• Fireside Chats

Today, I want to share something that I began doing previously and have carried through to my current teams. I call them fireside chats. They aren’t the typical setup where someone is up on staging fielding questions. They are simply the team getting together early on Monday morning in an informal setting and just chatting. It’s an open discussion. Sometimes as the manager I field questions. Sometimes we talk about what we did over the weekend. Sometimes we talk about items that are probably better suited for a retrospective, but regardless, this is an opportunity to talk about them.

Originally posted on Medium.

At a previous company, I was asked to lead a team that was pretty demoralized. It was a typical startup scenario. The CTO built something over the weekend that should have been considered a prototype, but because he was the CTO it was pushed to production and then came the customer support. Obviously the CTO was not going to stick around to maintain what he built, or better even continue to build more on top of it, so a team was asked to form around the functionality. The functionality turned out to be very important. It was the data reporting and analytics that all of the company’s customers were going to use. The majority of the newly formed team had come from another startup where they built internal tools. They weren’t exactly use to supporting functionality that users would write in about. I’ll write a followup on having a mindset for internal versus external facing applications. But you get the idea, this team was not setup for success from the very beginning. It experienced some high turnover right before I joined them. I decided to get creative in pulling this team together and to lift their spirits. The team was mostly distributed. Some were in the San Francisco office, others were scattered around the country. The best thing to improve was camaraderie. The team had to come together as a team first, before we were going to make any headway on turning the prototype into something that was production ready.

Agile ceremonies don’t exactly promote camaraderie. It’s one of the reason, I don’t exactly love how most retros are done. To counterbalance our Agile ceremonies, I introduced the fireside chat. It was 30 minutes on Monday mornings and people immediately started calling it their “favorite meeting”. It probably says a lot that they liked it, it being a meeting after all.

There really is no agenda to the fireside chat other than get together and casually talk about our intentions for the week. I’ve run them with a little more structure where we went around the room and everyone quickly stated their intentions. This helped everyone have a shared understanding of what each team members priorities were. It also lets you see the forest through the trees. Standups can be so focused on individual tickets, that it’s hard to see the bigger picture. Seeing the bigger picture gives the team a sense of purpose and accomplishment. I typically run them with no agenda and just see where the team goes. By just getting together for a short period of time and talking in plain english, we are able to get a lot accomplished. Often times, we start focusing on a specific topic. Other times, the individual contributors are asking about organization type topics. As a manager, I find it important to answer those types of questions that may be distracting otherwise. Either way, it’s 30 minutes where we start the work week off as a team setting the tone for the week by simply having a conversation. For distributed teams, I find this extremely important. But even if everyone is in one physical location, just getting together to talk about how things are going with JIRA boards, or other influences is huge. Remember to be inclusive. This is the whole team, not just the engineers. Include QA, they are part of the team. Include the product owner, they are part of the team. Set expectations that this is not a status check in, that is what agile ceremonies are for. This is simply a conversation about whatever is top of mind that impacts the team as a whole, including the intentions for the week.

It’s worked with multiple teams I have managed so far. If you are looking for a way to increase morale, or bring the team together more, I highly encourage you to schedule a casual conversation at the start of each week. It may become your team’s “favorite” meeting.