There never seems to be an end to the frequency, or duration, of meetings. So when does project work actually get done? Three experts share their tips on productive meetings.
Everyday, project teams and leaders sit in one or more meetings with vendors, suppliers, sponsors, or other stakeholders. Doesn't seem like a big deal right? Well, according to statistics put out by Atlassian, it costs US businesses around $37 billion dollars per year in due to unnecessary meetings. While many meetings may be frustrating and seem like a waste of time, not all of the time spent talking, facilitating or listening in meetings needs to be unfruitful.
Why are so many project meetings necessary?
Project meetings are an interwoven part of each stage of project management, and typically cover things like planning, project kick-off, status updates, resourcing, scheduling, quality control, stakeholder management and close-out, among other things. Project meetings are also intended to give attendees a chance to brainstorm, share experiences, resolve issues, strengthen buy-in and gel teams.
Strategies to make the best of project meetings
Meetings aren't always guaranteed to produce great ideas, foster knowledge sharing, offer take-aways, keep things on schedule or ensure objectives are being met. It takes deliberate effort to establish working strategies that can increase the chances of producing the desired results — just ask these executives.
Based on his experience as a CTO, Mateusz Warcholiński of Brainhub, a web and mobile application development company, creating a detailed agenda and making it available before the meeting, and setting time to address each point from that agenda is a good way to keep meetings productive. He also shared these additional tips that helped his company reduce meeting durations by 70%:
- Advanced access to agendas ensures that everybody can review what's going to be discussed and can add a point to discuss it. If it's not on the list, don't discuss it.
- Meeting timers are turned on during a meeting for each discussion point, and this works well. "If it takes longer, we 'park' a topic and discuss later or next week, " said Warcholiński.
- Assignment of responsibilities ensures that each point on the agenda has a person responsible to deliver or solve the problem and deadline.
Skot Carruth, CEO of software company Philosophie and former digital product consultant, said based on his experience, there are only three meeting agendas that engage people and aren't a complete waste of time:
- The decision meeting, where participants have advanced understanding and perspective of issues and the group collaborates until a decision is reached.
- The work session, aimed at collaborating on a discrete task where the meeting is only concluded once there is a deliverable.
- The team health meeting, meant to be a face-to-face check-in. "A lot of organizations employ retrospectives or postmortems, but they don't foster an environment where individuals can be honest and vulnerable," said Carruth. "The point of this meeting is to build interpersonal empathy so that the individuals can interact more effectively...even at our company, teams can fall into the habit of scheduling pointless meetings. But when people are mindful of these categories, they can ensure that there's a purpose to each meeting."
At Flying Pig Designs LLC, an early-stage product development company, independent product developer Keir Hart, cites these five strategies he encourages to make the most of their project team meetings:
- Dare to be different
- Keep it simple
- First, make sure it works
- Act with urgency
- Remember the Golden Rule (treat others as you want to be treated)
To help make meetings shorter, Hart recommended standing meetings to ensure that people come more prepared — because nobody wants to stand for long. He recommends using visual charting tools to track the meeting's progress.
What are some of my strategies?
I found some things that work for me, like setting general project team expectations well in advance, in addition to sending out the agenda prior to meetings. It's necessary to cover general housekeeping and behavioral expectations (how people are to interact and treat each other) especially if a conflict arises. If expectations aren't set from the beginning, they can become misunderstandings, disruptive and take away from valuable and productive time in meetings throughout a project.
Similar to the other experts, about five days before the actual meeting I send out the agenda and include:
- A list of key contacts and attendees, location, time, and what to come prepared to discuss
- Specific goals for the meeting, making sure to include what is expected from each individual or area, if possible
- How much time is being allocated for each topic to ensure we zoom in on key things and not get lost in the weeds
- What will happen with discoveries, or topics outside of the agenda
- Key factors that may impact the meeting that individuals might want to consider in advance
- Set no more than three to four key goals for the meeting, don't try to cram too much into them. Otherwise, you risk accomplishing nothing, and everyone leaves frustrated
- Respect the time of others, and avoid scheduling too many meetings. This way attendees take your meetings seriously and don't simply avoid attending
I also try to set meetings at a maximum of 50 minutes to allow everyone time to make post-meeting notes before preparing for other meetings etc. This allows attendees to focus on the meeting up to the last minute instead of where they need to be next.
My last piece of advice is to continue to learn from mistakes made in previous meetings, and talk to other meeting facilitators and participants to learn from their experiences.