Meeting are, of course, a necessary part of any business. Even in this day of cloud collaboration, video conferencing and real time status updates there is no substitute for a good Meeting where people can meet and discuss project status, progress and issues. But the problem with meetings is that they are not all “good” – many can, indeed, be a waste of time when no new information is forthcoming; where no new ideas or solutions to problems are formulated. Or worse, where one individual uses the meeting as their personal soapbox to gripe about long-standing problems in the project or business.
Let’s face it we’ve all been to a meeting that has been a waste of time but that doesn’t mean every meeting is a waste of time. A well-controlled, well-planned meeting can be the most effective way to get everybody onside for a project (especially at difficult times when budget cuts are looming or important deadlines have been missed). It is a chance to build team spirit (crucial for a successful project), manage stakeholder expectations and iron out any misunderstandings or assumptions that have been preventing progress on a project. It can also be the perfect opportunity to draw out creative and innovative solutions from the participants via a bit of brainstorming.
Get the basics right first
I still get invited to meetings where I don’t know exactly what to expect before I arrive, unless I ask (and even then any details may not be supplied). It is impossible for everyone to be properly prepared for a meeting if they don’t know what the full agenda is.
I’ve lost count of the number of meetings I have attended which had a sketchy agenda or even no agenda at all. So it is essential to get the basic elements of the meeting right. And, first, that means an agenda.
No matter what type of project meeting is being conducted there should always be an agenda – and it must always be distributed beforehand to all of the participants so that they can adequately prepare for any contribution they will need to make. Everyone should be entitled to enough time to prepare any information for which they are responsible.
Keep control of proceedings
Whoever is chairing the meeting (and that is likely to be you if you are the project manager) should guide everyone through the agenda – allowing people enough time to speak but not allowing some to dominate the discussions. Any issues requiring more discussion than time will allow should be deferred to another meeting where more details can be raised with only those people directly affected by the issue.
Running effective meetings is one of the most essential project management skills that every project manager should develop. You may need to remind participants of the purpose of the meeting, if necessary, so they do not use it to take the opportunity to air grievances or debate the technical minutiae of an ongoing problem.
Keep it brief
A project meeting should always be brief otherwise you risk losing the attention of the attendees and then it really will become a waste of everyone’s time. The meeting room should be booked for just 1 hour as that is generally accepted to be the limit of people’s concentration. If there is genuinely too much to discuss in an hour then arrange 2 separate meetings and clearly define the topics to be discussed at each. It may be possible to have smaller, more relevant groups of people when the items to discuss are divided up in this way with narrower objectives.
The stages of an effective project meeting
- Write an agenda well in advance of the meeting and send it out to all participants
Even when you are holding a regular meeting of the type frequently held before (such as a monthly progress meeting) an agenda is a good reminder to everyone about the true purpose of the meeting and is also a good reminder of what their contribution should be – over time the objectives of regular meetings can become hazy if an agenda does not reinforce the purpose.
- Issue a reminder of the purpose of the meeting
The aim of the meeting can be included at the start of the agenda so that everyone is aware beforehand of why they are attending. It will focus the thoughts of those who attend so many meetings that they need the reminder but also of those who may become blasé about regular meetings of the same type that they attend every week or month. This statement at the beginning of the agenda is useful to pull people back on-topic is there is a danger of being side-tracked.
- Assign all action items to an individual
When actions items are identified during the course of the meeting make sure that every one of them is assigned to an individual present (even if they may then delegate to a junior member of the team). The person responsible for taking the minutes of the meeting should record the action items and persons responsible for them.
- Stay Focused
Never deal with any issues that are unrelated to the meeting objectives – defer them instead to another meeting, if necessary setting a date and time there and then but do not be side-tracked as that is an inefficient use of everyone’s time.
- Encourage everyone to speak
Some people love the sound of their own voices but might not necessarily have more of importance to say that someone who stays in the background so try and create a non-confrontational approach to meetings that will encourage everyone to contribute ideas. If any one person is speaking for too long then the chairperson should move the discussion on to the next agenda item or give someone else the chance to speak.
- Keep meetings to an hour or less to avoid boredom
Nothing useful will ever be achieved if the meeting participants become bored with the proceedings. Keeping all meetings short will ensure everyone stays engaged with the topics of discussion.
- Summarise the outcomes of the meeting
At the end of the meeting summarise what has been discussed, what has been agreed and what action items have been assigned, and to whom. It is also a good idea, where possible, to set the date and time of any subsequent meeting.
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