June 8th, 2014

How to run a meeting that even Jason Fried will love

It should be criminal. Does this sound like a meeting that you’ve attended?

1. You arrive at the meeting on-time, then sit around waiting for 15 minutes for the other attendees to arrive. Some of those people who show up late are so-called “leaders” in your organization.

2. When everyone else finally arrives, you spend another 15 minutes talking about last night’s hockey game or what you did last weekend.

3. When the meeting finally starts, you spend another 15 minutes discussing what the meeting is about.

4. Several of the meeting’s attendees spend the whole meeting on their smart phones reading emails and texts.

5. The meeting finally adjourns because someone has to leave for their next meeting. (This is most likely the person who arrived 15 minutes late and/or was on their smart phone for the entire meeting.)

6. Since nothing got done, you agree to have another meeting.

If you exhibited behaviours like these in high school, you would get sent to detention many times over. And yet, in our corporate world, these behaviours are so common that they are considered the norm. Meetings suck, we say. We can’t get work done because we are in meetings, we lament. “Meetings are toxic, terrible, poisonous things”, Jason Fried proclaims in this TED talk.Hell is other people’s meetings”, says Merlin Mann. Let’s stop having meetings, we say, let’s “hit the delete key on meetings”.

There’s no question in my mind that meetings have become criminal, far exceeding email in their capacity to sap our productivity and our creativity.

But, do meetings suck? Or do we?

In defense of meetings. Having been burned by bad meetings from the very start of my career, as a budding project manager, I avoided calling meetings. (Yes, meeting crimes have been going on for a very long time.) I thought I was doing my team a favour and helping them to be more productive.

One day something happened that changed all that.

For one particular project, we had received comments from the customer on submitted drawings. (Lots of comments.) The next action was, I felt, rather straightforward: the configuration engineer was to simply update the drawings so I could resubmit them to the customer.

I followed-up daily. And every day, the engineer had more questions understanding and interpreting the customer’s comments. They were good questions. I tried to get them answered for him by discussing them with my Lead engineer. But, given the volume of comments, this was slow and labourious.

So, finally, I got fed up and called a meeting, just the three of us: the PM (me), the Lead engineer, and the configuration engineer (let’s call him Joe.)

The meeting agenda was simple: go through each comment on each drawing, answer Joe’s questions and assign action items where we didn’t have the answer. After about one hour of this, Joe exclaimed in the middle of the meeting: “Wow! This is such a great meeting! I’m getting so much work done!”

No. I am not kidding.

We ended up having two more meetings that week until we had covered all of the drawings. And, wouldn’t you know it, we got more work done in less time.

That experience was eye-opening for me: I learned that meetings can be a powerful tool in any project manager’s quest for Done. I’ll even go further and say this: a well-planned and well-managed meeting can make the difference between a stagnated project and one that successfully attains its objectives.

Key words here? Well-planned and well-managed. Productive meetings are not an accident: they are the result of unrelenting and coordinated efforts towards attaining a clear objective. (Gosh, sounds like a project, doesn’t it?)

Meetings don’t suck. We do. This early experience of the power of meetings taught me an important lesson: meetings are not the problem. We are. Just as you can’t blame PowerPoint for bad presentations, we need to stop blaming meetings for our own bad behaviour.

Over the course of my career, I have made a conscious effort to plan, and run, productive meetings. Things like the video “Meetings, Bloody Meetings” (I was fortunate enough to watch the John Cleese version in a training course) or this excellent You-Tube video have helped. I don’t always succeed. However, I succeed more often than I fail. How do I know? I am rewarded with comments like this: “Wow, that was a really good meeting”, “Gee, that was such a productive meeting, I know exactly what my priorities are.” How many times have you heard this type of spontaneous feedback?

And so, in response to Jason Fried’s call to ban meetings, I’m here to tell you that it’s pretty much impossible to get work done on a project without meetings. But just because meetings are necessary doesn’t mean that they have to suck. Here’s my most-of-the-time-no-fail guide to making meetings a powerful and efficient way to get things done.

Three roles make meetings successful. There are three major players responsible for successful meetings: the meeting planner, the meeting attendees, and the management team. (Let’s pretend they are also the “leadership” team but we all know that’s not true, don’t we?) I’ll be addressing the roles of meeting attendees and the management team in a second and third blog post. This post will focus on the role of the meeting planner. Let me be clear: if you are a project manager and you don’t know how to run a productive meeting, then you are missing out on a powerful tool that will help you in your unrelenting pursuit of Done.

