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Understanding the Myths About Project Status Meetings

By: Rick A. Morris and Brette McWhorter Sember

As a project manager, one of  the most common interactions you will have with your team will be at status meetings. Learning how to make these meetings effective and useful is an important part of becoming a successful project manager (PM).

Most of your day as a PM likely consists of meetings. Everything in the world seemingly has to be communicated in a meeting. Frankly, this is an extreme waste of time. It breeds complacency and hurts productivity. Meetings are inevitable, but having some general rules in place can streamline meetings and make them helpful rather than harmful. Toward that end, let’s consider the function of a meeting, when to call one and when not to, and how to make them effective.

Understanding the Purpose of Meetings
According to www.dictionary.com, the word meeting means, “the act of coming together.” There is also another meaning. That is, “a hostile encounter.” PMs have encountered both. The corporate world tends to abuse meetings. As one consultant said, “If you want to kill an afternoon, call a meeting.” This type of attitude stops meetings from being productive. Another consultant said, “I call my meetings at 7 minutes past the start of the hour because people are always running late.” When asked, “Do people make it on time now?,” he said they didn’t. If people feel so negatively toward meetings, why are there so many of them?

The first reason is that people feel obligated to hold meetings. There is a myth that because a project exists, a status meeting must exist. The problem with this thinking is that it conditions people to not be productive during the week. The project can fall quickly into a routine. When a resource comes into work on status meeting day, she quickly sees that there is a meeting to discuss her progress for the past week. She hurriedly looks over the notes sent from the last meeting (because she forgot what she was supposed to do) and works on the assigned task or issue. Then, at the meeting, she can report progress. After the conclusion of the meeting, she forgets about the next steps and goes about her day. This example is not meant as a dig at the resource. She can’t remember all of her tasks because she is on multiple projects and has multiple meetings.

The same can be said for PMs running multiple projects. Sometimes, they forget to do their follow-up until they are creating the agenda for the next meeting. For example, a PM is looking over his calendar and sees that he needs to create an agenda for the next one. So, the PM looks over the notes from the previous status meeting, realizes that he forgot to follow up on a couple of items, and quickly sends out e-mails to try to rectify the situation.

Most likely, the PM and the resources are in so many meetings that it is hard to get any actual work done. Meetings are where people generally come to talk about the things that they need to do. The problem is that if there are more meeting hours than work hours in a day, fewer tasks are actually accomplished. People feel obligated to have a status meeting; they feel obligated to have a meeting to discuss a decision, bring up an issue or deal with a particular problem. Somehow, having a meeting has come to be a sign of progress in our corporate culture.

We are not suggesting that you not have status meetings or not hold meetings at all. They are a necessary part of business, but there are rules for having good meetings, and there are ways to make them useful and productive, rather than just a waste of time. There are situations that warrant meetings and situations that do not. Understanding the differences and using them effectively are ways to increase the project team’s productivity.  

Should There Be a Meeting?
There are some simple questions you should ask yourself before calling a meeting.

• Is there anything to say? One of the worst kinds of status meetings to attend is the type in which everyone goes around the room and states what they accomplished the prior week. This practice is a colossal waste of time. If this is the entire point of the meeting, then don't call one. An effective PM can get these updates prior to a meeting, distribute them and then discuss issues at the meeting.
• Does there have to be a meeting? Some PMs will call a team meeting to resolve an issue between two team members. Others call meetings to come up with options for a decision that the team does not have the power to make. If the issue can be handled with a conference call, e-mails or individually face-to-face discussions, do not call a meeting!
• Do we have input? Have you ever been to a meeting to discuss a decision or an issue that has already been decided? Why did that meeting even need to be called? If a decision is made or input from the team is not really needed, then do not call the meeting. Calling a meeting to have the team hear the rationale for a decision that is already made will do more damage than just announcing the decision. Calling the meeting will waste time and hurt team morale. The time for input is before a decision. Once a decision is made, input is not useful.
• Do we have to escalate? This type of meeting is most common when an e-mail war breaks out and everyone starts getting copied. Generally, it begins as a disagreement between two individuals, who then begin to copy their boss for protection. As more and more inflammatory e-mails go out, a meeting is called to get to the bottom of the issue. If this is occurring on the project, stop it there. Get the two individuals to calm down and discuss the issue. If the problem is still complex enough to call a meeting, then do so, but only call it after both parties have calmed down, tried to resolve the conflict again on their own and reached an impasse.

