Isn't this a great time to be alive? This episode is being recorded from inside my car as I wait for my daughter to finish her ballet dance class using notes that I typed on One Note at home and took with me on my phone. Let's hear it for digital recorders and the cloud!
This week's episode is all about the thing that project managers love to hate. No, I'm not talking about MS Project. I mean meetings.
I work from home a day or two each week. My kids know I'm a project manager, but if you ask them what I do all day, they will probably say "spreadsheets and meetings." They have a sense of how long I spend each day in meetings because they get asked to avoid the basement where my office is and keep the noise to a minimum each time I dial in. To them, it must seem like I'm on conference calls all day.
And it's not just the people who see me work at home. Not too long ago, one of my neighbors in the office made a comment about how they couldn't stand to go to all of the meetings that I do. That they see it as completely soul-crushing.
On Thursday I talked to one of the PMs on my team about a meeting that he'd recently been asked to call by a project stakeholder to discuss a specific topic related to the project.
"I'm afraid we wasted some people's time. There were too many people there, he said. We got the answers we needed, but it was all up to pretty much one decision maker."
Before 5am the next morning, I received my management tip of the day from the Harvard Business Review (http://www.harvardbusiness.org/management-tip-day-hbrorg). Incredibly, this tip was titled "The Invite List for Your Next Meeting Is Probably Too Big". (https://hbr.org/tip/2018/09/the-invite-list-for-your-next-meeting-is-probably-too-big).
The article suggests having the right people, and only the right people in each meeting. To hone the agenda before scheduling the meeting and to cut participants with a sharp knife. Basically, the article suggested, try to invite only people who you would feel compelled to cancel the meeting if they could not show. And to consider limiting overall attendance to eight.
We've all been in meetings with no decision maker, the wrong decision maker, or just as bad, multiple layers of management from the same line of business. Meetings where we've argued, artificially kept the peace, or simply punted without taking any steps forward.
Building on the wisdom of the Harvard Business Review, here are some ways to make your meetings more productive and valuable:
Don't have it at all. This is the best way to not be part of a wasteful meeting. Simply do not have it. My favorite meeting to cut is the status update. We've all sat through status meetings, wondering why we couldn't just read the update on our own. If the purpose of the meeting is just to communicate status, and not to make any decisions or take action, don't have it. As a matter of fact, I rarely send status reports. Each project has a published dashboard with all of the key metrics. Rather than figuring out when and how each stakeholder wants to receive a push message, my team allows them to pull on their own schedule.
Plan, plan, plan. If the meeting is necessary, then the Harvard Business Review is spot on. Know exactly what needs to be decided or accomplished and communicate that clearly to the team. Have an agenda. And, have someone to keep the agenda on track. Sometimes that's not easy if you are also running the meeting. Have someone else in the meeting who can help you keep things on topic. I've even seen suggestions that there be a "safe word" that everyone knows will immediately stop discussion and move a wayward topic to the parking lot. I blogged about it a while ago.
Prepare for attendees like you do stakeholders on your projects. Know who needs to be there. I will often talk to department heads prior to the meeting, tell them the topic, and ask for one person who will understand it and will be empowered to make a decision. That's who I invite. It's also important to know whether attendees will be positive, negative, neutral, etc. just like stakeholders on the project. This will help you plan for potential outcomes and keep the meeting on track.
Have ground rules. In addition to sending the agenda, and any background information to attendees with enough time for them to prepare, set expectations and communicate them. Ask attendees to come ready or to suggest someone who can in their place. Set guidelines around communication, such as "if we cannot make a decision in x minutes or rounds of discussion, we'll table the item for its own meeting." Enforce the normal rules around courtesy and respect. And, if your culture allows it, discourage phones and other devices.
Finally, one more tip. For many of my meetings, I set Outlook to not allow my invitation to be forwarded. I'll ask recipients to talk to me if they think I've missed someone or invited the wrong person. Outlook helps me enforce that request. If they want someone in the meeting, I have to be convinced to add them.
For PMs, meetings are unavoidable and a key part of how we get work done. Through thoughtful preparation, they don't have to be the soul-crushing events that people who are accustomed to attending bad meetings believe they are.