What is a meeting? Before we discuss how to plan and manage a meeting, let’s agree on what a meeting is: it is a scheduled synchronous conversation between at least two people. “Synchronous” is the key word here: you need people to participate in the conversation together in real-time, not asynchronously using email, text or chat. (A scheduled video conversation, using say, Skype, is definitely a meeting.) The other elements of the definition are self-explanatory: a meeting is scheduled, and you need at least one other person to attend in order for it to be a meeting.

There are five parts to running productive meetings: Avoiding, Planning, Running, Ending, and Following Through.

Avoiding? Say…what? You might wonder why I sing the praises of meetings and then begin by advising you to avoid them. For one simple reason: even good productive meetings cost money. They take time to organize, plan, run, attend and follow-through, which makes them expensive. In fact, the single most prevalent meeting crime being committed is believing that you can wake up on a Friday morning, and have a meeting on Monday for 30 people in your department. (I wish I was kidding about this. Sadly, I am not. We’ll get to this heinous crime in part three of this blog series.)

A sledge hammer can be a powerful tool in helping you to start off your renovation project; improperly handled, it can also wield much damage. In the same manner, meetings should only be used judiciously, with care, in order to move your project forward. Used poorly, meetings become weapons of mass destruction.

For this reason, the first rule about productive meetings is to avoid them like the black plague. If you can solve the problem, make the decision, get the action item done, move the project forward with phone calls, a couple of emails, a quick water-cooler or an at-the-desk conversation, then do so. Try every trick in the book before you resort to calling a meeting. Whatever you do, don’t become a meeting junkie, who at the first sign of an obstacle or a problem, jumps up and says “Let’s have a meeting”. As Al Pittampalli (author of this book) explains, an addiction to meetings is caused by the anxiety of making a decision. Calling a meeting takes the burden off of your shoulders. It also allows you to shirk your responsibilities as a leader and a project manager. Remember: your goal is not to have meetings, it’s to get work done. And sometimes, you can only get work done in a meeting.

Meetings don’t have to be the “practical alternative to work”. Just do what I tell you…

Your first reaction to someone suggesting “let’s have a meeting” should be to ask many questions: “Why? What would be the objective of this meeting? Why is this objective important to our project? What will we gain at the end of the meeting? Can’t we accomplish that by just calling X on the phone or writing X an e-mail? What will happen if we don’t have the meeting? If we have the meeting, who will we invite? Who really needs to make this decision? Do we need to have all of these people present?” In other words, make sure that the meeting is truly the only way to move your project forward.

Because as a good meeting organizer, you know how much work is involved to run a productive meeting.

So, when your email chain grows out of control (you know what these look like), if your water-cooler or at-the-desk conversations reveal that the issue is a little more complicated than you thought, if you discover that you need Jane, Paul and Jack in a room at the same time because they are not on the same page regarding a path forward, if you are running in circles and the issue in question is in exactly the same place as it was before you started running, then you know you have no choice. You need to call a meeting.

Planning. Once you have come to the conclusion that the only way to move forward is via a synchronous, scheduled conversation between more than two people, then you must proceed with planning your meeting. Before you even send that meeting invitation, ensure that you define these five items:

1. Meeting Objective. The meeting objective is the thing you have right after the meeting is over that you didn’t have before the meeting started. If you didn’t accomplish your objective, then the meeting failed. Period.

For this reason, the meeting objective must be specific enough that it can be achieved by the end of the meeting. “To discuss project issues” is too vague, “To make a decision regarding the technology choice for widget A” is better, “To make a decision if we are going with ethernet or wireless” is probably even better. Be specific and granular. Remember: it’s the thing you have this at the end of the meeting that you didn’t have before you started. If you need to consult with a project stakeholder to better define the meeting objective, then do so.

2. Agenda. The meeting agenda describes the steps you will go through to meet the objective. While an excellent agenda would have time limits for each agenda item, this is not absolutely necessary. The agenda can be as short or as long as necessary to outline how you intend to meet your objective. Think of it as your roadmap towards your meeting objective.

3. Homework. Be clear about what preparation is required before the meeting. In fact, write “Homework” right in the meeting request. I don’t know if it’s because I work with engineers (I am one) but I am always pleasantly surprised that when I assign homework before a meeting, the attendees arrive with it already done. By assigning homework, you are making it clear to your attendees that they contribute to the success of your meeting.

