Meetings are just one of those necessary evils of running a project or being involved in a project. Many projects require at least two official meetings every week – the delivery team meeting led by the project manager, and the project status meeting with the customer - also led by the delivery team project manager.
Most people don’t like meetings much. In fact, meetings are sort of like phone calls. The one initiating the phone call is doing so at a time that works great for them and likely to get or share some information. They start out in control. The one on the other end may or may not want to be on the phone or have time for a call at that moment. Sure, they could not answer, but some people just can’t resist the need to answer every call. Bottom line, a call always starts out one-sided. One person wants to make it, the other person is being interrupted by it. Meetings are much like phone calls. The facilitator wants or needs the meeting – usually to gain key information or to get help making decisions that are important to them and what they are working on. For the others, often it is an interruption to their hopefully otherwise productive workday.
There are good meetings and there are bad meetings. Bad meetings can be painful to sit through and be an unproductive waste of 1-2 hours or more of several people’s time - meaning several hundred or thousands of dollars of company money may have just been wasted in the time it took for all the attendees to sit through a crappy meeting. Since we want to avoid that waste and avoid being labeled a bad meeting facilitator or a waster of others’ time, let’s consider 4 key reasons why bad meetings happen in the first place.
The wrong people are there. This is a very common problem with meetings. If the facilitator doesn’t plan well, they will likely invite too many people and include individuals who not only aren’t needed to help make the decisions but may even be counter-productive. Those individuals will offer their input even when it isn’t needed or doesn’t apply and may end up steering thought processes in the wrong direction. Likewise, a poorly planned meeting with an open-ended invitation can bring in far too many peripheral attendees. I did this once on a large, complex tech project kickoff meeting, and I will never do it again. I failed to properly set the audience expectations with the project client, and he brought every potential end user and subject matter expert (SME) he could find thinking this would be useful and helpful.
What happened? What should have been a nice two-hour kickoff meeting turned into a painful two-day kickoff meeting because everyone had their opinions and wanted to be heard. We turned a kickoff meeting into the beginnings of a requirements definition meeting with the wrong audience participating. Very painful.
The right people are there, but no one is prepared. Sometimes you have the right people in the room, but it’s just the wrong time. Why? Because no one came prepared. And why is that? Usually it’s because it was unclear as to what the meeting’s purpose was or what the facilitator was trying to accomplish by calling all these people together. For one person to come unprepared, that’s on them. For everyone to come unprepared - that’s on you if you’re the meeting facilitator. In this case, sending out the agenda and purpose of the meeting to everyone allows people to prepare in advance and come ready to contribute with the right information – this also can make the meeting so productive that a follow-up meeting to get the real work done will not be necessary. Win-win.
The loud people take over. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. I think just about everyone has experienced that annoying phenomenon before. Why does it happen? Because the individuals these people squeak to are often very busy in their own right and tend to not want to – or have the time to - deal with the squeaky wheel adequately and appropriately. As a result, the most loud are often given the floor. The best way to deal with the loud people in the meeting is to briefly hear them out and then quickly redirect the conversation back to the topic at hand. Ensure them that you have documented their thoughts and concerns in the notes and that you can follow up with them outside of the current meeting. Then go that route and move it in whatever direction you need it to go.
No follow up. Ok, the meeting may have seemed like a huge success. Then you get to the next meeting or a follow-up meeting a week or more later, and you ask the head of cybersecurity if they contacted the customer about the sensitivity level of their data for the new project.
Surprise… he looks at you and says, “I thought YOU were going to do that and pass the info on to me."
Always follow up with notes after the meeting to all attendees. Ask that they review the info and respond by noon the next day with any thoughts or changes. Then redistribute. The key is to always ensure that everyone is on the same page post-meeting.
The key to ensuring everyone comes prepared is to create a meaningful agenda and make sure everyone has it at least a day ahead of the meeting. Knowing exactly what will be covered and what the expectations are will help the right individuals to arrive ready to participate and provide meaningful input.
What that means is planning and preparation is critical to avoiding a bad meeting. And that planning and preparation rests with the meeting facilitator – and on a project that is usually the project manager. It’s your job to prepare, let everyone know why the meeting is being called, what the goal is, and what will be expected of the participants. And make sure you invite the right people… and only those people.
What are your thoughts? Why do you think bad meetings happen? Do you agree with this list? What would you add to it or change about it?
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