If the meeting requires the team’s input, can be handled via a conference call and has a planned deliverable or outcome, then call the meeting. Otherwise, respect the team members’s time and allow them to accomplish their work.

Are Your Meetings Effective?
There was a recent survey done at 3M asking team members their thoughts on meetings. The survey showed that the reasons team members did not attend meetings were:

• No decisions were made
• People were not prepared
• Meetings don’t stay on the agenda
• Meetings don’t start and end on time
• Meetings lasted too long
• Meetings were not well run
• There was no agenda or focus
• There were no or inaccurate notes
• Unnecessary for me to attend

The survey results turn right into a checklist of how to run effective meetings. Use this list to help you avoid the biggest meeting pitfalls.

There can be many signs that meetings are ineffective. The first sign is the respect (or lack thereof) that the team members exhibit during status meetings. Are they on time? Are they leaving early? What is their behavior during the meeting? Answering these questions can assist in understanding whether the team is seeing value in the meetings. For instance, if they are consistently showing up late or leaving early, what is that saying about the content of the meeting? It is unlikely that the individuals would show the same disrespect to their bosses or executives in their meetings.

The PM’s common initial reaction to this type of disrespect for meetings is normally one of contempt for the team member, although she may not be the problem. Maybe the meeting isn’t important enough or doesn’t accomplish enough to warrant the team’s attention. If a team member is frequently missing or leaving a meeting, ask the resource why  she is doing this. Try to understand what is driving the resource to not be on time. You can’t assume that this behavior is on purpose. There are many factors that could cause the individual to be late, such as other meetings, commitments or scheduling conflicts. The question that needs to be answered is whether or not the meeting itself is the issue. If the meeting is not warranting the attention of the resources, then either make it worth their while or discontinue the meetings.

Another sign of an ineffective meeting is whether anything was accomplished since the prior meeting. If the resources are consistently stating that no progress was made on their tasks or that after an hour, there are very few action items or deliverables, then the meeting’s worth is questionable. PM Perez was was leading a development project and held weekly status meetings to report progress and visually show the team the product as it was being created. A significant change request was rendered, and it was estimated it would take the team roughly six weeks to complete the work. The first four weeks would consist of working on the visual aspects of the product, and it would therefore be unavailable for viewing during that time. The development PM requested a hiatus on status meetings until the product was viewable. The client PM insisted that they still meet. The next four weeks consisted of everyone dialing into a conference call, signing into a desktop-sharing application, and doing or showing absolutely nothing. There was no reason to meet. The development team was working on the viewable portion, and it would be take least four weeks to complete. Perez should have recognized the lack of information and canceled the meetings. At the very least, he could have asked just the development PM to attend a meeting and provide updates, issues or questions. Both the client team and the development team should have been allowed to continue working without the interruption of the status meeting.

Another sign of an ineffective meeting is when a PM is forcing an update or is trying to show up one of the resources who is not completing her tasks. This action forces untruthful behavior and is bullying the resource. A resource told about a PM who would bully a resource until she gave the update or stated what the PM wanted to hear. This kind of behavior is a disservice to the resource, the PM and the entire project team. This conduct only breeds animosity; pushing for information that is not there can lead to project disaster. The PM would report what she eventually heard in the meeting and then when the project would be behind or off track, she would blame the resource and hang him or her out to dry. If people are being forced to be untruthful, suffice it to say that the meeting is ineffective.

Setting Up a Successful Meeting

There are some general guidelines to follow in order to have successful and effective meetings.

Identify the Objective
Follow the qualification steps discussed earlier to determine if the meeting is necessary. Determine what the outcome of the meeting is supposed to be, and state it on the meeting invitation. Instead of a generic meeting title, choose one that is more descriptive. For example, change “Conversion Project Team Meeting” to “Decision on Software Platform (Conversion Project).” Identify what the meeting will cover and its desired outcome.

Schedule Time and Stick to It
Choose a start and stop time, and ensure that the meeting adheres to those times. If the meeting is going to run over, schedule the next one or give the team an opportunity to make the decision to run over. Not releasing the resources on time and failing to adhere to the schedule sets a poor example for the project team. How can a PM expect that the resources will hit their estimates if the PM can’t hit his?

Create an Agenda
Not only should the PM create an agenda, she should also assign topic owners, avoid acronyms and set expected times for the topics. Ray, a senior PM consultant was asked to attend a meeting that was titled “CRM Discussion,” where he was assigned the task “CRM Overview.” He assumed that CRM meant customer relationship management and that he would be providing an overview of the concept. There were no attendees listed, so he assumed that it was an internal meeting.

