Everyone has at least one memory of an unpleasantly long and unfruitful meeting.
In fact, unproductive meetings cost American businesses nearly $37B each year. Little wonder that executives consider two-thirds of meetings to be failures.
For project managers, however, holding meetings is a critical part of their job descriptions.
From kicking off a project to gathering status reports from team members, you’ll have to schedule, run and summarize meetings regularly.
How can you make the most of these meetings? What steps can you take to make your meetings more efficient and productive?
I’ll share some insight on how project managers can run better meetings in this article.
1. Start With a Meeting Communication Plan
If you remember our article on creating client communication plans, we highlighted the importance of creating event-specific communication plans.
Essentially, this means establishing clear rules, requirements and stakeholders for all the meetings and events you might experience in the course of a project.
Of course, the details might change before actual meetings – some stakeholders might be unavailable, some participants might drop out. Nevertheless, an established communication plan makes it much easier to set the tone and agenda for meetings.
Here’s what you should make note of in your meeting communication plan:
- Meeting schedule: Some meetings, such as project status meetings, will be held on a recurring basis. Others might be held just once as part of the onboarding or briefing process (such as the kickoff meeting). Make a note of this in the communication plan.
- Meeting goal: Clearly identify the purpose of each meeting (“get updates on project status”, “gather initial data from clients”, etc.). This, in turn, will help you identify stakeholders and deliverables.
- Identify stakeholders: Stakeholders might or might not participate in the meeting, but they will need reports from the meeting. Identify the stakeholders for each meeting up front.
- Identify deliverables: You’ll want deliverables from each meeting, such as a concrete project status report or a list of completed milestones. Identify these clearly in the communication plan, as well as who they’re expected to be delivered to.
- Identify meeting leaders and facilitators: Successful meetings typically have a leader and a facilitator (often the same person). If possible, identify these up front in the communication plan. More on leaders and facilitators below.
- Communication channel: Make note of how you’ll hold the meeting (via Skype, in-person, etc.).
Doing this upfront will save you a lot of work later on when you have to gather insight from meetings and communicate it to stakeholders and participants.
2. Establish Clear Leader and Facilitator Roles
Dig beneath any successful meeting and you’ll find one thing in common: they have clear roles for leaders and facilitators.
The meeting leader is the person who sets the agenda for the meeting. This person is responsible for identifying the “what” of the meeting – what to discuss, what to avoid, and what to deliver to stakeholders.
A meeting facilitator, on the other hand, is responsible for the “how” of the meeting – how the meeting is to be run, how you’ll track time, and how you’ll collect deliverables, etc.
As a project manager, you’re most familiar with your role as a leader. Since you’re usually the principal owner of the meeting, you identify who all will participate and what you’ll discuss.
However, to run better meetings, you also need to appoint someone as the facilitator.
As Roger Schwarz, author of The Skilled Facilitator notes, the facilitator is someone who:
“…is acceptable to all group members, substantively neutral, and has no decision-making authority…who helps a group improve the way it identifies and solves problems and makes decisions.”
The responsibilities of the facilitator include, but aren’t limited to:
- Being the timekeeper, i.e. ensuring that the meeting doesn’t stretch beyond its scheduled time.
- Alerting the team if the discussion veers off-topic.
- Keeping any team member (or even the meeting leader) from dominating the discussion.
- Offering clarity, i.e. clearly establishing the meeting agenda, providing direction for discussion topics, and ensuring that participants understand and adhere to the agenda.
- Facilitating the meeting, i.e. making sure that all the meeting room equipment is working, there are no outside interruptions, etc.
Since the facilitator is meant to observe the meeting and be neutral, picking a participant as the facilitator is usually not a good idea. Rather, pick someone from outside the team for this role. If someone isn’t available, pick a team member who isn’t participating.
What about the meeting leader?
Usually, you’ll fulfill this role yourself. As the meeting leader, your responsibilities include:
- Uniting the participants behind a shared vision for that specific meeting, for the project, and for the organization as a whole.
- Getting participants involved and drawing out insight from reluctant participants.
- Express appreciation for all contributors and providing a direction to the meeting.
- Setting the agenda before the meeting starts and sharing it with the rest of the team.
Keeping these two roles separate will ensure that you, the meeting leader, have enough time and attention to draw out insight from meeting participants.
