Download this guide

A Guide to Project Management

Featured on Product Hunt.

Chapter 10


Master the Art and Science of Meetings


Written by Brett Harned

10
SHARE

There’s no doubt that every project manager’s day is filled with meetings. These can be meetings about projects, meetings with clients, ad hoc team gatherings, internal and client status meetings, and so on. The list of possibilities for work gatherings seems endless. That can be a problem! Too many meetings can mean lower team productivity, and too few meetings can cause strains in team communication and gaps in knowledge. There’s certainly a tricky balance to find the right amount of meeting time, and it’s tough to ensure that each will be productive.

Finding the right balance and offering the team value in each and every meeting often lies on a project manager’s shoulders. But don’t worry, you can become a PM Meeting Master by finding the balance between the “art” of communicating a meeting’s importance and the “science” of how it’s best managed.

Determining Meeting Value

Of course, there is no mystery in what makes a meeting successful or abysmally bad. Just scheduling a meeting can be difficult, what with ensuring timeliness of the discussion, navigating the issues at hand, and coordinating people (and their busy schedules). Plus, you have to deal with internal factors. For instance, in some organizational cultures, meetings are seen as unnecessary, or bad. In others, they are healthy places to exchange ideas, or even to get work done. Whether you think they’re good or a hassle, you should know that you, the project manager, can help determine the time, length, agenda, and value of a meeting.


Before you schedule anything, ask yourself, “What is the goal of the meeting?”
Tweet

Before you “throw something on the calendar,” it’s best to think strategically about your meeting. Part of the reason many professionals sigh or grunt at the thought of a meeting is because they can been seen as an interruption in their day. Think about it—if you’re working with a team who is making a product, they need a good amount of time to sit down and focus on what they’re making. A meeting about something peripheral to the project can throw their concentration off very quickly. So how can you determine if a meeting is actually needed? Follow these guidelines:

  1. Be clear about the meeting’s goals. It may seem silly, but going into a meeting knowing what you want to get out of it will help you make decisions on who should be there, when it should happen, and how long it might take. Before you schedule anything, ask yourself, “What is the goal of the meeting?” and “Do we actually need a meeting to hit this goal?”
  2. Who needs to be in this meeting? Look back at that goal. Is it something that your entire team should be involved in? Be sure to protect your time as well as your team’s. The last thing you want to do is pull someone into a meeting if they are not needed. Think about it this way: “Will this person talk in the meeting?” If the answer is “no,” they are off the hook. Tip: Never double-book someone for a meeting. If someone is unable to make a meeting and you can’t find another time, approach them and ask them if they’re okay with missing the meeting. Promise throrough meeting notes and offer a follow-up if you just need to make a meeting happen and the person is secondary in the conversation at hand.
  3. What is needed to make this meeting a success? Give attendees everything they will need for this meeting in advance. Your best bet is to attach the information to the meeting invitation. This could include advance notes, handouts, documents for review, etc. The more prep you can provide, the more productive the meeting will be.
  4. Does this meeting have to happen today, tomorrow, or even next week? Think back to that meeting goal. How will it impact your project, decisions that are being made, the people in the meeting (and the work they have going on), your clients, your budget, and timeline? There’s a lot in play there! Project managers often think every issue is the most important, but when it comes to determining the best timing—or if a meeting can wait—take the time to think through those impacts and create priorities.
  5. How much time do we need? Again, protect that time! If you only need 15 minutes, take it. If you need an hour and a half, that’s okay too. Be sure to communicate the intent and value of the meeting to attendees so they come into it knowing that you’re not wasting their time. Remember, you are the PM and you can control the calendar. If a meeting will stress your calendar, or your team’s, you can take responsibility for finding a better time.
  6. What is the agenda? Always create a meeting agenda, even for the shortest meetings. Be sure to include the meeting agenda in the meeting invitation, and add names next to conversation or presentation points so attendees know their responsibility for the meeting. Having an agenda will help you to stick to the meeting goals, formulate what potential to-do items could be, and keep the conversation on track. Tip: Never send a meeting invitation without an agenda. And don’t accept meetings without them!

Make a Great Meeting

Once you’ve determined that your meeting will happen and you’ve set the agenda, it’s up to you to make sure it lives up to everyone’s expectations. No fear, you can do this! You can lay the groundwork for a highly productive meeting by establishing some rules, creating some roles, and addressing potential distractions.

Determine Meeting Roles

If your meeting is fairly formal, you’ll want to make sure you have some basic roles and responsibilities covered. Read through the roles below and determine what’s right for you and the people you’re gathering.

