Meeting in the Middle of a Wood Chipper

Nine (9) secrets to running effective project meetings

“Meetings have a reputation for being the most unproductive times of the week for a reason.” —Michael Hyatt

Like it or not, meetings are a major part of all projects. As a project manager, the majority of your work will involve communications of one type or another, and a sizable fraction of those discussions will take place in the form of face-to-face meetings. Unfortunately, meetings eat up time and energy in a project like a wood chipper on steroids in a new growth forest.

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These twin resources of time and energy are needed to get “real” work done, but meetings are required to status, coordinate, and plan all that real work. Worse, because meetings involve multiple people, they rack up costs as a function of the multiple of the number of attendees. In other words, meetings are necessary—but very costly—so you better make them count.

The good news is there are clear and easy actionable steps you can take to make your meetings shorter, more efficient, and less costly. In this blog post we’ll discuss nine of the most powerful tips to running project meetings and discussions. Read on to see what these nine are…

The Problem With (Too Many) Meetings:

We’ve all been to that meeting from hell. You received the notice to attend at the last minute, which disrupted other work you had planned on doing. There was no agenda or clear purpose stated for the gathering. To be honest, you didn’t even really know why you were invited, nor, seemingly, did half the other attendees. The rambling discussion went on for hours, meandering from topic to topic, covering all kinds of disparate things. And then abruptly it was over. No follow-up, no meeting notes, no written actions, nothing, came from the person who called the meeting. To this day, you don’t really know what that meeting was about, nor are you ever going to get those hours of your life back. Argh…

This is an unacceptable approach to project communications. But it happens all the time. For some inexplicable reason, (far too) many people simply don’t know how to organize and run a basic meeting. (Which boggles my mind; they’ve certainly been on the receiving end of poorly executed meetings themselves; don’t they know what a colossal waste of time this sort of thing is?)

As the project manager, your main duty is to ensure your team is creating the deliverable on time, budget, and within specifications. When you make your team sit through a meeting—any meeting—you better have a darn good reason to do so.

The Meeting Solution — Nine Keys to Productive Meetings:

Here are nine (9) key things you can do to improve the effectiveness of your project meetings:

  1. WAITTA-Minute. The first step of planning a meeting is asking the “WAITTA-minute question”; i.e., “what am I trying to accomplish with this meeting?” You have to know what it is you’re trying to achieve. What is the ideal outcome of your planned meeting? You have to both identify the specific purpose of the meeting, as well the specific results you want to obtain before doing anything else. For example, are you trying to resolve a specific technical issue, plan future work, brainstorm procurement strategies, or what? You can’t solve a problem (i.e., plan and host a meeting) unless and until you know exactly what the meeting is intended to accomplish. Remember, the worst thing you can do is to hold a meeting that doesn’t have an actual purpose or point; meeting just to meet is a waste of your team’s valuable time.

  2. Create an Agenda. I used to have a boss who frequently said whenever he was entering a meeting was “why am I here, and when can I leave?” Answering this question is the purpose of having an agenda. Agendas are key to ensuring you have a point, everyone knows what that point is, and they know how long the darn thing is going to last. You should write an agenda for even the most basic and simple of meetings. Even repeat get-togethers, such as weekly status update meetings, where people generally know what to expect.

  3. Limit Attendees. Look, the more people you have sitting in a meeting, the less real project work that will get done at that time. You don’t need to bring ten people when five are sufficient. An ideal size of a working meeting is 5-7 people, max. Of course, every meeting will vary, but you should always ask yourself who is essential to the discussion, and who isn’t. Be ruthless and cull out anyone who isn’t absolutely required.

  4. Give Attendees Sufficient Advance Notice. You need to give your attendees ample notice before the meeting. There are two reasons for this. First, it allows the attendees to prepare for the meeting. If there is information they need to read or an analysis they need to perform ahead of time, you need to actually give them time to do that work. Second, you need to schedule it far enough in advance to help ensure there aren’t other schedule conflicts that will keep a key person from attending. A hot tip here is to use a scheduling app like Doodle or Google Calendar’s scheduling functions to find the ideal time in the future to meet.

