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Four ELMO methods for your next meeting

Woman looking annoyed because the people around her are grunching

The next time your team spends way too much time discussing should-be-quick decisions like “Radio buttons vs drop-down menu vs switch vs segmented control” try an ELMO method to get back to decision-making.

ELMO stands for “Enough! Let’s move on.” and it’s the simplest way to get your team meeting back on track. Giving team members permission to call out non-productive behavior in a lightweight, no blame way will help your meetings run smoother and you’ll get more done.

Grunching (verbal ELMO)

I learned about the ELMO method at Google’s Area 120. Our lead software engineer proposed that we used a verbal cue to help ourselves move along whenever a discussion didn’t seem to be going anywhere. And after a bit of brainstorming, we agreed on the word ‘Grunching’ (think “crunch” and “grunge” and “grinch”). “Grunching” best described the feeling getting into the weeds of a decision and forgetting our purpose. Calling out “Hey everyone, we’re grunching” or just saying “Grunching!” – that was enough for the whole team to know that it was time to stop talking. Don’t feel creative? You can always say “ELMO”, but abstracting out the problem provides a bit of levity. Take a cue from Anne Gibson and adopt your own term:

We call those conversations squirrels and anyone can interrupt by calling out a squirrel, which somehow feels so much better than yelling Elmo at each other.

Anne Gibson

Beyond team meetings, having a secret word that’s just for your team can help with bonding and forming your team’s identity. What to watch for: With the verbal version of ELMO, you’ll have to model what the practice looks like and figure out ways to tone down the team if people start “yelling Elmo” when they should be approaching the interaction with respect for the larger team.

Raise your hand (non-verbal ELMO)

Don’t feel like saying a silly word? Have a team that’s a bit quieter? Non-verbal ELMO might be better for you, just make sure your team is co-located and has easy visual contact.

How non-verbal ELMO works:

  1. Raise your hand
  2. Say nothing
  3. Everyone laughs with a bit of humility when they realize it’s time to stop talking and move on.

Note – you can’t just do this on your own. You’ve got to get team buy-in and they need to agree on just what the silent hand-raise means. The upside of the silent raised hands is that it reduces the possibility of negative verbal interactions.

ELMO cards

Digital ELMO cards for your phone

Easy and free: Try a digital ELMO card made by Tiago Machado. Just head over to and add the site to your phone’s homescreen. Have a serious ELMO issue? Try making a team ritual of everyone readying their ELMO cards before a meeting starts.

Unexpected bonus: when people have their phones set to show an ELMO card, they’re less likely to use it for other things.

Printable and pre-made ELMO cards

If you’d call your team “Agile Aficionados” and story sizing cards are part of your practice, then order or make a set of ELMO cards to make your meetings better.

  • Print your own cards courtesy of Agile Innovation Coach (Download the PDF)
  • Order a set of collaboration cards with cues for better meetings or a set of ELMO-only cards from the folks at Collaboration Superpowers

Using these cards will take practice! And if you’ve got a lot of people on your video conferencing system you may need a meeting facilitator just to watch for cards.

Add a literal ELMO to your meeting

That’s right. Get a stuffed ELMO (the non-singing, non-tickling kind) and have it at your meeting. At each meeting, have an ELMO owner who’s responsible for Elmo and ELMO. If conversation on one point goes on too long, the ELMO owner lifts up the ELMO to indicate it’s time to move on.

Things to really think hard on:

  • Talk this over with your team before you show up with an Elmo plushie
  • Take care to not purchase a walking, talking, or tickle-me Elmo

How to get started with any ELMO method

  • Understand your team and how it works. If your team uses Agile cards, then ordering physical ELMO cards is the way to go. If you’re working on an ad hoc project or you have a playful vibe on the team, then go with Grunching. Or adapt another method to fit your team’s style.
  • Discuss the problem with your team before you bring a stuffed Elmo to your next team meeting. Try this: “Hey team, remember how we didn’t get through our last retrospective because we had so much to discuss? What if we start reminding each other about moving on in conversations?”
  • Offer your solution. “What if we try (cards that help us get back on track in the conversation/having a code word that helps us realize we’re in the weeds/raising a hand, but not saying anything.)” Choose the recommendation that best fits your team.
  • See if people are interested in your idea. If they are, you can start using the hand-raise or secret-word methods right away. And you don’t have to wait for cards to arrive in the mail – you can just write ELMO on a few post-it notes and use those in a pinch.

Looking for more methods for better meetings? Read Priya Parker’s Art of Gathering.

By Abi Jones

Abi Jones is the UX Manager for Imaging & Diagnostics in Google Health. She leads an interdisciplinary team of researchers and designers focused on using artificial intelligence to assist in diagnosing cancer and preventing blindness.

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