18 June, 2018

How to Run a Really Great Project Meeting

Does it sometimes seem that your life is a constant trudge from one project meeting to the next. It’s as if there’s little time to do anything before the next one.

And, if that’s not bad enough, how many of your project meetings are truly worthwhile?

I know we say ‘good meeting’ at the end of them, but we don’t mean it. What we mean is ‘that wasn’t a great meeting’.

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But it is because you spend so much time in project meetings and because they have such a potential to be an important part of a successful project, that you need to learn how to run a really great project meeting.

I recently wrote about project meetings in a weekly newsletter, titling it ‘Good Project Meetings don’t Happen by Chance’. That got a good response, so I thought I’d expand on it.

Before we start…

Here’s a summary, in video form:

Tips for a Good Meeting

I started the newsletter by asserting that ‘we’ve all seen the endless tip lists for good meetings’. But maybe you have not. There are a lot of them out there, so let’s start with the basics. I will summarize all the sound and sensible meeting tips you’ll get from the numerous articles on the web.

Have an Objective

I would hope that, of all people, you don’t need this tip. You’re a Project Manager. Of course your project meeting will have an objective.

But the key is to and make sure everyone you invite to the meeting knows it. This will help because they will be better able to:

  • assess whether attending is good use of their time
  • prepare for the meeting
  • tune in and contribute to it

Set an agenda in advance

How to Run a Really Great Project Meeting
How to Run a Really Great Project Meeting

There are some project meeting formats that don’t need – nor should they have – an agenda in advance. I used to run a fortnightly top-team meeting on a large project called the Working Group. I’d form the agenda on a whiteboard, while we poured coffees. The meeting’s objective was to resolve the most pressing current issues. So our ‘in advance’ agenda was to work through the issues. But we formed the real agenda there and then to make it completely up-to-date. After listing the topics, we’d vote on priorities, and work through them in sequence, until our 90 minutes were up. Five minutes before the end, we’d share out any unresolved issues to work on offline.

But, to be fair, most meetings do need an agenda, and you should issue it in advance. It needs to:

  • state the objectives of the meeting
  • set the sequence of discussions
  • note time and place
  • specify pre-meeting preparation

Invite the right people

I hope this goes without saying. What people often forget is that this doesn’t just mean remembering to invite all the right people. It also means th discipline to only invite the right people. Be ruthless in cutting down the numbers. You will:

  • reduce wasted time at the meeting
  • avoid wasting people’s time, who don’t need to attend
  • sharpen responsibility among the fewer participants

Ground Rules

Really? It all feels a bit ‘consultanty’. I prefer to assume we’re all pretty adult, but if there are bad behaviors, I’ll just gently remind people. However, I know that in some cultures, you’ll need to establish a set of ground rules for your project meetings, so here are the sort of things to cover:

  • Start promptly at beginning and after breaks
  • If you need to make or take a call, step out
  • Only use devices if you are using them for meeting business (like taking notes)
  • Listen respectfully and avoid talking over other people
  • Be open and honest
  • Everyone should participate
  • Stay on the present topic

Start on time

Ground rules or not, this one is a big one for me – although I am aware it is not as important in some cultures. I do know one senior manager who retrained his team to arrive on time, by locking the door just before starting.

If you are going to impose respect for the start time, you must also be prepared to respect people’s other commitments, and finish on time

…and don’t cancel regular meetings

If you cannot attend, does your project meeting go ahead anyway?

It should.
If it does, I’d call it a ‘Project Team Meeting’.

If you cancel a meeting you can’t attend, then I’d call it a ‘Project Manager Meeting’.

Make sure everyone gets to contribute

If you are running a meeting it is your responsibility that everyone you invited participates in the conversation.

The value of everyone participating is three-fold. You get their:

  1. Engagement – they feel part of the team, and the team feels they are involved
  2. Commitment – it’s hard to shy-away from decisions and plans we have contributed to
  3. Collective wisdom – more minds mean better solutions and more robust decisions

Use a parking lot to avoid getting side-tracked

It is important to stay focused if you want to use your time well, and keep people’s attention.

So, if someone introduces a peripheral topic to what you are discussing, record it publicly on a board. This often gets the label ‘Parking Lot’. Later in the meeting, assess whether the new topic is important and urgent enough to merit a change in agenda, so you can consider it. If not, at the end of the meeting, review your parking lot items and allocate them to meeting participants, to tackle.

Summarize and conclude as you go

At the end of each substantive chunk of discussion, summarize:

  • What vital information the group has shared
  • Any decisions that you have made
  • Actons that people have committed to
  • Outstanding issues for later resolution (and the mechanism to resolve)

Write down actions on a board

I like to record actions on a board for everyone to see. And I also like to assign them at the point we agree the action.

Keep it moving

Keep your meeting moving, so people don’t get bored and mentally check out.

The Thorny Problem of AOB

AOB: Any Other Business.

Some people love it as a mechanism for tackling hot topics that have cropped up since you set the agenda, or during the meeting.