  5. Start on Time. I personally hate meetings that take 10-15 minutes to actually begin. I suspect you do, too. Often the meeting organizer is running late, or is having trouble setting up the audio-visual gear, or needs to boot their computer. Even worse is all the idle chit-chat and personal catch-up that often happens at the beginning of a meeting. Remember, you and your teams’ time is valuable. Don’t waste precious minutes getting to the point. Come early and set up the room. Stick to the agenda start time, even if all the attendees are not there yet. And don’t backtrack to fill in late arrivals on what was already discussed. They can read the meeting notes later—and just maybe they won’t be late the next time. Oh, and keep the meeting moving forward. Perfect discussions are often the enemy of good enough ones.

  6. Facilitate the Meeting. Keeping the meeting moving forward, on agenda, and off tangents can be challenging. As Project Manager, you actually have to pay attention to the subject matter first and foremost. For this reason, you might consider a facilitator to actually run the discussion, capturing action items and tabling off-topic discussions for later, while you focus on what is actually being said among the group. It’s very easy to get bogged down in technical discussions between two of the attendees, making everyone else wait to continue on with the remainder of the agenda. Be alert to these time killers; just tell the people to spin that off to a post-meeting discussion—and then have them inform you of what they decided and/or concluded. Keep the meeting ball moving forward and spin-off smaller balls for focused mini-meetings.

  7. Take Good Meeting Notes/Minutes. Keeping complete and accurate notes is vital. There’s an old project manager saying that if it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen. People’s memories are faulty. Different attendees will take away different thoughts and recollections about what happened. A written record helps forgo these problems. Key decisions, plans, and action items should all be captured in writing. Ideally, someone like a facilitator, administrative assistant or aid should be tasked with recording the first draft of notes. You can edit these after the fact for accuracy, but during the meeting, your focus shouldn’t be on transcription, but instead on the subject matter itself. If this is impossible, you should capture the information. I personally like to use Evernote to keep meeting notes. I use a standard preprepared meeting template that I copy into a new note so that I can begin immediately and concentrate on getting started capturing relevant information as the discussions kick off.

  8. Review Key Points and Action Items. One of the last things you do when concluding the meeting is to briefly review the key decisions, points, and, most importantly, action items. Don’t re-open discussions about these individual topics; simply read through the vital information, noting who has to do what—and by when. Then politely thank people for coming and send them back to their assigned work.

  9. Distribute the Meeting Notes/Minutes. Finally, post-meeting, you need to edit and then distribute the meeting notes. Keeping this information to yourself is nearly as bad as not writing down the minutes in the first place. There should not be misunderstandings, confusion, or even secrets on your project. Again, a program like Evernote is ideal for capturing meeting notes, as it allows for easy distribution and sharing of the notes afterward via either email or direct sharing of the note URL. The latter is particularly beneficial in that it allows updates to the minutes and active tracking of action items within the minutes themselves.

The Bottom Line:

Wasting your teams’ time on unnecessary, unfocused, and/or undisciplined meetings is, well, a waste of their time. Don’t do it. You, taking a little of your own time, to plan, host, and follow-up on your meetings will save your employees a lot of their time.

Look, running a meeting isn’t really rocket science, but it is necessary to be structured and thoughtful. To do otherwise is to shove your team through the virtual wood chipper of unproductive meetings. Follow these nine steps and I promise your meetings will be much more effective and far less painful and wasteful of your employees’ time. Get organized, be efficient, and follow-up!

What Are Your Secret Meeting Tips?

Okay, now it’s your turn. What are your own power tips for running an effective meeting? How do you plan, coordinate, conduct, and close-out your own project discussions? Drop me a line at ThePMBlueprint@gmail.com and let me know your thoughts!


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