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.
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 “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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Quick tip: In many cases, the PM may play all of these roles, as well as the participant role. It’s a tricky balance. If you don’t feel as though you can do it all, ask someone to help. Your best bet is to find someone to help you take notes so you can actively join in on the conversation.
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.
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.
Tip: Record a meeting’s audio or video if you think it may come in handy later.
There's no doubt that the best meetings are 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.
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.
Tip: Is your goal to make the meeting quick? Hold your meeting in a non-conventional space and run a “stand-up” meeting.
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. 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’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 2 hours is more than enough time to identify issues and create next steps or resolutions.
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.
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:
Sample questions could be as simple as, “What worked?” and “What didn’t work?” Or you could go 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).
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.
Either of these information-gathering methods seems 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 to 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 on helps the team remember what was said and sometimes can spark conversation.
Tip: If you are managing a portfolio of projects, you might recognize issues that are happening across your organization. Use that knowledge to direct conversations and resolve common project problems.
It’s pretty simple: You’ll discuss what you’ve already prepared. But there are a few simple rules to follow:
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 we 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.
Tip: Post comprehensive notes for everyone to see. Be sure to list all initial points from the team as well as your focused conversation points and next steps. And be sure to take those all into account when planning your next project.
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.
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.
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