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Make Your Project Meetings Matter

Meeting_in_ProgressI read somewhere recently that some 25 million meetings take place in corporate America every day and that roughly half that time is wasted. Many of these meetings are project related and I am confident that the dismal statistic relating to time wasted is just as applicable in the project context.

Time is usually a scarce resource on projects and it is also one of the fundamental criteria on which the success or otherwise of a project is judged. Projects have lots of meetings so the potential for consuming that most scarce of resources is obvious. However, project meetings are important and the decisions made are the grease on the wheels of progress.

Responsibility for minimising the time wasted on meetings rests with the project manager as it is they who initiate and facilitate the process, in most cases. The two key considerations in a lean meetings process is for the project manager to first of all consider if the meeting is necessary? If it is, the project manager should run meetings that are effective and achieve their objectives.

Should We Meet?

Firstly, consider the objectives of the meeting very carefully. The objectives are the reason why the meeting is pulled together. Meeting’s objectives should be like all project objectives, that is, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Bound (SMART). SMART objectives create common ground, expectation, focus and potential for productivity. And like all project objectives, it must be possible to express them in a way that makes it possible to measure the outcomes to verify that success has been achieved.

Once the SMART objectives have been defined, the project manager must ask themselves if the meeting is really necessary. Many meetings should not happen. They start from the premise of “I am going to hold a meeting so I’ve got to decide on the objectives”. Think of the very many standing meetings that happen just because they are in the diaries well in advance. Many of them are aimless, useless and wasteful of our most precious commodity. But they keep on happening.

The project manager should ask the following questions before proceeding with the meeting:

  • Could an alternative communication mechanism do the job? For example, email, teleconference, video conference, groupware, bulletin board, one-to-ones or the Internet?
  • Do I or someone else possess the knowledge to make the decision alone?
  • Can the decision be made by a sub-set of the project team?
  • Is the synergy of team needed in this instance i.e. is substantial creativity and innovation required?
  • Will there be new knowledge created or is it just a rehash of something old?
  • Is the decision of the type that needs to be made collectively by the team?
  • Is the topic complex, requiring explanation, understanding and acceptance by all the project team for implementation?
  • Is brainstorming necessary?
  • Will there be conflict?

If after considering these questions, it is still thought necessary to hold a meeting, the project manager must next decide who needs to attend? Frugality is the order of the day; the more people in the meeting, the less that will be achieved. In the case of meetings, the old tale of too many cooks spoiling the broth is especially true.

As a project manager, you are obliged to run your meetings in a way that gives everyone present, including unnecessary attendees, a chance to be heard. They will all expect their moment of fame. Unnecessary attendees can be a particular challenge as they probably know that they are not required and that their precious time is being wasted. They may even decide to be obstructive or mischievous!

The project manager should therefore ask themselves the following questions before finalising the list of attendees:

  • Do they possess knowledge or expertise necessary to achieve one of the meeting’s objectives?
  • Have they skin in the game i.e. will they be impacted by any decisions?
  • Are they needed because they have the authority to make something happen?
  • Will they become responsible for implementing some aspect of a decision?
  • Do they need to be reassured about some situation?
  • Do they hold strong views that will act as a catalyst for fruitful discussion?
  • Will they learn, grow or be developed by attending?
  • Can they favourably influence other project stakeholders?

The fundamental rule is that if they are not needed, they are not needed! Don’t ask someone just because they have always been asked. Don’t ask someone just because they are funny or are nice to be around. Don’t ask someone because they suck up to you and agree with your every utterance. Don’t ask someone just because you like them. Remember, just don’t ask them!

Running Effective Meetings

At this point, I am reminded about an incident I witnessed on a train some time ago. An elderly lady got on the train with a bag overflowing with the results of a day’s shopping. As there were no seats available, she stood in the aisle, hanging on grimly to a bar. After a few minutes, a kindly gentleman of similar vintage, stood up and asked if she would like to sit down. Chivalry isn’t dead after all, I thought to myself. The lady refused the kind offer. However, the man was determined, took hold of her arm and insisted that she take his seat.