Meanwhile, the facilitator will ensure that the meeting itself runs smoothly.
3. Set an Agenda and Hold Participants Accountable
One of the biggest causes of meandering, unproductive meetings is the lack of a clear agenda. If the participants (and in many cases, the project manager himself) don’t know what the meeting will discuss and what’s required of them, the meeting can go off the rails very quickly.
The first step is to establish an agenda well before the meeting. Any participant walking into the room should know exactly what is required of him/her.
Here are a few things to keep in mind when setting the agenda:
- Seek input: Ask the team for topics or issues they want to discuss. Bring these topics into the discussion throughout the meeting to keep team members engaged.
- Focus on team-wide issues: The meeting’s agenda should touch each and every participant in some way. Else you risk wasting your team’s time and attention. Reserve narrow, individual-focused issues to one-on-one meetings.
- State your requirements for each issue: Team members can’t be good participants unless you know what you require of them for each discussed issue. Clearly state whether you want the team to offer their input, make a decision, or share information related to the issue. Your goal is to turn team members into active listeners, not passive participants.
- Identify topic leaders: Besides meeting leaders (see above), it’s also a good practice to identify leaders for each major topic of discussion. These are team members who can “own” the issue and guide others about it. Clearly indicate who the leaders are for each issue on the meeting agenda.
- Frame issues as questions: An easy way to get participants engaged is to frame each issue as a question. That is, don’t say “new project management tool”; ask: “Should we move to a new project management tool? If yes, why? If no, why not?”
- Give participants homework: Lastly, specify how you want participants to be prepared for the meeting. If there is any background reading or research they need to do, indicate it clearly well before the meeting starts.
- Clarify your discussion process: Establish a clear process for discussing any topic regardless of the meeting agenda. Ensure that everyone on the team is familiar with and follows this process. For example, you could have something like “10 minutes to gather our thoughts, 10 minutes to discuss, and 10 minutes to resolve” for each topic. Do this for all meetings to ensure clarity.
Here’s a template for a meeting agenda from HBR that you can use:
Email this agenda to participants before the meeting, giving them adequate time for preparation. Hold team members accountable in case they are not prepared.
Your goal should be to have all participants walk into the meeting knowing what is to be discussed, what is required of them, and how they can contribute.
This single thing will go a long way in helping you run more efficient meetings.
4. Emphasize Efficiency and Engagement
If there are two words that should define how you run better meetings, they should be efficiency and engagement.
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Your team’s time is important, especially in an agency environment where you bill by the hour. Your meeting should be geared to utilize the meeting time as efficiently as possible.
Some ways to do this are:
- Limit the number of participants: As this article in HBR notes, the ideal number of people for a meeting is between 4 to 7. More than that and you’ll suffer from too many voices and conflicting ideas.
- Consider holding multiple meetings: If you can’t trim down the meeting size, consider breaking the discussion into two separate meetings. Include only participants who really need to be there for each meeting.
- Leave time-intensive work outside of meetings: If you want participants to read a report or do some research, ensure that they do it before the meeting. The meeting should be focused exclusively on actionable outcomes.
- Get status updates before the meeting: Ask participants to fill out a standard “status update” form before the meeting. The meeting itself should be reserved for extracting details or discussing issues.
- Establish standard processes: You should have a standard form for getting status updates, another for preparing the agenda, and one for documenting the actionable takeaways from the meeting. The more you can standardize the meeting components, the more efficient you’ll be.
While efficiency is certainly important, you can’t ignore engagement.
We’ve all been through long, meandering meetings with unfocused participants and lethargic discussions. Little good comes out of such meetings. Disengaged participants rarely contribute practical insight. The lack of vitality can even affect team morale.
The antidote to this problem is to structure your meetings in a way to maximize engagement.
- Prioritize discussion topics: The early part of any meeting is usually more focused and energetic. Reserve discussion topics that need more engagement and mental energy for the first half of the meeting. At the same time, if there is a topic that you know will engage everyone, reserve it for the later. When the meeting energy sags, bring this topic up to improve engagement.
- Focus on long-term, high-impact items first: In the attempt to cross items off the agenda, meeting leaders often start off with urgent but trivial issues. This creates a sense of accomplishment but often leaves too little time for high-impact, complex issues. Solve this problem by front-loading the meeting with long-term, impactful issues and leave trivial issues for later.
