How to write an agenda


Previously, I have talked about the value of an agenda In fact. I went so far as to say a meeting without an agenda is probably a waste of your time.

I still stand by these words thou now there is more to say. Having an agenda at all gets you 80% of the way there, how do you cover the rest of the way? Better agendas of course!

In this entry, I will be sharing some thoughts on how to craft your agenda. These are the questions you as the meeting sponsor should be mindful of.

Why is this meeting needed?

In organizations, meetings are a way of life. In fact, once you become a manager, meetings are the way you get your work done.

A basketball player has his court, a sculptor his marble, a manager has his meetings.

Yet every meeting needs to have a purpose. Do you want to:

  • Pass on some information to the team?
  • Get an update from the team?
  • Collaboratively solve a big strategic problem?
  • Have the team update each other?
  • Hold court so they all know who is boss?

If you don’t know what you want, the confusion will radiate across the whole group spreading woe and misery to all who have to sit in.

This doesn’t mean you have to be dead set on what you want to be done. It simply means you have to have an end goal in mind if then you have to modify it, at least you know what you are modifying.

Who needs to be in the meeting?

An organization, at least the successful ones, pull in one direction. To achieve this, you must understand what it takes to get things done.

You must be acutely aware of who can:

  • Provide know-how on the meeting objectives
  • Veto the meeting actions/decisions
  • Will act on the outcomes from the decision

Provide know-how on the meeting objectives

In today’s economy, knowledge is specialized, this is why we form organizations, to bring together multiple domains of knowledge to bear on a single well defined problem.

With this in mind, if you are calling a meeting to solve a problem, it’s useful to think who would have expertise in these kinds of problems. This way you would save time otherwise wasted in trial and error.

Veto the meeting actions/decisions

I have heard of flat organizations, I am yet to see one without any kind of hierarchy and is a going concern.

Unless you are the owner and CEO, you probably have someone or a group of someones who can overturn your decisions. You need to be mindful of how important the purpose of the meeting is to them.

Consider inviting them to the meeting or at least sharing the important factors you are to discuss and have them give you their opinion beforehand.

Will act on the outcomes from the decision

Handoffs don’t usually work. If you want someone to do the work well, they need a sense of ownership over the work. The most effective way to get there is to co-opt them into the decision making progress.

Even if you don’t end up adopting their ideas, they should be sure their ideas were given full consideration and turned down on the basis of merit.

What will be the output?

A meeting that does not produce any artifact is better classified as a hangout.

You need to be clear on what exactly will be the output of the session. This can come in multiple formats:

  • An action list
  • A decision
  • A report
  • A statement

The idea here is a meeting is rarely a reason in itself for existing. It supports another process or a bigger objective. The output of the discussion then needs to come out in a format another person or team can consume.

How will the meeting be run?

Meetings come in all types, some are short and sweet others are long and engaging. The point is to identify how you plan on having the team work together.

Some of the common ways include:

  • Individual updates in a round robin
  • Brainstorming session where all ideas are dumped into a common board
  • Listing session where ideas related to one item are solicited
  • Executive update where the sponsor gives information and fields questions
  • Timeboxed deliberation where agenda items are discussed with no aim for a resolution

The way of working will depend on your organization. The point is by being clear on it, you are able to make the most of the time the session runs.

How do you build an agenda in your organization? Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob  or my twitter @jchex



What to consider when growing your team


In the course of our working lives, we have to make a whole lot of decisions. In this entry, I would like to take the time to reflect on what I think are the most important decisions you have to make, hiring, firing, and promoting.

As the leader of your team, it is your responsibility to nurture it to maturity. This means you can not abdicate hiring decisions to HR, staffing firm or even hiring system.

Obviously most of us don’t really originate the teams we lead, we inherit them, still your most important work remains this team, when you took on the job, you became accountable for its performance.

With that said, let me delve right into what it takes to make great staffing decisions for your team.

What does each role do?

A characteristic of the modern economy is specialization. Within our teams, this manifests as highly specialized roles.

For example in a tech team you may have:

  • Backend developer
  • Front developer
  • Designer
  • UXer

Depending on your business even more nuanced roles may come up.

Looking at this composition, the most obvious take away is none of the team members are any good by themselves. What good does a Designer do if no one translates her designs to a working system?

As I stress in other posts, tech is an organ of the business, it gets its raison d’être from the business of which it is a part.

Thus your duty as the leader of the team is to carefully consider (best done with the team) what value the team offers to the business. Once this is done, consider how each role contributes to the generation of this value.

The exercise will help you more clearly see the roles, who would fit in them, missing roles and even redundant roles.

Remember, the character of the roles changes with the rhythms of the business. An example would be the perfect backend engineer role when the business serviced 20 customers may fit the bill for an SRE engineer now that the business serves 100 customers.

What strengths are needed for each position?

I used to believe all humans are equal in ability and temperament, all that matters is the effort put into the work. I have come to learn from experience this is not true.

Each person comes equipped with a natural set of strengths and weaknesses.

There is no point in trying to mold a naturally creative but otherwise disorganized person as your coordinator. Likewise, it would be foolish to strap your “by the rules kind of gal” into a position requiring constant adaptation.

