Like the best laid plans of mice and men, meetings often go awry. An experienced project manager, however, knows how to read the signs that indicate a meeting is going off the rails.
Annie McKee, writing in Harvard Business Review, notes that empathy is key to leading a great meeting. By developing emotional intelligence competencies, or simply tuning in to how people are receiving and processing the information you’re delivering, you’ll be better able to steer a meeting when it begins to veer away from its intended course.
More than that, a skilled project manager can then put the meeting back on track, though this may mean tearing up the agenda and improvising a new one on the spot. A project manager must both do the due diligence in preparing for a meeting and know when sticking to that agenda will only make a bad meeting worse.
The following is a brief guide to turning a bad meeting around.
Why Do Meetings Derail?
There are a number of reasons why meetings go off-track.
- Expectations are Not Aligned – It’s critical that the expectations of attendees are considered in advance of a meeting. Regardless of the amount of preparation that goes into a meeting, it is imperative that the most vocal and highest level stakeholders are engaged during the meeting planning process. You want to give them an opportunity to both have input into the content and structure of the meeting as well as be briefed in advance as to what to expect. You can’t then be faulted if participants don’t read the agenda you emailed in advance, especially if they had the opportunity to participate in the meeting’s scope and purpose.
- Insufficient Preparation – Sometimes you think a meeting is going to be a certain type of meeting…and it’s not. Most project managers can lead a project team status update meeting in their sleep. However, that kind of meeting is very different from an executive strategic planning session. If they assume they can prepare for and conduct an executive strategic planning session in their sleep, they are in for a rude awakening.
- Hidden Agendas – Another reason a meeting goes awry is when there is another agenda in addition to the published one—otherwise known as the ubiquitous hidden agenda. Everyone has their angle, and they will focus on what is most important for them. Or, someone who was not part of the original invitee list may crash the party, and their motive and purpose for being there may have absolutely nothing to do with the original agenda. The next thing you know, your meeting is spinning out of control, and you find yourself needing to take extreme measures to bring it back on track. You can learn more about how do deal with difficult personalities in this video with Jennifer Bridges.
How to Address the Problem
An essential ingredient needed when a meeting goes off track is candor. It takes guts and honesty to stand up in front of a group of people and say that you’re going to discard the agenda and start fresh.
Here are some strategies for addressing the failing meeting:
- Admit Your Failure – You need to admit to the fact that the agenda missed the mark. What makes it worse is that you probably had something, if not everything, to do with putting that agenda together.
- Use the Opportunity to Discuss What’s Not Working – It could be that the reason for the slipped agenda is that other aspects of the project or the team—relationships, the project plan, the software, or whatever else it may be—are not working as intended. It’s not easy to open that door because you don’t know what else may be lurking on the other side, but listen to the team’s concerns and take the opportunity to open up dialog about the problem.
- Change Direction of Meeting to Meet the Team’s Needs – Finally, acknowledging that the meeting needs to shift over to something that makes sense requires brutal honesty. Everyone may intellectually agree to not focus on the original agenda, but some could still blindly move forward and talk about those meaningless topics anyway. Putting the brakes on to talk about the new issues raised makes much more sense.
Is it risky to change direction mid-meeting? Absolutely. Is it even a bigger risk to keep moving forward and not discuss the elephant(s) in the room? Even more absolutely! Use your empathy, judgment and discretion as a project manager to make the right call. You’ll be glad you did.
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