Whenever you start a new project, you will encounter a broad range of personalities in your project meetings. If you want to get things done, you need to lay some groundwork (scaffolding) to help bring everyone together while at the same time respecting the existing corporate culture everyone is used to. Here are some general tips which will work in all but the most extreme corporate environments.
First let's take a minute to identify why we have meetings in the first place and what the costs and benefits are. In the final analysis, all meetings are (or should be) a method to increase profits, either by reducing costs or raising income. Before planning a meeting, it's a good idea to run a rough cost-benefit analysis of having the meeting.
Typical meeting costs:
- salaries and benefits of those attending the meeting for the time they are there plus any associated travel costs
- facility costs (rent, utilities, meals, conference bridges, equipment)
- lost productivity the resources at the meeting could have been using to make the company money
Typical meeting benefits:
- Increased productivity, synergy and efficiency (lower cost of product)
- More sales (market share increase through added benefits, awareness, perceived value added)
- Getting out of failed ventures (cutting future losses)
- Getting stakeholder buyin or sourcing new capital
- Raising stock price
- Improving strategy or redefining goals
- Sharing information (the kind that needs to be done in person)
- Problem solving
If potential benefits don't outweigh known costs, perhaps you should solve the problem without the meeting or use a different method of getting everyone's input (email, computer based training, virtual project plan, etc.) The meter is always ticking.
Your job as PM is to prepare for success. If you decide to go ahead with the meeting, these tips will help you succeed in your goal.
Send your assistant bot on a mission: check every team member's schedule and suggest a list of meeting times that could work for most. Make sure all participants have a clear invitation to the meeting and a copy of the agenda so they know what to expect and prepare. Make sure schedules of remote and local resources are cleared for the meeting time. Set up any conference bridges, Skype or video conferencing channels and make sure everyone knows how to access the tools you plan to use. If possible, schedule your meeting for first thing in the morning or right after lunch when bellies are full, spirits are good, and energy levels high. Avoid late morning or late afternoon meetings if possible. If necessary, bring snacks. If having a working lunch meeting, plan to feed everyone and make sure all special food needs are addressed (vegan, gluten free, Kosher, diabetic, low sodium, high protein, etc.).
Plan to make your meetings fun! Remember, people aren't particularly motivated by their paycheck or the fear of losing their jobs or being transferred off the project. They need to know what's in it for them. This could be something as simple as being entertained or knowing their views will be heard and result in action. A big driver for some is career advancement so be sure to sell the project to the team with that in mind.
Your goal in every meeting/presentation (beside the obvious profit motive) is to arouse interest, enjoyment and enthusiasm. We do this by using style and impact. Always remember: theatrical or dramatic skill takes precedent over just delivering information.
Always, start and end the meeting on time to respect everyone's schedules. You are the MC (master of ceremonies) of the meeting - the ringmaster. Set the pace of the meeting to get the full agenda covered in the time allotted.
Plan what you will do if someone strays into what is known as a pitfall or Career Limiting Topic. These include jokes, comments or discussion of any of the following:
- sex or the differences between sexes or genders
- philosophical issues
- income or compensation
- slander or gossip
If these topics come up, shut them down as quickly and tactfully as possible. Get the person alone after the meeting and explain why what they said was inappropriate and not appreciated. The best litmus test for any topic is do not say or do anything that you wouldn't want to see on the front page of a newspaper or posted online. Remember, many meetings are being recorded for posterity, so act accordingly.
Learn how to read your audience's needs and desires using the DISC communications strategy. Know what people in different job levels tend to need and want. Use a laser pointer or penlight to point out key points. Get onto their wavelength for success. (Get it? Wavelength, laser, penlight? Anyone?)
Prepare your PowerPoint decks, slides and transparencies using these techniques:
- No more than 6 words per title or subtitle
- No more than 6 points per slide
- Large, easy to read font
- Non traditional images
- Use audio-visual aids with upbeat music or subjects to generate enthusiasm
- Run any needed reports on your company ERM/CRM package to get the data you need for the meeting
When it's your turn to speak, stand up, move around, get out from behind the lectern or away from the table. Engage the audience physically. Speak in a loud, clear voice but vary the cadence and volume. Whispering can be a surprisingly effective way to deliver a key take home - almost like a secret you are sharing with just those lucky enough to be in your audience. Keep your thoughts and contributions to a minimum. When you are done, stop talking and let others have the floor. You are there to facilitate the meeting, not dominate it. Let everyone have time to contribute.
Plan to tell a few jokes or bring in a guest speaker if time permits. As a meeting ice breaker, ask everyone what they've been watching on Netflix or to share a new, favorite web site or meme. Get everyone laughing, sharing and talking and you'll have a great team experience that bonds and helps empower the team to work together and to do a good job for you.
Every successful meeting needs a well defined beginning, middle or body, and a motivational end. Even informal Scrums and hip, incremental change meetings need order. Since most are familiar with the standard, Robert's Rules of Order, I tend to favor that format, but of course their are other ways to approach it depending on the culture and ability of participants to be flexible.
Start with a welcome to everyone and a basic agenda which includes who is present, who is absent and why (excused or unexcused), and what you want to accomplish (update project plan, brainstorm issues, finalize solutions). If a question and answer or comment section is to be part of the meeting, state when it will be so audience members can plan for it. Introduce unfamiliar faces and get everybody centered and focused (in the moment). Taking two minutes to do some relaxation and visualizations of success is a great idea if the team is into that sort of thing.