Then a very interesting thing happened. The lady’s response took me by complete surprise. She pulled away from the man quite forcefully and said in a strong clear voice, “I said no thanks, do I look like I need a seat”? And then the knock-out punch, “sure you need it much more than me”. The man sat down nodding his head and looking like he had been hit in the face by a wet fish.

The relevance of the story for project management meetings is clear. Misunderstandings, false assumptions, lack of commitment, force, hurt, and showing off were all part of what was on display and so it is also for many project meetings.

When people ask me about project management, I compare it to an orchestra. Just like the conductor conducts the performance of the orchestra, a project manager conducts the performance of the team. And nowhere is this approach more needed than in project meetings.

The conductor cannot facilitate optimum performance unless all of the pieces, woodwind, brass, percussion and strings etc. are in place and working to the same music sheets. Likewise, the project manager cannot achieve optimum performance in the meeting unless all of the key people are in attendance.

Depending on the piece of music and what music sheet they are on, different sections of the orchestra take the lead and contribute most. And depending on the agenda for the meeting, and the item on the agenda, different team members take the lead and contribute more than others. But generally everyone gets to play a part and sometimes the smallest part can be the most important.

So how does the project manager conduct the orchestra? I have put together my top tips below.

  • Prepare and circulate a structured agenda well in advance. This is akin to the conductor telling the orchestra what music will be played.
  • Keep the meeting as small as possible by inviting only those that are necessary to achieve the agenda. If the wind section is not required for this particular piece of music, don’t have them hanging around cluttering up the room!
  • Set the stage. Reiterate the desired outcomes of the meeting at the start. Clarify any ambiguity and get everyone on the same sheet of music. Lay out the ground rules and tell them how long each item and the whole meeting will take – and stick to the timescales.
  • Ensure a smooth flow through the meeting. Conduct in a light but firm way and stick to the score! Your job is to interpret how the meeting will be played (style, tempo, dynamics, feel, articulation) and to convey this to the team members.
  • Control the meeting by managing both the content and the process. Conduct in a way that ensures that all the team stick to the music and timing and that transitions from one contribution to another and from one agenda item to another, happen in an orderly way.
    • Watch the timing and move things along as per the agenda
    • If an impasse is reached, it may be necessary to move on and assign the issue to another meeting or a sub-meeting off-line
    • Clarify confusing statements
    • Keep to the point
    • Identify common ground and areas of agreement rather than getting too hung up on differences
    • Summarise and organise ideas/decisions
    • Test for consensus as decisions appear to be emerging
    • Maintain order – one voice only
    • Give everyone a chance to participate
    • Indicate appreciation of contributions.
    • Ensure that decisions are clear and ownership is accepted
  • Do not abuse your role of conductor. On their own, the conductor can sway the baton wildly but nothing will be achieved. The players must be heard. And finally, and most important in a project,
    • Ensure a record is kept of decisions made and action items assigned. Record the music, or at least the highlights, and circulate for review.
    • End the meeting as something of a social event. Thank all for their time, participation and contribution. If a meeting is stormy, smooth ruffled feathers and do some maintenance on damaged relationships.

So remember, next time you think you need that meeting, think again before going into auto mode and sending out the invitations. And if you must hold that meeting, make sure it is a harmonious event!

Don’t forget to leave your comments below

Tom Ferguson has over fifteen year’s project management experience across both the public and private sectors. He holds a Masters in Project Management from the University of Limerick, a B.Sc. in Information Technology from Dublin City University and a Diploma in Executive Coaching from the Irish Management Institute (IMI). In addition, he has been certified as a Project Management Professional (PMP) by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and as a Certified Training Professional (CTP) by the Irish Computer Society. Tom runs his own company dedicated to collaborating with organisations to make their projects work. For more information, please visit

© Tom Ferguson 2009

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