Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Meetings - crumbs to achieve (hopefully) better results

In many ways, a meeting is not different from a project. Both are unique and temporary events with stakeholders, scope, schedule...and both are subject to scope creep and gold plating. 
It is a well known truth that a great part of meetings are not so effective as they could and so fruitful as they should. There are many reasons for that.
In this post I will give some tips and summarize some best practices that I have learned on the field, suggestions that I had been given from far more experienced project managers than I am, advices that I have read about on books and so on.
Most are just common sense but I nonetheless hope that this post could help.
I know that there is no silver bullet for the perfect meeting and that this list is way far to be complete. I think that it could be nice if this post will start a discussion about best practices to achieve fruitful meetings. If you have some other tips, please share it and leave a comment. 
Eventually, If there will be a conspicuous number of comments, I could open an appendix to this post and obviously giving you credit for your help.

Why do you need this meeting ?
Ask yourself why this meeting should be called. If you cannot focalize on its purpose or if you find difficult to answer this question, probably there is no real need for this meeting at all.
Do not call meetings to discuss other meetings or to set a line for other meetings or to decide who will take part to another meeting,...
Likewise do not call meetings to inform people. Use reports instead.
An information sharing part is welcome and necessary but do not exaggerate with the extension and the quantity of information to convey. Meetings shouldn't be used to inform people, should be used to decide actions by well informed people.
Also avoid confusion between information sharing and decision making part. If you do not succeed I will swore to you that at the end of your meeting no one would have understood what is needed to be done and which actions have to be taken.
Finally do not use meetings to face day to day management issues or ongoing work. There are better communication channels for that.

Call the meeting
Send an invitation to all partecipants a week or so before the scheduled date. 
In the invitation clearly states
  • Meeting location
  • Meeting starting time
  • Meeting duration 
  • Meeting purpose 
  • Meeting agenda
  • Attending people and a brief description of their expected contributions
It is important that everyone knows in advance where the meeting would be kept, at what time and how long it will last, so that they can adjust their weekly schedule. 
Possibly keep the meeting short.
It is important that everyone understands the meeting purpose and knows the meeting agenda, so that they can document on the meeting's topics and prepare their contributions. 
Besides no one is eager to attend a meeting whose meaning is unaware of and ignore why other people are supposed to attend.
Remember also to give a memo to each attendees the day before or early the same morning.

Invite all the right people and just the right people
Always ask yourself "why should I need this guy to take part in this meeting ?".
There should be two kinds of people at meeting: contributors and decision makers. If one doesn't belong to one if this 2 categories, his presence at the meeting is probably useless.
There is no point in summon twenty people in a room if they have no direct interest in the meeting purpose. A lot of people generates confusion if not interested in the debate and will slow down the meeting schedule with useless intervention if interested. 
Don't have fear to upset someone not inviting him at a meeting. This could happen but it shouldn't be your concern. A meeting invitation is not a judgment nor a kind of social promotion or a benefit, it is the explicitation of a particular need at a given time for a given project.

Ask for a partecipation confirm
You have to know who will attend the meeting and who won't. There is no point in taking a meeting without the decision makers presence. The only result you will obtain will be to replicate the meeting some day later.

Set the room
Be sure to set the location at its best.
Number of seats, boards, printouts... take care of every organizational aspect.

Stick to the meeting agenda and schedule
Do not accept other topics except those included in the agenda. Keep everyone focused on it. If some topic worthy of discussion is raised but not in line with what is planned to be discussed, keep it for another meeting. If someone introduces an argument that is  planned to be discussed later on, politely but firmly ask him or her to hold is thought and assure him or her that this aspect will be discussed later.
Likewise do not exceed the planned meeting duration. Never. People tend to get nervous when asked more time than what that they have agreed to, because they feel as their time is not of any importance to you. So plan to discuss topics in order of importance. At worst least importance matters will find room in the next meeting. Remember also to leave some minute to recap and finalize the minutes.

Take minutes
Always collect meeting minutes and take notes of actions to be taken next, with resources and schedule informations. 
If you find difficult to find important concept that are worth of being collected or you can't list any action to be taken...well this is a sign that the meeting has been totally ineffective and probably useless.
Send the minutes to everyone that has attended the meeting and/or store them in a central repository where everyone who is interested in their content can access them.

Keep the audience focused
Pay attention to signals that reveal lack of attention or poor interest from the attendees, like playing with smartphones, messaging, side conversations, arriving late...
In this case politely but firmly and assertively recall the attention of everyone. It may be a good idea to ask people to turn off their devices. If the meeting last less than half an hour, there is no need in continuously checking e-mail with smartphones.
If someone shows up unprepared to the meeting politely point out to all the audience that you will expect in future a greater degree of involvment, without address the sinlge person. If this happen often...well... this is a leadership and human resource problem. Take care of it.

Lead the meeting
Reserve yourself the right to give or deny the floor, regardless of who the speakers is.
Do not let people talk too much, ask all the speakers to be brief, clear and concise in their contributes.
Refrain people from pointing out obvious things just to appear in the minutes, from use long and wordy introduction there is clearly no need of and from restate exactly what has just been said from other attendees just to add that they agree.

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