Once the intro is out of the way, start with old business from the last meeting to get everyone thinking about the details of the project at hand and jog their memories about what new business they might want to introduce (it's coming up next.) If there are department heads or chairs or team leaders present, they should each have prepared an update or report and be ready to talk about current status of their piece of the pie. Don't let them ramble on. Give them a reasonable time limit to hit the main points (say, 5 minutes to start) and keep them on track. Certain personality types tend to get bogged down in details so if that happens, gently remind them of their audience and offer to drill down with them later in an offline session or schedule a deep thoughts session to flesh out the project plan. If discussion strays into controversial or taboo territory, suggest the topic be taken offline for later discussion with just the relevant parties present. Spare the group the stress of potential ugliness.
Part of old business is running a post-mortem on any events that happened since the last meeting: presentations, milestones hit or missed, client or stakeholder complaints or compliments, etc. How did we succeed (so we can do it again!). How did we fall short (to avoid next time). At this time, it's important to avoid blaming or rewarding individual team members. Remember, blame is just anger looking for a target. Instead, remind the team we are all in this together and ask open ended questions so everyone can get involved (be allowed to contribute) in the solution. Empower your team for success with support scaffolding and shield them from politics as much as possible. All our boats rise and fall together with the tide.
Update the project plan - in real time if possible. Have your plan open on your laptop and go line item by line item as each speaker says his or her update. This insures you don't forget anything or lose anything in translation from your notes. Ask questions to fill in any gaps. Clarify time line changes and always address the details of the change to document it.
On to new business. What is coming? What budget projections can we fill in? What risks or stake holders need attention? Pay specific attention to items on the critical path and near term milestones which may be in jeopardy or hit early.
If a question and answer session is included, now is a good time to welcome participation from the floor. Keep it under control. Turn off the projector while people are talking, then turn it back on to signal Q & A is drawing to a close. Remind folks of the meeting's time limit. Stand up to signal you are getting ready to close the meeting.
As the time allotted for the meeting draws to a close, it's time to end on a high note. Give out congratulations for successes of the team. Make a note of open issues that need quick attention. Schedule the next meeting. Thank everyone for their time and attention. Make it clear when they will receive the project plan updates and meeting minutes. Remind them to turn their phones back on.
Meetings don't exist in a vacuum. They have ties to the past, present and future. There are action items, changes in schedule, cost and risk to communicate across all departments (marketing, engineering, technology, client relationships, management, etc.) In other words, somebody needs to take good notes and convert them into minutes. If possible, I do this myself because I know I can quickly sum up what is said and distill it down to key points accurately. If I don't have time, I try to choose somebody who is willing and able to fill in for me.
Always answer the "journalism" questions: who, what, when, where, why and how much. Assign specific tasks to specific resources in writing. You want to avoid delays due to standard excuses like "I didn't know I was responsible for that" or "Nobody told me when it was due".
Once the notes are taken and approved (by project management, of course!) They need to be distributed. Sometimes we do this by email, sometimes by access controlled file sharing, etc. However you do it, it needs to be done consistently and reliably and only one copy should exist (SED - single electronic document methodology).
Same for the project plan. It needs to be approved by project management and exist in only one place in only one version. Whether you use MS Project, Clarity, SAP or some other type of project tracking tool, anyone on the team should be able to know where they can find the current version of meeting minutes and the current plan for the project. This approach ensures those who missed the meeting or who are telecommuting from home or from around the world in different time zones and countries can be confident they know what is going on and what they are expected to produce and when.
To cell phone or not to cell phone?
How annoying is it to look out at your team while you're making a point only to see half of them with their heads down in their phones doing who knows what? Assuming they aren't taking notes or recording the meeting, it's a safe bet they aren't paying attention. So, what to do?
Some cultures encourage multi-tasking to the extreme, and who's to say the person on their phone may not actually be doing something project related you'll be grateful for later? Short of stopping the meeting and passing around the bin for everyone to put their phone in until post meeting, what's a poor PM to do?
One key tenant of what I teach is being present in the moment. That means giving your full, undivided attention to the task at hand whenever that is possible. And right now, the task at hand is paying attention to what is happening in this meeting. I start by asking everyone to please silence their phones and put them away unless the phone is actually critical to what is going on. I tell them I realize we are all adults and I'm not going to go tattle on them to their manager if they need to take a call or respond to a critical text or email, but please have the courtesy to respect everyone's time and stay present in the moment. This usually does the trick and at least it sends the message that I'm on to them if they want to use my meeting as a time to get some shopping done or text the baby sitter or whatever.
If you consistently have a problem with a smartphone zombie, it's time to get them alone (never embarrass someone in front of the group) and have a heart to heart with them or try some visualization exercises to see if you can help them with their cellcoholic intextication problem.
Whoah, bro, chill with the holla buttons or I'll give you a good thumb lashing myself!
With a little skill and preparation, you can host successful meetings and make a real impact on your project's success! Remember: in the final analysis, project meetings are all about communication and getting everybody on the same page. Otherwise, you could just fire off emails to everyone individually and hope for the best. Make your project meetings fun and informative, and everybody will realize the value of attending and contributing and the project will move forward under its own power.
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