Now, this is not to say weaknesses can’t be overcome, of course, they can, the challenge is even if they are, what you end up with is at best an average performer.

The point here is not to eliminate glaring weaknesses, even the most charming salesperson is to be relieved of his role if he repeatedly shows up to important meetings inebriated.

What are behaviors to look out for?

In time, I have come to realize people judge themselves by their intentions and not by their actions. This would be ok if intentions and actions match, but you must have come across individuals who consistently act against their self-interest in ways which dumbfound even themselves.

What is the implication of this odd fact as you make hiring decisions?

You must focus on behaviors and not on statements of intent. You must teach yourself to drill into the details. If an interviewee says I taught myself python, ask what projects they have actually done in this project, then ask to see the codebase. If you have the time, see the commit history!

When defining the role, think deeply about what behaviors they will need to exhibit in order to be successful in this role. This can help you and other hiring managers ask the right questions.

For example, I hold people who have self-taught in high regard. There is something special about someone who after all the stress of their day jobs still manages to get home and finish a course not directly related to their current job. This is a behavior, not an intent.

Now that they have joined, what next?

I am not one easily accused of micromanagement. I believe each team member should be able to set their own working style and priorities as long as they align with the business goals.

The problem is if a new hire or recently promoted staffer has no idea what the role involves. In this case, some guidance is needed.

This is because a person’s performance depends on both their ability and experience on the job. So a person who has great ability but no idea what the job is all about will likely fail. A person with low ability should likely not be in your team at all.

Personally, I use OKRs (Objectives and Key results). Together, we brainstorm on 5-10 objectives for the next quarter, I give them a week to think about it, we then whittle down the list to the top 3 and attach some measurable results to tell us if they met the objectives.

How do you make staffing decisions? Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob  or my twitter @jchex


Making better decisions



Good decisions matter. In fact, it could be argued the primarily KPI for a manager is decision making.

Confronted with a decision, I have seen many professionals give instructions based on the first thing that comes to their mind. As in any other field, some managers are particularly gifted, and this works out, for the rest of us, it makes some sense to have some rules of thumb handy.

In this entry, I will be reflecting on the various actions I have found useful in making effective decisions.

Be Precise

SMART. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time based.

Surely we all must have heard about this acronym somewhere. As a framework for evaluating goals, its merits are beyond dispute, yet I argue the method can be simplified even further. For decisions only two factors matter.

Measurable and Time-based.

By definition, a decision implies the existence of alternatives. Here, I mean real options. For example, a decision should we or should we not pay our top employees is mute, the alternative is untenable

A good choice gives proper stead to the other options. It explores the possible costs and benefits in ways that can be measured.

Consider the  decision such as:

We will introduce game night to boost employee morale

Sounds great right? Now what about:

We will introduce game night, this will cost us Kshs 1M per month. It is expected in the coming year, we will experience a drop in voluntary exits from average of 5 per month as seen last year to 2 per month saving us recruitment and training costs of 3M per month

The decision is not only measurable, but it is also possible to reflect on the decision in a year and see if it was actually the right decision.

Build in a way for the decision to be executed

If you happen to attend a government function, you can expect to hear words such as:

As a government we will work to ensure you have clean water, a hospital here, jobs for every able person and reduce your taxes.

Obviously high aspiration but mostly fluff. No decision has been made here, after all, how will all these goodies be delivered on the back of a government cutting its own funding means?

Any manager worth his salt sees through this hyperbole, the same manager then goes to the office the next day and declares to his team.

This quarter we have adjusted our sprint goal to 60 story points per sprint. I trust in you to deliver this.

If the confused looks from your team were not educative, let me explain what went wrong. The decision made here is merely un-executable.  Don’t get me wrong, as a goal, it has some excellent characteristics, it’s definitely measurable and time-bound but how the hell is the team to execute on it?

Perhaps a better way to do this.

Due to company x ( a new threat) entering our industry, a decision has been made to more quickly move along our product plan. Our historical average has been 40pts/sprint but I believe we can get this to 60pts/sprint. To do this, we need higher quality hires, the HR team will be holding a session with us on how we can systemize our hiring process. Further, I believe as surely you must that higher quality code is the basis of faster development due to reduced rework. Thus going forward enforce a strict policy of 100% code coverage on all new code.

Of course, don’t give orders, ensure whatever decision you come up with and its attendant actions have well been negotiated with knowledgeable parties within your team.

Embrace conflict

I work with a great team at Twiga, for the purposes of this example, I will discuss two particular managers within the product team, Evans and Seth.

Seth is extremely precise in his thinking, his attention to detail is something to marvel at. In discussions, he will usually be the first person to notice inconsistencies in what we are working on.

Evans, on the other hand, is unusually perceptive.  He is able to synthesize a great number of facts and come up with a simple and clear explanation.

In any working session, there will always be some opposition to my ideas. At first, I merely accepted this, but I have come to embrace it. These two gentlemen have sharpened my thinking, through their eyes, I am now able to see through my own blind spots.

This is not a fringe phenomenon in my own little world or even within Twiga but indeed a general truth. To get the best thinking available, you must submit your ideas to argumentation and be willing to take the best ideas.

It is only through this means your decisions will get sharpened.