The Checkin Question: Loved by some, hated by many

Have you ever sat in a meeting and been asked to ‘checkin’ with a silly question? If you were an animal, what animal would it be? What is your current weather forecast? I recently met a VP who hates these questions and here’s why I think he’s right…

I recently had a conversation with a VP of Engineering and as we shared our experiences, the one thing he made sure I understood was that he *hates* checkin questions and I was never to do them at his company. He felt that these questions were patronising, unprofessional and undermined the maturity of the audience.

I found his reaction really interesting and I think as Facilitators/Scrum Masters/Agile Coaches/Team Leaders it’s something we should take to heart. When we ask participants to engage in certain activities, do they know why we’re doing them? Do we know why we’re doing them? Are we just doing those things because it’s what facilitators do? He was right – being asked to do something that is seemingly useless and not optional… sucks.

So here’s why I value checkin questions and how I suggest we start talking about them IFwe decide to use them.

The first few minutes of a meeting are possibly the most important moments in determining the quality to be derived from the rest of the time. How we use these minutes can create the conditions for our brains to do our best thinking or to retreat into threat-based responses which result in poorer quality thinking and thus meeting outcomes. Below are 3 possible reasons I see (and provide to the group) when using a checkin question:

1. Creating the conditions for complex cognitive functioning

Our brains are basically threat/reward detection mechanisms (an oversimplification but a useful analogy). In any given situation we’re unconsciously determining if there is a source of threat (which we should move away from) or possible reward (which we should move towards). For example, if someone shouts at us — we perceive threat and want to move away from the situation.

Unfortunately, we’re overly sensitive to interpreting stimuli negatively (a helpful survival mechanism but not super useful in modern organisations which are full of uncertainty). When we respond to threat our brains optimise for quick decision making (fight, flee or freeze) and divert resources away from the parts of our brain responsible for more complex reasoning (the prefrontal cortex).

So what does this mean for meetings?

The way we start a meeting sets the tone in our brains for what we can expect from the rest of the time. If someone starts off scolding someone for being late, it’s likely the rest of the room will now be on alert, a little more nervous and a little less capable of beautiful, quality thinking. By asking a question that invites a little humour, a little openness, or a little curiosity, we are sending our brains the signal that we’re safe, that we can relax and be fully present.

This is powerful. If people can engage in higher quality thinking because their brains aren’t flooded with threat based chemicals, our meeting outcomes (and organisations) will reap the rewards.

2. Ushering in creativity

Have you ever driven to work and arrived without being able to remember anything unique about the journey? When we settle into habitual patterns, our brains are less likely to be creative and spot new opportunities. The same goes for meetings. If we get stuck in routines and the same activities, our brains settle into habitual ways of thinking.

Some meetings really benefit from creative thinking. One way of beginning to usher in this kind of thinking is to start warming up different parts of the brain right from the beginning. Metaphor is incredibly powerful in this regard. It forces our brains to connect abstract concepts with tangible ones — making it easier to reason about complex concepts. “What colour comes to mind when you think about this project?”

As we begin to create new connections and spark new ideas by examining a topic from a different perspective, different parts of our brains light up and we begin to start thinking a little more creatively.

3. Using data to enable empathy

Finally, one of my personal beliefs is that as humans we’re really bad at compartmentalising life (or maybe good at being coherent). Which means, being ‘professional’ when we’re really struggling is hard. Sometimes you walk into a meeting but your mind is completely consumed with worrying about your child who has been checked into hospital the day before.

We can’t change what someone is feeling or how much they can contribute to a session. What we can do though is make it ok for them to be where they are and allow the group to have this awareness so that we can all have greater empathy. That doesn’t mean we need to divulge our deepest secrets in a meeting.

If we operate on the assumption that everyone is as happy and engaged as we are, we may become frustrated if someone shows up differently in a meeting. Allowing people the chance to let us know how much energy or attention they have at the start is useful both for the facilitator and group. “On a scale of 1 to 5, 5 being bouncing off the walls — how much energy do you have right now?” Simply by hearing that someone isn’t at 100% we are much more likely to extend compassion instead of judgement in the session. This in turn leads to healthier meeting cultures, which in turn can lead to healthier organisational cultures.

In conclusion… I don’t hate checkin questions, I hate the abuse of checkin questions.

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