Leader

The leader is the team member who calls the meeting and takes responsibility for communication before and after. In addition to being a participant, this person may guide discussion on all items or perhaps ask others to lead the entirety (or parts) of the meeting.

Facilitator

The facilitator keeps the discussion and decision-making process moving along. Typically, the facilitator is not involved in the content of the meeting—they guide conversation through the agenda and help the group with decision making.

Recorder

The note-taker is a non-negotiable role in any meeting. Meeting notes are very important. Having someone to record general points made, action items, and to-dos is critical to the success of any meeting. On that note, meeting notes should be distributed as soon after the meeting as possible. It can be very helpful to store notes in a system where meeting attendees can review and update points made.

Timekeeper

If you want to be really expedient, ask someone to keep an eye on the clock. Start on time and end on time, and everyone will be happy.

These roles are only meant to be general guidelines. Not every meeting will even have enough attendees to make this happen! A general rule of thumb should be that the folks whose attendance is critical to the conversation at hand are in attendance with no additional “job” in the meeting. If you need help with moderation or note-taking, by all means, ask for help. After all, you’re a PM, not Superman.


Create a meeting atmosphere where everyone is urged to contribute.
Tweet

Be All-Inclusive

There is no doubt that the best meetings the ones that are highly productive, and where everyone feels highly invested in the discussion and decisions made. You can’t force that. What you can do is create a meeting atmosphere where everyone is urged to contribute, everyone comes away with new knowledge (or at least an opportunity to share knowledge or an update), and everyone is 100% clear on the next steps that need to be taken in order to meet the meeting—and project—goals.

Keep Meeting Productivity Up

All too often, attendees will show up with a laptop and/or devices in tow. It’s really hard to disconnect these days, but if the people meant to be engaged in the discussion are sidetracked by what’s happening on their screens, they will be distracted from your important conversation. If you’re feeling brave, ask attendees to leave laptops and devices on their desks.

The Postmortem: A Meeting to End All Meetings

So, you’ve become a PM meeting master and all of your day-to-day meetings are running smoothly. Projects, on the other hand, can get rough. There are many factors that can create tension and cause delays, indecision, and confusion on projects. It’s often hard to point to any of those factors, but it’s pretty important to dig in and sort it out. That’s where another meeting (or maybe two) can help. This time, you’ll plan for more time, and the goal is to learn more about your own process and pitfalls—the to-dos are all related to your own improvement.

So what do you call this meeting? For the purpose of this chapter, we’ll call it a postmortem. Some call it a project wrap up. Others call is a post-project recap. No matter what you decide to name it, know that a postmortem is one of the most important meetings you can conduct as a PM.


No one is perfect. No project is perfect. Don’t ever forget that.
Tweet

No one is perfect. No project is perfect. Don’t ever forget that. Project managers can’t fix every problem—much less, see everything coming.. But with the help of a project postmortem meeting, you can identify pitfalls and commonalities that create issues within your projects. With some additional thought and discussion, those issues can be fixed and we can save our teams and clients from a limited amount of strain when it comes to process, deliverables, interactions, and responsibilities. It’s amazing how solid evaluation tools and some team collaboration can help you to get to the bottom of your process issues and help you work with great efficiency. That’s where the project postmortem meeting comes in.

We know you’re busy, but…

We’re all busy! So many organizations don’t take a moment to evaluate their work. Getting final approval (or a check) from a client or a project sponsor often feels like enough to just end the project and move on to something new! It makes sense—who wants to spend more time or money on something that is finished? The problem is, without some form of evaluation, you‘ll move right in to the next project and hit the same problems over and over again. That can’t be what’s best for your business or for your team. Improving the way you work or approach a problem as a team will not only make your team dynamic stronger, it will set the stage for greater overall quality and more room for creativity.

Make the time to meet with your team and evaluate your own work as a PM. A solid two hours is more than enough time to identify issues and create next steps or resolutions.


Make the time to meet with your team and evaluate your own work as a PM.
Tweet

What good can come out of it?

Postmortem meetings are not meant to create a negative working environment. Of course, no one actually likes to talk about their flaws (or anyone else’s) in a public forum. In order to make any progress, you need to talk freely and openly (not negatively) about how you can improve your process and as a result, your work product. Yes, you are going to talk about what did not work on said project, but the ground rules of the meeting should be set before discussion begins:

While the goal of the meeting is to discuss issues and potential changes to process in order to alleviate those issues in the future, you need to keep it light. Talk about what you did well! Every attendee should know that the point of the meeting is not to point fingers at one another, but rather to the issues in general. If you set the ground rules and moderate thoughtful discussion, you can make everyone feel really good about the work that was done and energize them about the changes you are enabled to make.

