Meetings and time management

Meetings are important to project managers, both as a proportion of the project manager's total working time, and because of their impact on getting things done in the project. Although the PMBOK's section on time management does not have a heading for meetings, we include meetings in this book's chapter on time management because of their importance to the project manager and we look especially at how to ensure efficient usage of time in meetings.

Meetings as a project management activity are paradoxical in that they are both extremely useful, because they are one of the main ways to get things done through people, and yet they are also a major risk of wasted time. Isn't how to run a meeting or how to participate effectively and time-efficiently in a meeting something that everyone should have learnt early in their career? Ideally so, but in practice many people have not, and so this section of the chapter aims to give some tips for how to manage project meetings effectively, and also how to participate effectively, in order to save time.

Process

The key to a successful meeting is preparation. Quick impromptu discussions require less preparation than formal presentations, but some preparation is always required, if only to think through in your own mind 'What is my aim in this meeting? What do I want?' Indeed the most basic requirements are always to be absolutely clear in your own mind what the issue is, and what you want to achieve by the meeting. What is the one question to which we need an answer? With a good understanding of the issue, it becomes much easier to know what sort of meeting is required. Is it a question that could be answered by one of the project team alone from immediately-available information? If so, go and ask the question at your team-member's desk. Does it involve sharing information between different groups before a group decision can be made? If so, think through who has to be involved and set up a more formal meeting. If you cannot identify the basic issue, then do not take up other people's time to try to find an answer to a problem you cannot pose coherently. Instead, consider holding a different meeting with more limited agenda and attendance, simply to identify what the issue really is. A quick preliminary discussion with one or two other people can bring much clarity to the agenda of a larger meeting without trying to solve the problem identified.

Identifying the core issue should allow you to plan the meeting:

  • Who needs to be present at the meeting?

  • What information do they hold that other people will need?

  • Who needs to be present for reasons of communication or simply to witness that the decision was made rationally?

  • Do we have people with the authority to take the decisions we know will need to be made? (If the right person is simply not available in time, do not just go ahead regardless: try to get the authority-holder to send a named delegate who is given the authority to take the necessary decision in this meeting. Otherwise you may end up having a meeting without any useful outcome).

  • What preparation do attendees need to have made, or what information do they need to bring?

  • What hardware, facilities, or tests do we need to be able to demonstrate in the meeting, and what does this mean for timing and location?

  • When is the earliest possible time for the meeting, given the known availabilities of information and people?

  • What preparation do I need to do to make sure that a decision can be taken during the meeting? This may mean, for example, working up a small number of possible actions and their implications, so that the meeting can choose between actions with known consequences. If this thinking is not done before the meeting, then it will be hard to get people to agree that the suggested action is realistic.

Unless the meeting is to be large and highly sensitive, this checklist need not be formal or written down, and it is usually enough just to run through the list mentally. Before any but the smallest meeting, create an agenda. In much the same way as when planning a project, it will be necessary to put people's contributions in some order so that the information is presented coherently. Even if you are only having a 15-minute discussion, it can be helpful to outline a mini-agenda verbally for example: 'Could each of you explain in no more than two minutes what is happening with this test and what our options are? Once that is clear we will agree which option we will choose.' An agenda keeps the meeting focused on the key issues.

In the meeting:

  • Set the scope and objectives. Make clear what is in-scope and what will be left for a different forum.

  • Explain the agenda, making clear that everyone will have their say, and that the timing is firm.

  • Run the meeting to the agenda.

  • Intervene if necessary to keep participants on the topic, to stop disruptive interruptions from parties who have their own agenda, and above all, to keep progress to schedule.

Your colleagues may chat in an unstructured way when you meet socially, but they may need to learn that they will be cut short if they ramble in a meeting.

Do not allow new problems to derail the meeting (unless they clearly change our understanding of the entire project in a way that makes the original purpose of the meeting irrelevant). If new issues emerge, note them and deal with them appropriately; it is likely that most of them would not need a meeting with everyone here, and some would not need a meeting at all. Similarly, do not go beyond the scope of the meeting once you have achieved the objective. As with other critical chain tasks, do not feel obliged to fill the time if you finish early.

If the meeting is just not making progress, you need to make a decision about what to do. Deciding to allow the meeting to overrun is an option but it is not the only option and may not be the best. It may also be possible to reschedule a more focused session now that all the concerns have been aired. Alternatively, you can test the true appetite for a decision by announcing that if no agreement has been reached before the scheduled end time of the meeting, you will close the meeting and make a decision yourself in the best interests of the project. Considerable political sensitivity is required when pursuing some courses of action, since it is often important not only that decisions are made correctly, but also that they are seen to be made correctly. If the project sponsor is in the meeting, you may find it useful to call a short break and discuss the best course of action together.

As the meeting progresses, write down the minutes of the meeting. If it is a larger or longer meeting, appoint a secretary or scribe to do so. The minutes should include:

  • Date.

  • List of attendees.

  • Key decisions or other key information.

  • Actions allocated to named individuals with agreed timing.

Note that 'Key information' does not mean a transcript of the meeting.

It means information that materially influences the meeting decision. When circulating minutes of the meeting, it is usually much more important that the minutes are promptly and accurately distributed than it is for them to be elaborately formatted. An e-mail or, if it is legible, a photocopied page of a notebook, can contain the same information as a formally typed meeting note.

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Definitive Guide to Project Management. The Fast Track to Getting the Job Done on Time and on Budget
The Definitive Guide to Project Management: The fast track to getting the job done on time and on budget (2nd Edition)
ISBN: 0273710974
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 217
Authors: Sebastian Nokes
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