Getting Meetings Right

Meetings consume a significant amount of our time every week. Running them properly is one of the most effective things we can do for our projects.

Let’s see if you recognise any of these:

Local meetings (everyone in the room)

  • People are using their phones, messaging colleagues outside the meeting or checking email.
  • People drift in up to five minutes after the meeting was due to start.
  • Three people in the room say nothing throughout the whole proceedings.
  • Three other people are falling over themselves to talk, often interrupting each other in the war for attention.
  • Despite having an agenda (you do have an agenda, right?) you have to stop people going off on tangents as thoughts pop into their heads or they see an opportunity to air their pet gripe.
  • Some people have brought laptops are half hidden behind the screen, typing and clicking away in a manner quite incongruous with the meeting.
  • You ask for someone to take ownership of an action. No one speaks and all potential owners studiously avoid eye contact with you.
Remote Meetings (teleconferencing)
  • You can hear the tapping of a keyboard that’s inconsistent with the meeting discussion.
  • Occasionally, the tapping of a keyboard is followed suspiciously closely by the ‘ping’ of an instant message arriving somewhere.
  • You direct a question to someone and there is a pause followed by, “Sorry, I was distracted. What was the question?” They’re not following the meeting.
  • You start the meeting on time but attendees continue to dial in over the next five minutes, talking straight over whoever’s speaking to announce their arrival.
  • It’s becoming clear that no one has read the agenda, or even has it with them.
  • No one is has a copy of the minutes from the last meeting. One or two “can’t find them” and require another copy.
  • Some people remain silent throughout the meeting.

I’m sure there are other annoyances that could be added to those lists but they’re all ones I encounter on an almost daily basis. If you don’t recognise those problems, you’re probably working in a great company – think hard before leaving!

Whether you’re in a risk review, a progress update, or a requirements discussion with a supplier, there are rules that apply to just about any meeting.

Pre-publish an agenda
  • Any meeting should have a specific purpose. That title heads the agenda and/or is the subject line in the Outlook invitation.
  • Indicate who owns each agenda item. Don’t do all the talking. The more you can spread the meeting around, the better your engagement will be.
  • Specify when the meeting will begin and end. Try not to end on the hour as people with back-to-back meetings are going to be late for their next one, just like they were for yours. Set a good precedent. You’ll be in the minority and it’ll be appreciated by your attendees.
  • List the names of people invited to the meeting.
  • Make sure the location or conference numbers are sent out. If you have international invitees, provide their local number to dial.
  • Make each item descriptive so it’s clear what the topic and objective are.
  • It’s not appropriate to all meetings but if you can, put a start time down for each agenda item. This helps you keep your agenda tight and specific.
  • Distribute your agenda at least a couple of hours in advance. Preferably the day before so it’s in the invitee’s inbox at the start of their day.
  • Some meetings will address just one specific issue and don’t need an agenda. Use your discretion but anything over 30 mins probably has more than one thing to talk about, so an agenda becomes appropriate.
Start on time
  • Make sure you’re ready to start the meeting on time. If you habitually start meetings late, people will know there’s no rush and will turn up late. Then you’re contributing to your own problem.
  • Run the meeting to the agenda (which includes a time element, remember). If no one shows up, run the meeting anyway. If people aren’t there to contribute then they don’t have a voice – that’s their incentive.
  • If the person owning an agenda item doesn’t isn’t there, skip to the next item. Reorganising your agenda on the fly, by putting their item to the bottom, shows you’re in control.
  • If people consistently turn up late or are unprepared to lead/discuss an item on the agenda, consider giving them some feedback outside the meeting.
  • Don’t embarrass people in the meeting who arrive late or unprepared. Yes, it’s unprofessional, but so is belittling your colleagues and you’ll lose hard earned respect.
  • If someone more senior arrives late and asks to be caught up, politely explain that you’ll do that during a break or after the meeting. If they insist, consider explaining, outside the meeting, that you’re trying to run meetings in a very structured way and try to find a compromise that works for both of you.
  • If your meeting lasts for more than an hour, add a 5-10 minute break. People returning with a fresh cup of coffee after stretching their legs will be more productive. You’ll get the time back.
Ground rules

Ground rules are the cultural aspect of your meeting. Make people aware of the rules without sounding dictatorial. If you’re sending invites electronically, consider adding it below the agenda in a smaller font so it’s there but not overshadowing the point of the meeting. Refer people to them if they’re a new attendee to your meetings.

