How to Run a More Effective Project Meeting
I read an article a while back regarding the topic of meetings. According to a study, the typical American professional attends over 60 meetings per month, approximately 50% of meeting time is wasted and – my favorite – 39% of people doze off during the meeting!
The reason I’m writing this article today is simple – yesterday, once again, someone had to apologize to me for being late for our meeting because their “previous meeting went way over.” As a consultant, I am frequently on the outside of organizations looking in so I don’t always know what’s happening. But having had short-term contracts recently, that experience only confirms what I already believed to be the case:
Many people don’t have the slightest idea how to run a project meeting. Instead of a well-focused get-together where status is discussed, action items are assigned and risks reviewed, too often they are poorly run. Those in charge of the meeting routinely start them late, allow everyone to stare at their laptops or phones while they talk and worst of all, almost helplessly allow someone to hijack the meeting.
End result? Not only does the session run late but its objectives aren’t even met. And then you are left wondering why no one wants to come to your meetings.
Here’s what’s worked for me, both in running meetings and conducting a class. (Of which I’ve run hundreds and which require the exact same communication skills, only more so.) I welcome your thoughts:
- Create an agenda and circulate it in advance. Bring copies as some will not have read it. Assign discussion times for each item.
- Make sure the right people are invited. If it’s a key decision maker, I’ve often taken the extra step of checking with his or her administrative assistant to be sure they can attend.
- Start and end on time. Personally I give people a few minutes up front. But that’s it. Then I move on.
- Model the behavior you want. People will be used to the aforementioned bad meetings. This is your meeting so you get to run it as you see fit not because according to company culture, “it’s always like this.” Fighting company culture is hard. But as one client routinely advised me when I told her something was hard, “Do it anyway.”
- Assign someone to take notes, someone else to be a timekeeper. (Personally I prefer to play both roles but regardless, it has to be done.)
- Distribute well-written, clear meeting minutes with concise summaries. The minutes should include action items with due dates and responsible (doing it) and accountable (buck stops here) names.
- Have a “parking lot” for off-line discussions. I am both technical person and a project manager. As such I know that when a technical issue is raised, by nature, techies will want to solve the problem in the meeting. Do not allow this. Put it on a parking lot (flip chart, white board) and schedule a separate meeting.
- Have ground rules. No staring at cell phone, laptops closed. Sometimes an attendee will be in the middle of something crucial in another project and must stay on-line. Ask other attendees if that’s okay.
- Use meeting technology wisely. If you have virtual attendees, make sure the technology works before the meeting. And don’t try to fix things in the meeting that don’t need fixing. I prefer to use a wireless mouse. In one meeting it malfunctioned so everybody wanted to spend ten minutes getting it to work. I said ‘No thank you’, abandoned it and went to the mouse pad.
- Do not allow anyone to hijack the meeting. I’ve taught hundreds of classes and in many of them, somebody tries to veer us off course with an anecdote. I politely remind them that we need to get back on track. Invariably they are good about taking that admonition. And invariably my evaluations say Jim kept us on track. When someone is pontificating and other people give you “that look,” it is time to curtail it.
- Review your risk register. This article’s ideas can apply to any meeting. But if it’s specifically a project meeting. leave a few minutes to review your risks. Not utilizing risk management is like driving from Boston to California without a jack and spare tire. Doable, but not advisable.
- Don’t worry about being liked. That’s as true for running a meeting as it is for being a project manager. The need to be liked leads to your letting the meeting get hijacked. As one adviser – who is both a management consultant and a psychologist – told me long ago, “Stop looking for unconditional love.”
I get it. Everybody hates meetings. But they are necessary to running your project. You and your team may never love them but you should at least try to make them productive. People always ask me what makes a project late? Well, a lot of things but a series of badly managed meetings is often overlooked when it comes time to figure out just exactly where we went wrong.