- Balance divisive and inclusive topics: Some issues will divide your team. Some will unite them. Try to balance the two. Divisive issues can often increase the energy in the meeting (especially if they affect the whole team), so use them when you see engagement lagging. As a matter of habit, try to end the meeting on a unifying issue.
Keeping up the energy and engagement depends on how you structure and conduct your meetings. Create an inclusive atmosphere and organize your agenda that aligns with the energy of the room.
5. Use the Right Meeting Apps for Remote Teams
It’s increasingly common to have remote team members call into a meeting. In some cases, even a majority of meeting participants might be remote.
In such situations, you’ll need the right meeting and video conferencing apps.
Here are some options you can choose from:
- Zoom.us: Zoom is one of the more affordable video conferencing apps on this list, but still boasts a large list of features. You can share screens, record videos, have a shared whiteboard and even connect via mobile. Plus, there’s a free version for smaller teams.
- Join.me: Join.me is a popular option for smaller teams that want a hassle-free and affordable video conferencing solution. You can connect via their mobile app or even a VoIP and telephone.
- GoToMeeting: One of the most recognizable names on this list. GoToMeeting’s best feature is the ability to call into meetings via an international toll-free number. The cost is reasonable as well.
Just because you’re running a remote meeting doesn’t mean that standard meeting rules don’t apply. Follow the same best-practices as above – create an agenda, share it with the team beforehand, and hold everyone accountable.
6. People Management is Crucial
At its very heart, running better meetings is all about managing people and their expectations. You can’t run a successful meeting if your participants are disengaged, silent or antagonistic.
When it comes to people management, there are a few strategies you can adopt:
Lay out the ground rules
Everyone on the team should know the ground rules of the meeting. This includes being familiar with the agenda, doing their homework, being punctual, etc. If someone flouts these rules, make it known to them and the team.
For instance, if you want to promote punctuality, always start the meeting on time, even if some participants are absent.
Draw out responses
You’ll invariably have some participants who’ll remain silent, and some participants who will warble on and on. Your role as the project manager and meeting leader is to strike a balance between the two.
Take careful note of participants who aren’t involved. Draw them in by asking questions relevant to their role and expertise.
At the same time, if someone is being exceptionally talkative, it’s your responsibility to not let them dominate the meeting. Politely ask them to offer their ideas in the written form as an email. Alternatively, solicit suggestions from someone else on the topic.
Be careful with your seating arrangement
Although it might sound trivial, how you arrange people in the meeting room can impact their behavior. Making people sit across each other promotes opposition and confrontations. Seating them side-by-side does the opposite – it makes confrontations harder.
If you want to get new ideas, confrontations and disagreements can be good. If you want two (or more) people to debate an idea, make them sit across each other.
Promote (and mediate) debates
If you want new ideas and suggestions from the meeting, you’ll want your participants to debate vigorously. Encourage discussion by tackling controversial topics and inviting responses from disagreeing parties.
At the same time, you also have to ensure that ideas and not people are attacked during the discussion. If you see the discussion getting heated, bring in a neutral party and divert the argument to something factual and agreeable.
Protect junior members
As the meeting leader, it’s your responsibility to bring in junior members and make them feel included. Junior players might hesitate to get involved, especially if there are a lot of senior members present.
Encourage junior participants to question input, even if it’s from senior members. Publicly praise their responses. Call on them to offer their input on contentious issues when needed.
Essentially, make them feel like they’re a part of the meeting and the team.
Close on a positive note
A contentious meeting might be good for the business since it can lead to new ideas. However, it can also lead to bruised egos and an air of negativity.
Battle this by always closing your meetings on a positive note. Highlight an achievement from the meeting or from the team’s activities. Commend participants and offer praise where appropriate. Make people feel good about the meeting and the team as a whole.
As a project manager, your job revolves around running meetings. A poorly planned and disorganized meeting will cost you time, resources and energy. Your goal should be to hold meetings that are as efficient, engaging and productive as possible.
Follow the six tips I shared above to get off on the right foot.
Here’s what you can takeaway from this post:
- Set up a communication plan for all meetings.
- Establish clear roles before the meeting starts.
- Set an agenda and hold participants accountable.
- Be as efficient and engaging as possible.
- For remote meetings, use the right meeting apps.
- Focus on managing people in the actual meeting.
What about you? How do you run better meetings? Share with us in the comments below.
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