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Interviewing the Sponsor

In workshops, design meetings, retrospectives, or planning meetings, you may be the project manager who is calling the meeting with a specific end in mind (for example, "We need a design decision," "We need commitment from the executive leadership," or "We have to declare a go/no go on deployment of the latest build."). In another scenario, as project manager, you may have been asked by the customer or stakeholders to hold a planning meeting to kick off the project. Or, because the project manager has subject matter expertise that requires her to actively participate in the meeting, you may have been asked to help the team by facilitating the meeting.

In any of these scenarios, your first order of business is to clearly identify, "Who is the sponsor of this meeting, and how can I ensure that this person gets what they need from this meeting?" The sponsor is the person (or the group of people) who has the most to gain or lose as a result of the meeting’s outcomes. In a sense, they are the party that needs the collaboration to take place and to succeed: They need some piece of information, or a strategy, or a decision, or a commitment from the participants.

For preliminary planning meetings, such as a Release Planning meeting, this is an executive or senior person representing the client group in the development project. They have secured the funding and the commitment from the business to proceed with the development effort. In addition, they’ve made predictions, assurances, or promises about the value the project can deliver. For the Release Planning meeting in an Extreme Programming project, the sponsor might be the customer who needs to learn how the team can define a high-level view of the next product release. In a retrospective, it might be the project manager who wants to learn more from the team about how to proceed with best practices in the future.

In collaborative, high-performing teams, the "sponsor" is very often the entire team; they have a specific need to have you very objectively manage the meeting agenda for them to ensure that they stay on track for their purpose. You merely own the process that gets them to their purpose through the means (agenda and practices) that can ensure their success.

To hold a successful collaboration, ask yourself or the sponsor:

What is the purpose of this meeting?

You can also reflect on these supporting questions to provide further insight into the meeting’s goals:

  • What do you want to accomplish through this meeting?
  • What problems do you intend to address in this meeting?
  • What benefits do you hope to reap?
  • What organizational issues do you wish to address?
  • What is the current situation of the group?
  • What is the future state desired?

What Is the Purpose of This Meeting?

Of all the questions you might ask about a meeting, the most important is "What is the purpose of this meeting?"

Even for your own meetings (you are calling a planning meeting with your team, or you want to hold a project retrospective, or you need to hold a refactoring meeting), this big yet simple question prompts you to clearly define for yourself the sole and singular purpose of the meeting. It keeps you focused and honest.

To figure out the purpose of the meeting, pose the following scenario and question to the sponsor (or yourself):

"Imagine that the meeting has just ended."

"You are walking out the door of the meeting, and you turn to your colleague and say, ‘I am so happy with what the group has accomplished in this meeting!’"

"What was it that the group accomplished that made you so happy?"

When you are able to answer this question, then and only then do you have the true purpose of your meeting. But beware! You may discover even at this point that your meeting is in peril of failure. Here are a few indicators that your meeting’s purpose may still be a bit too fuzzy to warrant gathering your team:

  • You can’t articulate the purpose in a single statement (yes, it is a design meeting, but you haven’t yet formulated with the team how the design should be captured, what the scope of the design is to be, or what agreements are expected to emerge as a result of the design discussion).
  • You have too many things you want to accomplish in one meeting and they don’t really relate to one another.
  • You don’t know the purpose because the real reason you are having the meeting is because your director told you to have it.
  • You hadn’t really planned on an outcome; you just wanted to get together to talk with your team.
  • You always have the meeting because it is your weekly meeting; that is its purpose.

So, how will you know when you are on the right track for defining your meeting? You’ll know you have a clearly stated purpose when:

  • It can be stated in the following way: "The purpose of the meeting is to ............." where you can fill in an action ("create," "define," "select," "produce") followed by an outcome ("process definition," "iteration scope," "Product Backlog," "set of use cases," "conceptual object model").
  • It represents the outcome that would convince you (or whoever is the meeting’s sponsor) that the meeting has been a success.
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