deliver actually has value to a human, we need to evolve the product to better serve them, when we have multiple classes of users with fundamentally different needs, we are in effect building out a suite of products.

Microservices should help this flow much easier by enabling us to evolve at the rate of the relevant party.

Easier to scale the team

As I briefly explained in the entry How managers cripple their best team members new team members are inherently destabilizing.

Yet a feature of a growing startup is an influx of new team members.

The switch then should enable us to set up independent teams to work on different services while preserving the integrity of existing high performing teams.

Furthermore, it’s now possible to use multiple languages across the system growing our hiring talent pool and enabling us to use the best language for any specific use case.

Do you use microservices in your own organization? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex