Why meetings fail and JAM Sessions succeed

Over the last several years we have been analyzing our JAM Sessions to get an understanding of what makes them so phenomenally successful and why traditional meetings fail.

We’ve seen our fair share of projects where the prior attempts were not successful, in some cases totaling millions of dollars. Most of the time we find that too much emphasis was placed on the technology as being the saving grace or the project simply couldn’t gain consensus from the stakeholders on the end solution.

So why is that you may ask? Our research shows it comes down to the building blocks that make up any project and those have traditionally been meetings. After all the teams members are selected, project plans created, budgets allocated, locations secured, the core components of every project rely on meetings to define the project requirements. For the past 7 years we’ve have found that meetings are an ineffective way to elicit stakeholder requirements.

But wait isn’t a JAM Session just another meeting? No, they are far from meetings and we’ll get to the 10 Factors of what makes a JAM Session different in a moment; but for now lets continue to explore the core reasons why meetings fail to deliver the necessary requirements for a given project.

  • Lack of Flow
  • More often than not, meetings lack any sort of flow, we’ll discuss flow more in a bit but as Jason Fried of 37Signals writes in his book Rework. Meetings “break your work day into small, incoherent pieces that disrupt your natural workflow”.

  • Too many cooks
  • Often there are simply too many people are involved, all pretending to be effective with a tiny, minuscule piece of the requirements pie. When in reality there only needs to be one person to take ownership of each major functional area and make quick decisions without consulting a committee for the answer.

    Now lets look at how a JAM Session differs and investigate the 10 Factors that create tangible, highly productive and often project changing results.

     (1) Flow

    According to Wikipedia; Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.

    Of all the 10 Factors, Flow is the most critical. We learned that you can have the perfect environment, the appropriate stakeholders yet if everyone in the room is not in “the moment” then crucial facts and decisions are overlooked.

    An example of this was on a project were we had members of the Technical Architecture team present, they attended a JAM Session, reviewed the visualization but it wasn’t until months later when they were ready to focus on a particular functional area did they truly become “in the moment” or as many athletes refer to as “being in the zone”. The challenge with not having everyone in the moment is that often the stakeholders will have already signed off on the requirements and costly rework occurs.

     (2) Duration Duration ties directly to Flow in that it takes an individual a set amount of time (often far greater than 30 minutes) before they can truly block out distractions and become engaged in the discussion or topic at hand. This is a core problem with most meetings in that they are typically 30 minutes, 1 hour or 2 hours max. By the time the meeting gets started and people actually start solving problems, the meeting ends. Our JAM Sessions are 6-8 hours per day for two or three days at a time. Some people have argued this is too much time but our 7 years of success directly proves this approach is the only way to achieve optimal results. It is this dedicated amount of time and Flow along with the other 8 Factors that transform an active group of participants into achieving greater results. We’ve heard hundreds of times that our 3 day JAM Sessions accomplished more than the project had previously accomplished in 3 months of using traditional meetings.

     (3) Environment Setting the right stage is an important Factor to a JAM Session. So much so we’ve actually designed a dedicated JAM Lab in Atlanta to support the ideal Flow of the JAM Session. At first this may not appear to be a major factor but think for a moment about the last time you walked into a department store and how the environment played into your decision making. Recently Telsa Motors created the future of Automotive Showrooms by hiring George Blankenship, the former Apple retail guru to help Tesla design an experiential environment like no other automaker.

    Looking at most meetings you’ve attended you might agree that the environment was not the most conducive to achieving high impact results, this is where we’ve taken time to address the ideal placement of monitors, seating arrangements and lighting. Our future DC JAM Lab is taking these concepts to an even more advanced level by integrating stakeholder participation through an exciting new use of technologies.

     (4) Stakeholders It is safe to say that no meeting is complete without the Stakeholders. But how often do you have the right Stakeholders? This is where our JAM Sessions differ in that we go to great lengths to work with the project sponsor ensuring that only the most critical people are invited to participate, these are people who have the power to make a decision during the JAM Session and not deferring to others which can take weeks or months to decide. Another crucial aspect of this involves having the right amount of Stakeholders present, the greater number you have the longer it takes to make decisions. Our ideal number is six, any more and you quickly experience a diminishing return.

     (5) Producer Factors 5, 6 and 7 are roles we’ve defined within OneSpring. They are the people that make up a JAM Session from our side. We’ve tried doing a JAM Session with just one or two but it really does take a team to ensure the JAM Session Flows. This trio of skill sets is what we equate to our version of performance art and why not all Analysts and Designers are capable of leading a JAM Session. It takes years of practice and understanding of not only ones core discipline but the mastery of performing in front of a room of Stakeholders takes a certain capacity that is often crafted through experience. The Producer is our master facilitator, it is this persons responsibility to ensure that all Factors are properly executed to a degree of satisfaction that results in our success levels. Ultimately all project and JAM Session success falls on the shoulders of the Producer, much to the resemblance of a symphony conductor.

     (6) Designer The Designer is more or less the right brain of the JAM Session, they are responsible for ensuring that user requirements are not only captured but in real time designing the screens and workflows as the Producer guides the Stakeholders through the journey of defining the user interface requirements. This on the fly design is were most meetings fail to produce tangible results as most likely a traditional meeting has at most a collection of minutes typed up in MS Word with no visual elements to reflect the time or thoughts captured.

     (7) Analyst Our Analysts are the compliment to the Designer by providing the analytical skills necessary to capture the business and technical requirements as the Stakeholders ideate on their vision. It is the Analyst’s responsibility to ensure that no stone is left unturned. On many of occasions the Analysts have captured several hundred Functional Requirements and Business Rules in a mere three day JAM Session. The Analysts round out the trio of performers forming the OneSpring team.

     (8) Ownership This can be the most difficult to control as it comes down to the Stakeholders being empowered within their organization to make the sometimes difficult decisions required to progress a project forward. This is a key difference between traditional meetings and JAM Sessions, as in many cases meetings rarely have the people necessary to make a decision and revert to taking a note for future follow up or approval from their manager. JAM Sessions are designed to swiftly act and decide on a given direction without limiting the progress of the project.

     (9) Free Thought This factor is often overlooked in many meetings due to the short timeframes allocated. Free Thought involves the practice of experimenting with numerous ideas without being afraid of an idea failing. Our JAM Sessions provide the means to explore all possibilities in a rapid, iterative environment. It is here that we can test a myriad of scenarios without costing the project vast amounts of time or money. This is accomplished by the use of our visualization tools, these tools, addressed in Factor 10 enable our designers to prototype without coding. Meaning extremely fast concepts are modeled and rendered in real-time within the JAM Session. This activity is rarely feasible during a traditional meeting.

     (10) Tools Lastly but not of least importance are the tools that enable many of the Factors discussed above. At OneSpring we use a number of industry standard tools for requirements elicitation and visualization. As of late 2010 we have even ventured into the creation of our own software to specifically address the needs and the uniquely dynamic nature of our JAM Sessions. These tools integrate the three pillars of eliciting, managing and visualizing requirements.

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