When Ray arrived at the meeting, he realized that he was the only one dressed in business casual. He also noticed clients in the room and a projector set up. The slide on the projector said “Change Request Management Demonstration” and had Ray’s name next to it. He was completely unprepared. Granted, Ray made way too many assumptions, but the meeting agenda and title were not sufficient. The agenda should include:

• The start and stop times of the meeting
• The goal of the meeting
• A list of participants
• The roles and responsibilities of the participants
• The location of the meeting
• Special considerations, such as dress code, directions or information that is pertinent to the outcome of the meeting
• Definitions of all acronyms used

Ensure the Attendees Are Prepared
It is the PM’s role to ensure that all attendees understand why they are there, what is expected of them and what their attendance means to the project. This exercise has two different purposes. When a PM is gathering the information to tell the resources why they are needed, the PM is validating that they are needed. The second purpose is to ensure that the participant brings the necessary materials and/or mindset to have a successful meeting.

Successful meetings can really be quite simple. It is amazing the productivity that can be achieved by following these rules. Not only will the productivity level go up, but word of mouth on how the meetings are run will get around as well. Success can also hinge on the preconception of the meeting. If a resource walks in thinking the meeting will be a waste of time, most likely it will. On the other hand, if the resource understands why he or she is needed, has time to prepare for the discussions or tasks at hand and knows what the desired outcome is of the meeting, then he or she is more likely to accomplish the objective.

Important Rules for Meetings

One of the first and most important rules of meetings is to not let them drag on. One project office manager once discussed a staff meeting that would take 2.5 hours with four people attending. His input was about 20 minutes. The time lost over the other two-plus hours was an incredible blow to his productivity. Make sure that the meetings are efficient.

Hold to the Purpose of the Meeting
Do not allow other topics or political issues to cloud the meeting. Call another meeting to discuss the latest issue or agree to talk about it after the original meeting task is completed.

Ensure That All Needed Materials Are Present
Make sure that all information needed to achieve the outcome is available. If the meeting is to discuss a user interface, then make sure the interface is available for viewing. If it is a meeting to choose one vendor over another, make sure that appropriate information is available to make the decision.

Document All Details and Decisions
If the meeting is important enough to bring together a team, it needs to be documented. The meeting can either be documented in meeting minutes (a formal listing all conversation) or meeting notes (which are less formal and do not contain everything everyone said). Meeting notes list the key decisions and who took part in the conversation, but not to the same detailed of level as meeting minutes. Whichever the case, make sure the key points are documented.

How to Get a Meeting Back on Track
There are a couple of tactics that a PM can use to bring a meeting back on track once it has started to derail. The PM can suggest a follow-up or outside meeting to discuss the current time and agenda. You can suggest that you take an issue or discussion “offline,” which means to discuss it outside of the meeting. People commonly say, “Let’s take that offline.” You can use this term to quickly end a conversation that is derailing a project meeting. If the meeting agenda is to discuss a particular issue and then a new issue arises that commands the conversation, suggesting a follow-up meeting or taking the meeting offline is a great way to refocus the team. This type of derailment occurs often when stakeholders or sponsors are attending the meeting. They will begin to discuss something that has just occurred or a new “hot button,” and the meeting goes off track. Do not be afraid to suggest another time to talk about the issue. It is not a rude suggestion and, when handled properly, it can earn you respect. Often, derailed conversations do not require the input of the present team. Allowing the conversation to continue unabated will begin to waste the team’s time and cause a loss of productivity. Side conversations are inevitable and sometimes can create great value for the project. The key is to not let the side conversation go on too long.

Another tactic is to provide a checkpoint on the progress of the meeting. For example, “Thank you for that discussion. All right, we are on agenda item four of nine and we have 35 minutes left to discuss them.” It is a nice subtle suggestion about how fast or slow things are progressing in the meeting. Often, it is met with, “You’re right, let’s get going.” Again, side conversations and meeting derailment are inevitable, but this tactic shows the team that the PM is cognizant of the time and resets the expectation that the agenda will be followed and completed.

Copyright 2008 Rick A. Morris and Brette McWhorter Sember. All rights reserved. Excerpted from Project Management That Works: Real-World Advice on Communicating, Problem-Solving, and Everything Else You Need to Know to Get the Job Done, published by AMACOM, a division of American Management Association. Used with permission of the publisher. For more information, visit www.amacombooks.org