4. Attendees. I usually choose the attendees once I have the Objective and Agenda set. By narrowing the objective, some attendees drop out. Only invite people who will contribute directly to achieving the objective. As a rough rule of thumb, I try to keep the number of attendees under five (which is close to Bob’s magic number) in order to keep the meeting in control. If necessary, narrow your objective to reach this optimal number. Also make sure you differentiate between the people who are necessary to achieve the meeting objective and those that need to be simply informed of the meeting outcome: you can send the latter a copy of the meeting minutes. (Uh. Yes. There will be meeting minutes.)

5. Timing. There are three things to consider when choosing the timing of your meeting.

  • Advance notice. It is as rude to call a meeting with one day’s notice as it is to fart loudly in public. Calling a meeting on short notice is basically saying to the world “I suck at planning” and “I am not a leader” and so should only be done on an exceptional, and truly exceptional basis. That exception? Something earth-shattering happened TODAY. You’ve sent emails, texts and you’ve called. But now you all need to get together to figure out how to react to this earth-shattering event. If that something happened two weeks ago and you are only reacting now? Then you suck. You really, really do.
  • Attendees availability. It is also just as rude to plan a meeting without checking your meeting attendees’ calendars. Whether or not you share calendars in your corporate culture, you can at least see if the attendees are free for the time slot you’ve chosen. If they are not free, have the courtesy to ask if they can accommodate your meeting. If your meeting is worth it, they will. If they can’t, then pick a time slot that works. And if that time slot is two weeks from now? Make sure everyone knows why you have chosen the date and time that you have for your meeting.
  • Conference room. It sounds simple but you need a place for your meeting. Ensure that you choose a conference room with enough room for everyone. (Standing or sitting, it’s your call.)

Once you have items 1-5, you can send out your meeting invitation. I usually write an email and the meeting invitation at the same time: the email explains the homework in more detail (including links to the documents which need to be read) and additional context regarding the meeting (the business value that we are seeking). I like to keep the meeting invitation short and sweet: “Objective: XXX Agenda: YYYY Homework: ZZZZ” with a reference to my email for more information. Once both the email and the meeting invitation are complete, I’ll send the email first then the meeting invitation.

Running. Gosh, with all that planning, how can your meeting go wrong? One word: humans. It never ceases to amaze me how the most cartesian of engineers (remember: I am one) can behave in the most irrational and illogical manner in a meeting. I cannot tell you how many times have I sat in an empty conference room after a disastrous meeting, for which I had a clear objective, detailed agenda (with time limits), assigned homework and enough advance notice to do it, and it still was a complete disaster. The reason? The people attending, of course. The humans. Who do not follow the lovely logic of a mathematical equation. While I could easily write one or ten blog posts on this subject itself, here’s a quick summary of how to run a successful meeting (or die trying):

1. Start on time. You must arrive at least 5 – 10 minutes before your meeting. If you need a projector, make sure it is set up before everyone arrives. If you are contacting someone on Skype, Lync or some other video messaging technology, be sure you have made the arrangements beforehand (and include those instructions in the meeting invitation). Do not fiddle with your technology at the start of your meeting. Whatever you do, do not arrive late for your own meeting. Don’t ever do this. Never. Ever. Never.

2. Why we’re here. Start your meeting by opening your meeting request, because it’s all there. Start with the objective. Then run through each item in the agenda. This reinforces the value of your meeting request. And, if you are in North America try to minimize the “How you doin’” stage: skip the small talk and get right to it. (Depending on which part of the globe you are in, you may need to allow time for small talk before starting your meeting in which case you need to adjust your agenda accordingly.)

3. Keep an eye on the time. Do a time check at 10 minutes left. Do another one at 5 minutes left and, if the objective has not been attained, ask if your team members can stay. If not, then agree on what is needed to meet the meeting objective: more homework, a smaller or different meeting, or the same people meeting again. And if they actually want to stay instead of running away, then consider yourself awesome.

4. Keep the discussion on the agenda. Interrupt any discussions that go off-topic and bring it back to the agenda, with comments like “maybe you should clarify that off-line” or “that’s not really in the scope of this meeting”. Note that sometimes it is useful to let these discussions go a little off-topic: listen and decide if these off-topic discussions are more interesting and valuable than what you had planned on the agenda. This can happen, and it’s good when it does. Use your judgement.

