“As a leader, you must consistently drive effective communication. Meetings must be deliberate and intentional—your organizational rhythm should value purpose over habit and effectiveness over efficiency.”- Chris Fussell

Meetings.

They are the bane of every project managers existence, consuming wide swaths of the calendar without any appreciation for real work to be accomplished.  Or are they?

In the past eight months of my life directing a large infrastructure program, I spend on average 70% of my time in meetings.  Your situation may or may not be similar, however, I know you sit in meetings from time-to-time wishing you were somewhere else doing something else.

This feeling is pretty much standard operating procedure for those of us in the project delivery space.  But does it need to be this way all the time?

Since I have invested 70% of my life over the past year sitting in meetings I’ve developed a solid understanding of what works for getting ones point across in meetings that actually produce results.

Productive Project Meetings Require Effective Planning

The main take away from all of the time I’ve clocked sitting in a conference room is this:  productive project meetings require effective planning.  This concept applies to not only routine fixtures in your calendar, but the ad hoc meetings that pop up throughout the day.  I’ll touch on how to apply this simple concept to ad hoc meetings at the end of the article.

While I suspect you may not read anything here you’ve not read before, it warrants a repeat.  Many project managers fall short of structuring, executing and documenting their meetings.  This has a direct negative impact on the project, as lack of a meeting framework will most certainly lead to a waste of one resource every project manager needs:  time.

Related article: Advice for Project Managers: Leading Meetings and Streamlined Reporting

Let’s start with looking at five steps to making your project meetings effective starting this week:

  1. A defined purpose.

While the old stand-by of having an agenda is still valid, any meeting you enter must have a defined purpose. If there is a standing weekly or monthly meeting in the calendar, what is it for?  Can everyone who is in attendance state why it’s held and what is intended by it?  If not, then you need to remedy this knowledge gap ASAP.

Understanding what the purpose of a meeting is, helps to focus all minds on the topic or issue at hand.  It also gives you the ability to bring the discussion back to the purpose when it ventures off into unrelated areas.

  1. A defined structure.

The 20th Century architectural principle of form follows function applies to your meetings.  Regardless of what structure you give your meetings, each one needs to have a framework in which it operates.

One tool I’ve picked up from my time working in Europe is the use of a Terms of Reference (TOR) in standing meetings. The TOR defines the purpose and structure of the meeting in black and white so that everyone knows what the purpose is, as well as who’s in it and what the agenda will look like.

Do not make this complex.  All standing meetings I run have a simple, 1-slide TOR that includes the following elements:

  • Purpose Statement
  • Listing of Participants (highlighting the facilitator)
  • Standard Agenda
  • Intended Outcomes
  • Frequency
  1. A facilitator.

Effective meetings must have a facilitator. This person serves a purpose beyond keeping everyone to the agenda and watching the clock.  They ensure that everyone in the conference room has a chance to include their thoughts.  They can also orchestrate active decision making, use tools to help participant’s visualize issues (e.g. mind maps or Ishikawa diagrams).  Most importantly, they ensure that decisions are arrived at with each participant’s opportunity to participate.

Meetings without a facilitator are never effective.  If you lack the communications skills to be an effective facilitator, choose an effective participant to fill this role while you develop your capability.

Related article: 10 Tips for Effective Meetings

  1. A record of actions and decisions.

If you run a one-hour meeting with 20 people, you’ve invested half a week’s worth of productivity in that one meeting. It better have a return on investment, otherwise, you are wasting a valuable project resource – time.

None of the projects in my program have the luxury of ample time, therefore I’m keen to ensure that if a meeting is held, there are specific actions and decisions noted and documented.  These become the basis for the start of the next meeting, ensuring that participants accomplish what they said they will accomplish.

  1. A commitment to come prepared.

The first five steps are elements you can control as the project manager, since you have the ability to define a meetings purpose, its structure, who the facilitator will be and what actions and decisions are both taken and captured.

This last step is a shared responsibility, between you and the other participants.  Naturally, you can’t force someone to come prepared to your meetings.  You can motivate participants to be more active by providing a structured meeting that invites active participation from everyone in the room.  This requires you, or your facilitator, to be an active listener and a person who draws out input from each person in the meeting.

Sitting in meetings where participants are not prepared can be traced back to a lack of purpose or a knowledge that the meeting holds limited value to one’s equity in the topic.  Overcome this by delivering engaging meetings that elicit diverse opinion and stimulate dialog and active decision making.  Then participants will show up prepared.

Finally, what about ad hoc meetings?  A day doesn’t go by where an unscheduled pop-up conference call or office meeting doesn’t occur.  For these situations, you can still ensure they are effective by ensuring that you (1) understand the purpose of the conversation and (2) leave the conversation with a clear understanding of who is tasked to do what as a result.

If you keep these two items in mind during ad hoc meetings – what issue/problem are we addressing and what are the actions arising – then these emergent meetings will be just as effective as the standing fixtures in your calendar.

Looking for more tips to help you save time, increase productivity and motivate your team? Check out our guide, “5 Practical Habits for Today’s Project Manager”, as well as our productivity toolkit.

5 Steps to Making Your Project Meetings Effective was last modified: September 13th, 2018 by Christian Knutson, P.E., PMP