Running Productive Meetings

11 July

I have lost count of the number of times I have heard the following, or similar statements, made to me by clients talking about meetings they have attended.

  • ‘I don’t know why we had this meeting. Nothing was agreed to’
  • ‘This meeting should have taken an hour, but lasted for three’
  • ‘We meet for an hour every week. It’s quite unnecessary’
  • ‘We went all round the house before coming to the main point
  • ‘The leader did not control the meeting, we only covered half the agenda’
  • ‘I called the meeting for 2.00, but several people turned up late and the meeting didn’t start until 2:20’
  • ‘We talked about the same issues that were talked about at our last meeting and nothing has been resolved’.

I hear people say frequently that they attend too many meetings. They all have better things to do with their limited time, but they end up in numerous unproductive meetings. As a project manager it is your responsibility to ensure meetings are productive. They must have defined purposes and result in clearly measurable outcomes. In the project management arena meetings are called to:

  • Debate issues and make decisions
  • Review progress, slippage and risks of a project
  • Communicate information
  • Plan strategy and prioritize projects

Based on my experience and observations meeting management tends to be a set of skills often overlooked in organizations. Meetings are very expensive activities considering the cost of labor and what gets accomplished. Good meeting management is probably one of the most important practical leadership skills that a leader can have. So, take meeting management very seriously. Given that you will continue to attend meetings, some of which you will chair, let’s look at some ways to make meetings more efficient. We can think of a meeting as being like a machine. It will have a structure or process, some inputs and some outputs. Consider these suggestions:

Prepare for the Meeting

  • Define the purpose of the meeting and develop an agenda in cooperation with key participants. Consider sending agenda items as questions (How do we cut costs?)
  • Distribute the agenda, background material, and lengthy documents prior to the meeting so members will be prepared and feel involved.
  • Ask attendees to let you have any particular points they want covered.
  • Set a time limit and stick to it. Remember, members have other commitments and are more likely to attend meetings when they are productive.

Managing the Meeting
Start on time. You do not want to penalize the people who arrived on time.

  • Ask for cell phones and PDA’s to be switched off (unless someone has a very good reason such as expecting a call from a family member for an emergency).
  • Tell everyone that the meeting will finish on time
  • Summarize the purpose of the meeting, and the specific goals.
  • Listen more than you talk.
  • Encourage and facilitate group discussion so that all points of view and ideas are brought forward? Ask questions, and encourage others to do so. You’ll get better quality decisions and more motivated members.
  • Encourage feedback. Ideas, activities, and commitment to the project and/or organization improve when members see their impact on the decision-making process. Ensure that everyone gets the chance to make a contribution
  • Maintain pace.
  • Keep conversation focused on the topic. Tactfully end discussions when they are leading nowhere or becoming destructive or unproductive.
  • As new action items are surfaced be sure to clarify who owns the action item and obtain a date when the action items will be completed

Ending the Meeting
As the meeting nears its end the meeting leader or chair must be accountable for ending the meeting on time. He or she must summarize agreements reached and re-state the major ‘take-aways’ from the meeting identifying:

  • What decisions were made.
  • What action items were are agreed to.
  • Who has responsibility and accountability for the action items and an estimated date when the action item will be complete.

After the Meeting

  • Write up and distribute minutes within two days. No flowery minutes – Action oriented minutes in bullet point form.
  • The goal is to get results not impressive vocabulary.
  • Give recognition and appreciation to excellent and timely progress.
  • Put unfinished business on the agenda for the next meeting.

As a project manager you cannot attend all the meetings associated with a project but you need feedback on all the meetings to stay abreast of what’s going on. Communicate with your team that you expect all meetings to be documented and that you get copied on all correspondence. To ensure your team chairs productive meetings share these tips with all team members.

Chairing a meeting well is an acquired skill. Good chairmanship is not a gift of nature nor is it easy to learn but, if meetings are to deliver quality outputs in an efficient way, it is essential. You would think that the basic principles are well enough known but, in my experience, this is not the case. Many executives are excellent at it, but a sizeable number are not. How many people in your organization have had proper training on this topic? Try a little research yourself. Ask people if the meetings that they attend are all well chaired.

Remember meetings are where hours are wasted and minutes should be taken.

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