Why Atlassian is using a rubber chicken called Helmut to run more effective meetings

Mike Cannon-Brookes

Earlier this month Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes launched a campaign against the demerger. Source: supplied.

Australian startup giant Atlassian is taking an unconventional approach to managing long, unwieldy meetings by introducing a squeaking rubber chicken into the mix.

With offices around the globe and a 2000-strong workforce, the multi-billion dollar software company has found a cheap but effective way to make sure meetings run on-time, are kept on track and everyone’s voice is heard.

Officially dubbed “Helmut the Facilitation Chicken”, the rubber toy was introduced by Atlassian’s head of design Jürgen Spangl after he grew tired of repetitive meetings that were sometimes all-talk, no action.

“I’ve sat in I-don’t-know-how-many meetings over the course of my career where the discussion went on forever, but was going nowhere,” Spangl shared in a Medium post earlier this year.

“The worst part is that everybody knew it. But nobody felt like it was their place to say  —  much less do  —  something about it. Awkward…”

Enter Helmut the Facilitation Chicken, the rubber chicken that Spangl said “changed my life”.

“His job is to shut people up. But in a nice way.” he said.

Its an offering that was quickly picked up within the Atlassian team, and Dominic Price, head of research and development for the tech giant, says Helmut and his flock of squawking friends — now deployed across Atlassian offices around the globe — are great at giving all employees a voice.

“We realised that there was a situation where the alpha, most senior, or most opinionated person dominated a meeting. Not bad intent. Not malicious. Just the way things happen,” Price tells StartupSmart. 

“We firmly believe in cognitive diversity and having an inclusive environment, but you can’t get that by accident.”

To actively promote an inclusive environment, Helmut or one of his friends gets a squeeze whenever the conversation is going off track, being hijacked by a team member, or needs to move on to the next topic.

“We added a few chickens. We told lots of stories about them. We named them Helmut. Our design team loved it and it became a bit of a norm,” Price explains.

Price says that while the team at Atlassian “don’t care about efficient meetings”, they do care about effective meetings.

This means asking whether they need to have a meeting at all, who needs to be in the room, and what the real purpose of the meeting is.

“Then Helmut comes in, to help us get the best value out of the meeting and comfortably call BS on each other,” Price adds.

For aspiring startups looking to scale and innovate like Atlassian, Price says establishing these sort of meeting protocols are essential to keeping the company focused and on-track.

“Team work is really hard. Innovation and creativity is messy,” he says.

“Finding ways to effective[ly] scale and stay relevant are essential to startups sticking around.”

Here’s how Atlassian deployed Helmut and his gang of squawking pals in its meetings, and how startup founders can do the same to drive effective, innovative discussions.

Move it along

When undertaking groupwork and timed activities, Spangl explained the Atlassian team would use the chicken’s “very loud and confronting” squawk to signal it was time to move on to the next phase of the activity in a fun, lighthearted but commanding way.

It’s a technique other startups can employ in their own team-building sessions to move those last-minute stragglers on to the next activity.

Keep it centered

Most employees have been in a situation where the meeting discussion has strayed wildly off course, and it can be a huge challenge to stay focused and reign the conversation back in.

Rather than waiting for someone to take the iniviative to steer the conversation back on track, a simple squeak of the chicken was all Atlassian needed to get back on topic — without the need for stern reprimands.

“The chicken was simply an accessible way to say, ‘Ok, enough — let’s focus here, people’,” Spangl said.

Let everyone’s voice be heard

A squeak of the rubber chicken was also enough to let the person dominating a conversation know it’s time to give someone else have a turn — a request many people find “really painful” to say to a co-worker’s face, Spangl said.

“Shutting people up takes some courage, and it took my team a while to get comfortable squeaking the chicken to get the speaker’s attention,” Spangl said.

This method of confrontation can be employed by startups when they want to stay on task, alleviate tension and make sure everyone contributes to a meeting or brainstorming session.

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