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Do People Love Your Project Meetings?

One of the top complaints about projects is “too many meetings.” Dealing with this effectively involves structuring meetings well and eliminating unnecessary meetings.

Building Better Meetings
People hate meetings less when they are more useful and shorter. Every meeting should have a point and be only as long as necessary to achieve its stated goals.

As project leader, you will need two kinds of regular meetings: team meetings, including everyone and one-on-one meetings with each contributor. For most projects, both types will be scheduled weekly. The primary objectives for these meetings are general communications and team building; these meetings need not be lengthy.

A one-hour team meeting should be the maximum. Test the theory that your team needs to meet every week by skipping a week. If that works, reschedule the meeting to be biweekly. (It's a bad idea to meet much less than this, though. People may start to forget who is on the team.)

Half-hour, weekly, one-on-one meetings with your team members are generally sufficient, especially if you supplement them with other frequent discussions and conversations. Weekly contact with the people on your team is really about the minimum for keeping them engaged and helping them remember that they are on your project. If your team is global, schedule each one-on-one phone meeting during your contributor's workday, not necessarily during yours.

Other project meetings will be necessary but should be rare. Special-purpose meetings such as project start-up workshops can be longer, but most other specific meetings can be kept to an hour or less. Invite only the people necessary to special meetings, and confirm that they plan to attend in advance.

When practical, consider hijacking your regular team meeting agenda for some of your special-purpose meetings. Dispense with your normal team business quickly and move on to the particular topics. A primary purpose for a regular team meeting is to keep your staff connected, and for this any meaningful topic will suffice.

Strive for brevity. Encourage short meetings by moving topics not requiring live discussion to e-mail or other communications. (Especially status collection—no one needs to waste 15 minutes listening to endless variations of “Things are fine.”) Set a formal agenda for every meeting that involves more than two people and allocate time to each item you list. If your topic list is insufficient to fill the scheduled time, plan to end early. Distribute pre-meeting documents for review when possible to minimize the time you need to spend setting the context for discussion. To encourage meetings to end on time, and to avoid fragmenting productivity, schedule meetings to end at mealtime or at the end of the day.

Your meetings are not just for you. To be effective, they must be for everyone. When inviting people to a meeting, look at the situation from their perspective. Do they need to be there? If not, don't invite them. Do they need to attend the whole meeting? If they don't, use your agenda to invite them to only the portions they need to see and manage the agenda so that when they join you will be on that topic. An alternative is to schedule more meetings, but invite only the people necessary to each. Although you will have more meetings, they will be shorter, and everyone else will have fewer and shorter meetings to deal with. Fine-tuning your meeting schedule to accomplish this depends on getting reliable commitments to attend from all who must be there, so confirm attendance with each person involved prior to the meeting.

Running Better Meetings
Effective meetings are well run. Start your meetings on time, and never be late to your own meetings. End early whenever possible, and don't end late. Use a “bucket list” to capture off-topic issues that arise, and don't let them lead discussions astray. Pick up any truly urgent topics listed at the end of the meeting if absolutely necessary (and if time allows), but follow up on all items listed after the meeting or on the agenda for a future meeting.

Set ground rules for regular meetings to establish norms for behavior and to set expectations that participants will not be wasting their time. After each meeting, take responsibility for summarizing all decisions and outcomes, and document and follow up on all action items generated.

Dumping Unneeded Meetings
Before scheduling any meeting, consider if there might be a better way to accomplish the objectives. If there is, abort the meeting. Review all your current meetings and cancel all that are not necessary.

© 2011 Tom Kendrick. Excerpted by permission of the publisher, from 101 Project Management Problems and How to Solve Them, by Tom Kendrick. Published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association (www.amacombooks.org).

About the Author(s)

Tom Kendrick  is a project management consultant, formerly with Hewlett-Packard and Visa Inc. He is the author of Identifying and Managing Project Risk, Results Without Authority, The Project Management Tool Kit, and 101 Project Management Problems and How to Solve Them, of which this is an excerpt.