Stop me if this sounds familiar: The meeting neither starts on time nor are all the necessary members present when it does. One person dominates the conversation, while another clicks her pen furiously while staring blankly into middle-space. You’re there & attentive because a few of the agenda items impact your upcoming work — but you eyeball both the agenda and the clock, and wonder if it’ll even get that far before time runs out.
Meetings are getting a bad rap these days: oftentimes, for very good reasons. But although the trend is up for bashing them, the trend of actually having them isn’t going away. Physical or virtual, they’re a part of every project I’ve ever been a part of.
It’s time to remember that project meetings can be not only be pleasant, but productive. If you’re running the meeting, you’re on the hook for making it run smoothly — and to actually work as a net positive for your project, instead of a dreaded box to check each week. Here are 5 tips for doing just that.
5 Tips for Leading Effective Project Meetings
1. Offload status updates to another forum, save meetings for focused discussions
Sure, team members need to be kept up to speed on team progress, but they do NOT need to be held captive in their chairs while you do so. The beauty of having everyone present (physically or virtually) at the same time is for the ability for real-time discussion. The best agenda items that ones that need that kind of interaction: brainstorming, problem analysis, and even decision-making (if your group operates that way).
So: simple one-way progress updates can go into a templated report (Redbooth’s Notes feature is perfect for this), while items that spur discussion or debate go on the meeting agenda. Written updates tend to be more specific and clear (as well as automatically saved for posterity), and meeting attendees can look forward to interactive meetings — which puts their presence to very good use.
2. Make agenda items specific (and start them with a verb)
- Weak agenda item: Budget
- Better agenda item: Surface implications of budget shortfall
When you circulate the agenda beforehand (and you should), you’ll want team members to be able to prepare adequately, which your agenda should enable. A little forethought by your attendees can increase the value of the discussion immensely.
And when you introduce agenda items during the meeting, share the the intended reason for discussing it: “Next item on the agenda is the budget shortfall. We need to brainstorm all the likely implications and prioritize based on severity. That prioritized list will be included in a memo to top management by the end of the week.”
There. Now everyone knows what they’re trading the next 20 minutes of their life for and what the light at the end of the tunnel looks like. Not only will they be happier, the discussion will be better focused and you’ll walk away with a better result.
Equally important, the meeting length should be tied to purpose, not to the clock. A thinner agenda should mean a shorter meeting, not an excuse to extend a discussion just to fill an hour. Assigning duration to an agenda item — and, by extension, to a full meeting — is an art that you’ll hone in on through iteration, and will learn to nail through good moderation, which brings us to…
3. Moderate, moderate, moderate
Moving from an unproductive format to a productive one isn’t seamless, and even with focused and well-chosen agenda items, the meeting won’t moderate itself (more’s the pity). There’s always that guy (or that gal) who charges off-topic, dominates the discussion, or otherwise makes attendees wish that teleportation is a real thing.
Here are some ways to re-train everyone, without coming across like Dogbert:
- State ahead of time that you’re going to throw flags and redirect conversation when it goes off course. Remember that “off-course” can mean anything that doesn’t contribute to your agenda item’s resolution. In our example above, soft sales, spreadsheet software and the falling dollar abroad could all conceivably be part of the greater topic of “the budget,” but they don’t contribute to the surfacing of the implications of the shortfall. Steer the discussion back on track.
- Do it gently and explain the correction when you do, “Let’s save that for the daily update email..” or “We could talk all day about the budget report formatting, but let’s get back to our list..”
- Do it. No fair saying you’ll police and then you don’t. Protect those making an honest effort to contribute, and educate those who require a little bit more help to stay on track. And hold out hope that, with repetition, it’ll get easier.
4. End agenda discussions with an emphasis on forward progress and next steps
Even if time is running short, conclude the agenda item with the discussion’s bottom line and its implications. What’s the next step? If action items spring from this, who is on the hook for them, and what’s the time-frame?
Your meeting notes (you are taking minutes, right?) do not need to document all the nuances of a discussion, but need only capture the bottom line and the next steps. Publish these notes in a timely fashion, and make action items formal tasks as soon as possible, with assignees and due-dates. Doing this quickly will capitalize on the momentum generated in the meeting, and will reinforce the connection between meetings and forward progress.
5. Organize now for sanity later
This last piece of advice touches on the organization and storage of agendas and minutes, which can end up being as important as a well-run meeting. Even better: the more organized you are, the more action-oriented and focused your meetings can be. I recommend using tags in Redbooth to do this — tagging doesn’t interfere with the primary organization of the project, it just offers additional indexing (see the knowledge base for more on using tags in Rebooth).
Some tags to consider: #projmtg, #agenda, #minutes, along with functional tags such as #budget, #QTR1. Any recurring topics discussed during the meeting are also fair game for tags. Imagine a simple one-word search pulling up a historical record of agendas and minutes on a certain topic. A few minutes each week makes this a reality.
Now it’s your turn
Meetings where everyone stands? Setting a stop-watch during discussions? I love hearing what teams are implementing to run effective meetings. What’s your best — or your strangest — meeting management technique? Tell me about it in the comments.