5. Do not tolerate bad behaviours. Do not be afraid to channel your inner Mom and bring order back to your meeting. This is such a deep subject that I will be covering it in the second blog post on meeting attendees.

6. No devices. The only laptop allowed is your own and even then, you are only using it to show the agenda and anything else required for the meeting, such as documents or presentations. Ensure that your use of technology is not disruptive to the flow of the meeting. I personally find that typing during a meeting is very disruptive and actually interrupts the flow of the discussion. Lately, despite my love of gadgets, I have rediscovered the power of “old-school” tech, such as pens, notebooks, white boards and sticky tabs. Especially white boards. What, you don’t have meeting rooms covered in white boards? Why ever not?

Ending.  As Project Managers we know that Endings are as important as Beginnings so this should come as no surprise to you: how you end your meeting well is as important as how you begin it.

1. Why were we here again? Remember that meeting objective you spent so much time crafting? Before you end your meeting, read your meeting request with your attendees (it’s already open because that’s how you started your meeting, right?) and ask all that attended one simple question: “Did we meet our objective?”. If the answer is “no”, don’t be afraid to declare your meeting a failure. This usually wakes people up to the fact that you mean business: you are interested in having meetings that add value. If the answer is “yes”, the congratulate your meeting attendees. This simple act of referring back to your objective is very powerful because it reinforces the message that your meetings add value.

2. What’s next? All meetings have action items, even if the meeting failed. If the meeting failed, then your actions will describe how you still intend to meet the meeting objective. If the meeting succeeded, then the action items will describe what happens next in your quest for Done. Before closing out the meeting, I usually broadly outline the actions. I find that I need time to craft meeting minutes with clear action items so my preference is to be more specific and clear in the meeting minutes.

3. It’s not a meeting if there are no minutes. If you do not send meeting minutes immediately after the meeting (not two months after), then you have essentially wasted your time as well as that of your meeting attendees. Minutes keep the momentum going as your project moves towards Done and cements the business value that your well-planned meeting delivers. Remember: many of your attendees will be reading these minutes on their smart phones, so keep your meeting minutes short, sweet, to-the-point, Twitter-style. Write them directly in email (do not attach a Word document) and be sure to include this information:

  • Thank the attendees for their time. There’s always room for manners at work.
  • Attendees: Who was there (and who wasn’t)
  • Decision(s): One sentence or bullet form, confirm the decision(s) that were made, such as “Technology chosen: wifi” or “Schedule is ready for baselining.” There is absolutely no need to give a play-by-play replay of who said what in the meeting: it adds no value and, worse yet, makes your minutes too long, and doomed to be unread.
  • Actions: List the action items, including who is responsible and a target date. Put the names and the dates in bold so that they stand out.

Following Through. Productive meetings add value, and for that value to be realized, the action items that resulted from the meeting have to get done. That is the point of having a meeting: to get work done. Do whatever you have to do: on the due date of the action items, send a quick email to follow-up, drop in on the person or have a follow-up meeting (yes, another meeting), but whatever you do, be relentless. Do not stop until those actions are done.

Not an oxymoron. So there you have it: the secret to running productive meetings is Avoiding, Planning, Running, Ending and Following Through. If that sounds like a lot of hard work, you are right, it is. If “productive meeting” sounds like an oxymoron, then you’re doing it wrong. Good productive meetings do not happen by accident: they are the result of coordinated and constant effort on the part of the meeting organizer. Maybe if you follow these not-so-simple steps, you’ll be rewarded like I was not long ago. When we reached the time limit in one of my meetings, I heard this from someone who complained constantly about meetings: “Let’s keep going, we’re getting work done.”

Hear that Jason?

“We’re getting work done.”

At a meeting.

2 comments to How to run a meeting that even Jason Fried will love

  • Ted

    It actually looks like the problem in your example is that there was a project manager getting between two engineers. In my experience, less people means better communication and PMOs NEVER provide much value.

  • Elisabeth, this was a great contribution. I agree that claiming “all meetings are bad” misses the point. Meetings are also a way to build (or simply maintain) relationships. I often find a short meeting can do a great deal to address conflict.

    Among all the points, I think this metaphor really helped me think about meetings more deeply:

    “A sledge hammer can be a powerful tool in helping you to start off your renovation project; improperly handled, it can also wield much damage. In the same manner, meetings should only be used judiciously, with care, in order to move your project forward. Used poorly, meetings become weapons of mass destruction.”

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