As soon as everyone feels like they’re in their “safe place,” the comments will flow and you’ll see how great it is to engage your team outside of the project environment to talk about the factors that affect the work product.

Add some structure

You don’t want to just go in to the meeting and let people talk. That could get your team in a negative spot really fast. Instead, you need to structure the discussion strategically and make the best use of everyone’s time. In order to know what is important or relevant to the discussion, you have to solicit some initial feedback from the team. You can do this in one of two ways:

Option One: Collect all discussion points by means of a survey or a team sit-down

Sample questions could be as simple as, “What worked” and “What didn’t work?” or you could get deeper by asking your team to rate overall team performance on a scale of 1–10, based on agreement (1=I disagree, 10=I agree).

Option Two: Whiteboard your high-level thoughts

Sit down for a very short 15-minute session and simply ask your team to list “what worked” and “what didn’t work.” Go around the room to let everyone respond and record all feedback on a whiteboard. This meeting needs to be short and sweet, so only list items; don’t let it become discussion. You’ll save that for later on.

Make sense of the responses.

Either of these information gathering methods seem to work just fine—it all depends on how much info you really want up front. Again, teams are busy, so adding a task like a survey (instead of a 15-minute meeting) that will get in the way of coding or designing just means that you’re going to have to flex your project management muscles and follow up…repeatedly. But you have to do what works for you and your team.

After you’ve collected all of your feedback, sit down with the info and find the biggest themes that came out of the responses and develop an easy to follow meeting agenda. Create a Keynote (or Powerpoint) to lead the conversation during the meeting and be sure that the slides explain the overall issue and follow-up with specific comments where applicable. Sometimes having those facts to fall back to helps the team remember what was said, and sometimes can spark conversation.

The Meeting

It’s pretty simple: you’ll discuss what you’ve already prepared. But, there are a few simple rules to follow:

  1. Have a facilitator to present the slides and stimulate discussion, as well as a scribe to take public notes and track action items. Also, have fun. It’s a serious topic, but meetings like this benefit from a adding a fun twist to the approach.
  2. Lead with successes. Why not talk about what worked first? Boost the team up and make a point to cheer your wins and innovations.
  3. Make this rule clear: No finger-pointing, no negativity. You’re there to resolve issues.
  4. Make sure you give everyone a fair shot to weigh in during the discussion. Going around the room person by person can be painful, but it helps to make the conversation fair and balanced. No matter what, do your best at encouraging active, positive participation.
  5. Leave the meeting with a set of action items and owners. You’ll never improve anything if you don’t act on what you discuss. Note that some things may require additional discussions. They’re worth your time.

What next?

You’ve met and identified the issues, so what’s next? Where possible, implement change immediately. Did you think of a new way to present your work to clients? Test it out. See if it works. Maybe you identified a step in your process that was missing. Test it out. See if it works. The best can do is continue to iterate on what we do and tailor our own processes to what works for our clients and our teams. You’ll always meet roadblocks, but you’re always able to plow over them as a team. Conversations and meetings will only help you to surpass obstacles when they get in the way.


Conversations and meetings will only help you to surpass obstacles when they get in the way.
Tweet

When it’s all said and done, your projects might be put to rest but if you conduct a good follow-up meeting, your process will survive. With a minimal investment of your time and thought, your own project team (or CSI investigators) will quickly solve issues and improve your processes, your work, and maybe even team morale.

Carry On, PM Meeting Master

There is no doubt that meetings are sometimes difficult to navigate—from scheduling them in the first place to following up on the action items that come out of them. There is an implied art and science to making them successful, but let’s face it… only you can determine what is right for your project and your team. Use these guidelines at your own will and adapt them to what works for you. Always remember: A meeting’s value is determined by those who participate. As a team, you can work together to make every interaction valuable, whether that’s in a 15-minute stand-up, a daily status, a presentation, a two-part postmortem meeting, or a simple hallway conversation.

What to read next:


Chapter 11:

BEYOND 40 HOURS: CONTINUOUS PM LEARNING

How does a PM stay on top of things and continue to be a good PM when there is only so much time in every day? If you are truly engaged in your work and you projects, it will come easily.

Read Now


Complete list of Chapters


Sign up to get notified of our upcoming free guides and content

Including a free video series from TeamGantt featuring Brett Harned!