  • The one-at-a-time rule. Let people talk without being interrupted. Once individuals know they’ll get a chance to speak they’ll be less likely to fight for their voice to be heard. This can take a lot of the tension out of a meeting.
  • No phones, or at least put them on vibrate to avoid disturbing the meeting. In most cases, calls and emails can wait. Obviously, this is hard to enforce on a teleconference but if people are caught not paying attention, assume they’re breaking this ground rule. If they do it habitually, give them feedback outside the meeting.
  • If someone does need to take a call, they should step outside or put their conference phone on mute.
  • If an attendee dials into a meeting from a noisy environment they should stay on mute until they need to speak.
  • If people start side conversations, lightly and politely request them to desist or, if it’s important, bring it into the meeting, either when the person currently speaking finishes or by placing it in the parking lot (see below).
Stick to the agenda
  • If people are out of time for their agenda item offer them one more minute but if they can’t commit, move on straight away. If you don’t do this, people will not respect the agenda timings.
  • Give people notice a couple of minutes before that they need to wrap up. Be more direct with one minute to go.
  • If people want to carry on discussing an item, come back at the end if there’s time or add it to the next meeting. The person talking may be irritated by this but others will appreciate your control of the agenda. It’s more than likely they already attend too many meetings that overrun and don’t feel productive.
  • If you find an agenda timing is wrong, let’s say an item blows up into a bigger discussion, run it off into another meeting if you can’t come back at the end and cover it. It’s a rare exception that an item needs to hijack the meeting beyond its time slot. Do it only if absolutely necessary.
  • If you finish an agenda item early, move on. Items have latest start times, you don’t have to wait.
Parking lot

This is similar to the familiar AOB but with a key addition – it’s also the time when deferred items are raised again.

  • If someone raises a tangential point in the meeting that you feel will deviate too far from the specified agenda item, defer it here to avoid discontinuity and keep your agenda on track.
  • Parking an item stops people thinking about it. They know it will get raised again later.
  • The last five minutes at the end of the parking lot is to decide on any further actions whether for individuals or to have another meeting.
  • If you have nothing in the parking lot, the meeting finishes early. This will make you popular with busy people!
Fixed responsibilities
  • At the end of an agenda item, check that actions have been taken and, critically, understood by the owner. Be clear and ensure people with actions confirm verbally. E.g. “Dave, you’re going to do x by Friday, right?” This is a simple but powerful method of gaining commitment.
Finish on time
  • It’s easier to do this with a strong, concise agenda that has start timings.
  • Pick up the pace of the meeting if necessary rather than overrunning.
  • As Project Managers, we know change is a fact of life, so there will inevitably be some meetings that will go past the published end time. If this is apparent ten minutes before the end of the meeting and you think you can finish only five minutes late, ask for consensus on the extension. Don’t ask at the end of the meeting. Give advance notice and see if your attendees can commit. It shows you’re respectful of their time.
  • Keep the pace tight and finish early if you can.
  • Bruise an ego rather than let people crash your agenda. This can be tricky, depending on whether it’s a member of your team or someone more senior. Once again, avoid confrontation in the meeting but discuss it outside rather than compromise your professional meeting principles.
  • If you haven’t completed the agenda and not sought consensus to overrun, close the meeting out of respect for other people’s time. If it’s a conference call, there will be a way to end the session for all callers. If it’s a face-to-face meeting, leave the room.
Publish minutes
  • Publishing even a simple set of minutes can save a lot of time and confusion later on. People’s memories are unreliable and interpretations of what’s been said can differ.
  • The format and formality of the minutes don’t usually matter. Capturing the high-level actions and owners does. There are (for example) some governance meetings that require more formal minutes but keep it simple if you can. If notes in an email will suffice, just do that.
  • Use bullet points. People are unlikely to read paragraphs of text. Don’t waste your time writing a lengthy synopsis.
  • In larger meetings, and this doesn’t apply to many project meetings in my experience, rotate the minute taking. The people who have most to contribute aren’t best placed to take minutes. Alternatively, if you’re taking the minutes and running the meeting, this is a good reason to let other people own agenda items.
  • Minutes must be sent to all attendees.
Continuous improvement
  • People will love you for running meetings professionally!
  • You may find yourself swimming upstream against an organisation’s culture so periodically review the ground rules in one of the meetings.
  • The rules may need tweaking sometimes. If something isn’t working, change it.
  • Cultural change comes from the top but as a Project Manager, you probably don’t have direct reports. That means you have to work harder at influencing people. Lead by example. Persevere. They will respond to positive change. More people turn up to my meetings on time that many others I attend because they know I start promptly and don’t overrun.
  • Give good feedback to people who contribute to successful, professional meetings.
If you can achieve half of the points above, you’ll be way ahead of most people in your organisation. Meetings are a prime opportunity to demonstrate your leadership and management capabilities. Use them well.