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Background

I'm a software developer and recently the product owner on my team has been intermittently absent. Her direct boss "Joe" has started attending some of our meetings that she can't make it to. We do agile and try to keep our meetings (scrum, retrospectives, etc...) as close to their intended purpose as possible, and the team has a scrum master (not me) who is present in these meetings. I don't know how much Joe has been exposed to agile, so I'm not sure if he's fully aware of the rigidity with which we try to run meetings.

The Problem

There have been several instances since Joe started attending our meetings where he will take over the meeting to talk about something other than the intended purpose of the meetings. The things he talks about are still work-related, but they hinder us from being able to complete the goals of our meetings. For example: every two weeks we have a sprint planning meeting for 30 minutes to assign out work for the next two weeks. At our last one, Joe spent 10-15 minutes of the meeting informing the team that we will be getting interns 3 months from now.

I've only just met Joe recently, but others on my team told me they've had this problem with him in the past. I believe that they've tried talking to him about it, but the issue still persists. I talked to my manager about him, and was told that there have been discussions in the past about the issue, specifically the team had a retrospective once where much of the conversation revolved around meetings getting off topic. I don't know if Joe was in that meeting or if he was specifically called out or the team just discussed the general topic of off-topic meetings. I haven't seen anyone do anything in meetings like interrupting Joe to steer the meeting back.

Since I only recently met Joe, I don't know him well enough to have a good idea how he will respond to feedback. One thing I should mention is that I am remote from the rest of my team, so every meeting is them all in a conference room and me calling in via skype.

How can I politely stop Joe when he gets off topic so that he doesn't derail the whole meeting?

  • 2
    You are on spot here if you want to solve this on an interpersonal level just between the two of you. If you want to know how to solve it inside your project management process or who's job it would be to do that, The Workplace or Project Management might be a good idea too. It might be hard to achieve your goal if that person sees your actions as "out of line". – nvoigt Apr 25 at 6:20
  • Does Joe's sidetracking cause the meetings to go over time? Or is he making use of extra time in the meeting? – scohe001 Apr 25 at 13:53
  • @scohe001 Sometimes he's caused us to go over (the sprint planning meeting I mentioned) and sometimes (for instance our standups) the rest of the team goes faster to compensate. I wouldn't say he uses extra time, because his sidetracking tends to happen closer to the beginning of meetings. – Rainbacon Apr 25 at 13:55
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Background : software developer working in scrum teams for the last three years.

I wouldn't have a big picture talk with Joe since he's not someone you're close with, and even if he's not exactly superior to you, he is the manager of your product owner, so I would be mindful about the hierarchy here. Giving someone advice like that without that person asking for it has a high potential to make things awkward. Plus, you have reasons to believe Joe has been made aware of this and hasn't changed, so I don't think a talk from you (a recent coworker) will have much impact.

Instead, I would try refocus the meetings in the moment :

"We've gone off topic for this reunion here, let's plan another time to talk about this specific problem."

"Could we talk about this after the meeting so we don't lose focus?"

"Not everybody is needed for this discussion, let's talk about it later."

These are all sentences that have been said by me or coworkers during meetings which got sidetracked. Our current scrum master isn't the cause for this, but he's also not great at keeping a meeting on track, so some of us do take that responsibility sometimes (the scrum master before him was great at it, so we feel the difference in length and quality of the meetings).

Tone, like always, is as important as what you say. Be upbeat and calm, don't sound nervous or irritated. Also, don't only look at the person derailing the meeting, look around the room. It's less likely for that person to feel slighted or attacked, and it gives the opportunity to chime in agreement.

Hopefully, he will learn in time. If not, you should at least be able to manage those meetings (and Joe) better.

EDIT : since you have a scrum master who doesn't intervene during meetings (like he should), than I stand by my advice, since this what we do in the same situation, and it works fine. But if you have a good rapport with him, you could (alone or with a couple other developers) share your frustrations with the derailed meetings and ask if he could intervene when this happens.

  • 2
    The post says Joe is the manager of the Product Owner, not the Scrum Master (though he might be the boss of both) – Erik Apr 25 at 17:01
  • Ah, I thought I read scrum master. This changes things a bit if there is a scrum master and is present during the meetings – MlleMei Apr 25 at 17:14
  • This depends A LOT on workplace env. In many cases correcting a high level boss "in the moment" doesn't go well. – DaveG Apr 26 at 16:15
  • @DaveG In a scrum team, there should be no boss, everyone is considered to be on the same level, so having people chime in like that shouldn't be a big deal. Ideally, the scrum master keeps things on track (and since he's "hosting" the meeting, it will come of better coming from him), but scrum teams shouldn't be so hung up on hierarchy. This is general advice that should work for most places with a "normal" scrum team. – MlleMei Apr 29 at 13:19
  • @MlleMei yes, in a Scrum team. But in this case, the boss of the PO is entering the meeting. It's not the usual case. – DaveG Apr 29 at 15:42
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I've had this sort of behaviour in meetings that are held by my team. The usual course of action when someone is ranting about something is we interrupt and say something like

Maybe this would be better to talk about after the meeting?

This is either done by someone else in the meeting or the person themselves noticing they're dragging the meeting. In this case I assume someone else does this. It's viewed by us as a nudge to say "Hey teammate, you're talk is cool n'all but we need to talk about other things." whilst still offering the idea of talking about it after the meeting has ended.

As for timing of this, whenever is best. It's going to come off as rude when you interrupt someone when they're talking but when the idea is given they may realise and agree with it; maybe even correcting their actions for the future.

  • "It's going to come off as rude" isn't the purpose of this site to find a way not to? – nvoigt Apr 25 at 15:39
  • It's probably the way I've worded it... It's rude when you interrupt but that rudeness gets cancelled out by the knowledge of why they interrupted? You're free to edit if you understand where I'm going with it! :) – L_Church Apr 25 at 15:42
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My advice would be to talk with the scrum master about the situation, since they're certainly aware of it, and it's specifically part of their job to handle it. However, dealing with people like Joe is often more than one person's job, so they could possibly use some help. But they know the situation and what would help better than you do. Any effort to fix it should be coordinated through them for best effect, so they're the natural point for such discussions.

This is a slightly different focus than MlleMei's suggestion, because I understand that there can be complicated efforts to fix situations like the one with Joe that could involve a sustained period of not overtly trying to fix things in the meeting itself. Depending on what those are, and the personalities involved, taking action without first discussing it with the obvious point person for fixing this issue risks undermining those efforts.

Apart from that slight answer, MlleMei's answer is quite good and I have nothing to add on the rest of the topic.

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