If you’re like every other project manager I have met, there’s a good chance you spend a lot of your time in meetings. And I shan’t rehearse all the arguments about why that time is valuable and how poor meeting practices can erode that value and turn a meeting into a liability.
I like to think of a project management meeting as a three-act play, with a prologue and an epilogue. And, like a good play, a compelling meeting needs to both follow certain forms, but also innovate and create some drama.
So, let’s look at some ways you can bring your meetings to life.
Prologue: Before Your Project Management Meeting
Whether you’re calling the meeting or an attendee, always prepare well, so you can use your time to good effect. Read the agenda, read the accompanying papers and think through which parts are important to you.
What do you have an opinion on, what do you need to form and opinion on, what questions do you need to have answered? Bullet point your own meeting purpose.
Good meetings are efficient. Everyone you need is in one place. So why waste time with a pre-meeting? Because that’s where decisions really get made. People often decide on the issues before they turn up. They use the meeting to showcase their posture. So, avoid the risk of your project meeting going wrong by taking and setting the temperature in advance. Unable to hold a pre-meeting due to scheduling conflicts? Create a list of items to discuss in an online software that can be shared and collaborated on.
Prepare to Serve
A good meeting always has someone responsible for making it a good meeting. And they need to serve the participants. If you have called the meeting and will be chairing it, take a look at our earlier article on servant leadership, and apply the principles to the way you host your meeting.
Act 1: Starting Your Meeting with Character and Motive
Respect the people who are there by starting on time. Don’t wait for the laggards. You don’t know how late they will be, and waiting for them is disrespectful to the people who are there.
Obviously, there could be exceptional circumstances, causing a majority of participants to be held up. But then, rather than waste the time of the few who have turned up, defer the meeting. Or why not ask the people who are present, “What could this group best use our time together for?” You may be surprised by the answer.
Getting to Know You
Never assume everyone knows each other. Unless you are sure, do a round of introductions. If you don’t know everyone in the room, draw a map of the table, in your notebook. Then fill in your map, so you have the names and affiliations of everyone at the table.
Always Start on an “Up”
A great way to do this is to ask about people’s biggest successes since the last meeting. Or maybe what they are grateful for, or most proud of. A quick round of this starts the meeting off with a positive frame.
Act 2: Filling Your Meeting with Good Conversations
Meetings are conversations. But what structure is right for the conversations you need to have? Think about which format will work best for each agenda item:
- One-way briefing or lecture
- Free-flowing dialogue
- Structured debate
- Round-robin sharing
Some of my favorite tips for getting the best out of those conversations are detailed below.
Balance the Loud with the Soft
Going into most meetings, you’ll know who the assertive, dominant, talk-about-everything people are. When they start to dominate again, thank them, and ask to hear from someone who does not contribute as readily. Those people have just as many good ideas and their opinions are equally helpful. So, invite them in, and give them space to be heard.
Create a Positive Culture in Your Meeting
Positive psychology tells us that if positive comments exceed negative ones by a ratio of 5, 4, or even 3 to 1, you’ll get a real boost in the mood of the meeting. Creativity will increase and people will build on the germ of a good idea, rather than knocking it down.
So, role model the culture of the meeting you want. Rapidly call out any disrespectful behaviors and celebrate evidence-based and courageous contributions. Build on good ideas, and ask for concerns and counter-evidence when one idea seems to dominate. If you struggle combating negativity in your meetings, read our article on how to deal with difficult stakeholders.
Try a Two Minute Rule
One way to quash some of the knee-jerk negativity is to give anyone a minimum of two minutes to make their point before anyone can jump in and challenge it. It compels people to listen and hear the whole point, rather than reacting to their first impression.
Shift the Meeting’s Perspective
Often, the person who leads the meeting can force the perspective towards their own, and stifle innovative thinking. Wherever you can, ask the question to which your statement would be an answer. This lets the group find it for itself. Better yet, you may get a superior answer. Either way, you’ll get a better conversation with more nuance.
Another valuable approach is to ask the meeting about how other stakeholders would react to the conversation. Or what they would say if they were in the room. You’ll get more perspectives, richer solutions, and better decisions.
Keep Everyone Cool
Stay alert for the signs of rising emotional temperatures. Then, cool them early, before they have too much heat in them. Ask clarifying or checking questions that move people to become analytical about what they are saying. This dampens their emotional responses.
One way to step this up is to label the emotions around the table and ask about them: “I see you are becoming agitated; can you tell me what’s triggered that?”
Keep Your Meeting on Track
To reduce the chance of your meeting slipping, start each part of the meeting by writing the objective on a board. If the meeting goes off-track, allow anyone to re-assert the objective by pointing it out. And then place any new topic that has started to take over on a “parking lot” part of the board. Now the group can return to its original topic, and pick up on the parked idea later, if it is genuinely valuable.
Moving to Close a Topic
Have you ever noticed how many meeting conversations peter-out before you reach a conclusion, decision, or action point? Or maybe they just go around in circles, to keep busy while avoiding the close.
It all gets too tricky. Summarize where you have reached, and state clearly what the group needs to do to finish the conversation. Then kick-off again with an invitation to take the next step.
Act 3: Closing Your Meetings with a Satisfying Ending
There’s nothing more satisfying than action. Do you end your meetings by confirming ownership of decisions and actions?
You should. Decisions need to be owned by the group, but individuals may assert their opposition. Actions need to be owned by the people who have accepted them.
End your meeting with two rounds, checking for these ownerships. First, re-affirm decisions taken, and second, firm up on commitments to action. If you don’t get an unambiguous ‘yes’, you have work to do, either before the meeting closes, or in follow-up. That’s for you to own.
Epilogue: What Happens after the Meeting Closes?
“Post-paration” is a vital part of every meeting. If the meeting was worth attending, it is worth following up on. Schedule time shortly after the meeting to review your notes, follow-up on actions, and consider what you learned.
You took the time to prepare, so why would you not also make time to postpare?
Whether you think meetings are a necessary evil or champion them, they’re an important part of any project. Meetings are just a way to disseminate information to a group and get feedback, too. ProjectManager.com is a cloud-based project management software that helps plan, monitor and report on the progress of any project. It’s a great tool to control each stage of a project. A real-time dashboard not only gives you up-to-the-minute data but makes graphs and charts targeted to your meeting needs, whether with shareholders or your team. Try it today free with this 30-day trial.