Others deprecate AOB as a fix for sloppy agenda-setting.

Whatever your preference, for project meetings, I like to allocate a short spot at the end of my meetings for anyone to ask any questions. I usually constrain the questions to ensure there is real value, by saying something like:

Are there any questions that are best answered by this group of people, here and now, before we all leave?’

This frames them as pressing and important questions that need us all to be there.

I also like to finish early, so people have some time before their next commitment for any one-on-one conversations.

Follow up

Make a record of the meeting, but keep it short and sweet: ‘minutes for action’:

  • Decisions we made
    …with implementation steps
  • Open issues
    …and how you propose to take them forward)
  • Actions listed by person
    …with deadlines

Then, crucially, if it’s your meeting, then it’s your responsibility to chase-up the actions.

Have you done all that?

A lot of my readers with a fair bit of project experience wil be thinking:

Been there, done that!’

All these tips assume that your project meeting follows a pretty standard pattern. 

But how often do you sit down, in a quiet place, with enough time, and design your project meetings?

What? Design a Project Meeting?

If I said you need to facilitate a two-day workshop, I would expect you to set-aside between two and ten days to design and plan it. 

It’s important. Maybe 6 to 12 people will commit a couple of days of their time. And the workshop needs to produce results.

But project meetings? They’re just an hour…

90 minutes at most.

But thing about it…

Let’s say they are an hour a month. 

…or maybe an hour a fortnight. 

…or perhaps even an hour a week. 

And how long is your project? 

Six months? 

…a year

…or two?

Let’s Think about an 18 month Project

This is a reasonable average for the sort of business projects I used to run. Maybe it is for you, too.

And I’ll assume you have a modest project team of six people, who meet monthly.

And that each meeting lasts an hour each time…

That’s over 100 staff hours. 

That’s about the same as those six people attending a two-day workshop.

For many projects, these numbers are on the low-side, so you can substitute your own numbers.

Now do You see what I’m Driving at?

Over the course of your #project, why aren’t you putting a couple of days into designing and reviewing your project meetings? Click To Tweet

Designing a Project Meeting

A project meeting is just a series of conversations. Your job then, is to figure out what conversations you’ll need, and then work out how you will ensure that the conversationcan flow smoothly and achieve the outcome you need in as efficient a way as possible.

There are three common requirements that all your conversations will need:

  1. Get the Environment right
    You need a place and a layout that will suit the type of conversation you need
  2. Provide the Resources you’ll need
    What are the tools for the task, that will ensure productivity is never hampered?
  3. Engage People to secure Participation
    Everyone has a place in the conversation, so if you aren’t drawing contributions from them, you are failing

Conversations for Possibility

These are the conversations you need, when your goal is creative thinking, innovation, or problem solving.

  1. A relaxed and playful environment is ideal
  2. You’ll need all sorts of paper, boards, coloured pens, samples, and even toys
  3. Research techniques to generate, multiply, and refine ideas

Conversations for Opportunity

These are analytical conversations that test and validate ideas, and take decisions.

  1. A more formal environment will encourage rigor an responsibility
  2. You’ll need access to date sources, and means calculating and testing
  3. Research analysis and decision-making methods

Conversations for Action

These are conversations where you make progress and get things done.

  1. Your environment and style need to convey purposefulness. Relaxed enough, so people feel comfortable, but formal enough to remind them of their serious purpose
  2. You’ll need the tools and materials appropriate to working on the task at hand
  3. Be clear what role each person has, and what the end-result needs to look like

Conversations for Relationships

These are conversations that build and strengthen relationships among team members. They are also the type of conversation where you will relay high-quality information. This must go beyond the simple information that you can as easily transmit by email, slack,or collaboration-tool.

  1. Create an environment where people feel comfortable
  2. This kind of conversation needs less in the way of resources. The most important elements will be any resources that help with assimilating information. Training is an example of ths kind of conversation.
  3. You’ll need to make the information relevant to each person.So, to do that, be clear about its meaning and implications.

Conversations for Ritual

These are the kind of meetings we have because… we have always had them. They don’t serve any real purpose. If they ever did, everyone has forgotten what it was. We now go along to each meeting knowing it will be a waste of our time. And we leave them realising that it was, and we should have had the courage to decline the invitation.

You have two choices if you are responsible for a project meeting that is nothing more than a conversation for ritual:

  1. Cancel it
  2. Transform it: use the time to do something valuable

To be fair, though. These ritual meetings are far more common in the business-as-usual parts of organizations. Projects and Prokject managers tend to maintain a far greater level of focus. But we can all slip-up from time-to-time!

What is Your Experience of Project Meetings?

Do share your thoughts and experiences below. We’d love to hear your tips for what makes a great project meeting.

Learn More

There are an awful lot of same-old, same-old articles on meetings, around the web. They pretty much cover the some or all of the Tips for a Good Meeting above. But, I did find one article that I thought is excellent and a little different. So, do check out ‘The secrets to running project status meetings that work!’ by Dana Brownlee at PMI.org.

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Mike Clayton

About the Author...

Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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