What Is Wrong With Our Meetings? Written by Ori Schibi, M.B.A., PMP

What is the root problem of our meetings?

Meetings, despite the social setting, are often dreaded. They have a tendency to go poorly, to be inefficient, to fail to achieve their goals, and to end up being deemed a waste of time. Why is it that meetings tend to go so badly off-track and fail at accomplishing what they were scheduled for?

The answer is simple: our meetings are not effectively managed, and at times, we don’t even know why we are holding a meeting in the first place. As one of the prime stakeholder management tools, meetings are not only a strong indicator of what is going on in the project and how it is being managed, but are also a great way to gain control and improve the way that we manage the stakeholders.

There are many types of meetings we may be called upon to conduct. These are, but are not limited to:

  • Problem-Solving
  • Decision-Making
  • Planning
  • Status Reporting
  • Feedback
  • Hybrid or Combination Meetings

How can we set the expectation for our meetings?

Our first task is to define the different types of meetings we hold in our organization, so that we can label each meeting appropriately. Each type of meeting requires a different structure and supports different participants. Publishing an agenda and giving everyone time to review, and if necessary, contribute to it, will set the participants’ expectations about the meeting. By stating the agenda, type, and purpose of the meeting, we can increase its effectiveness.

Some of the typical meeting types include: problem solving, decision making, planning, status reporting, feedback, and any type of “hybrid” or combination meetings. Setting the expectations and stating the purpose of the meeting will let participants know what is expected of them, what they need to bring, and what they need to prepare for. It also allows them to come with the appropriate levels of focus and intensity required for the topic.

Although it is important, setting the agenda and type of meeting is only the start. We need to make sure that the people invited to the meeting are the right people; that we get all of the right people, and none of the ones that we don’t need. If key stakeholders cannot make it to the meeting, it should be deemed obsolete and rescheduled. When we have people who do not belong in the meeting, they may cause a distraction.

It might be a good idea to set up some expectations, guidelines, and ground rules for our meetings as early in the project as possible, so everyone knows what to expect. These items should cover behaviors, best practices, codes of conduct, and escalation procedures. Setting these up from the start will help to remove many of the distractions that plague projects and meetings, frequently contributing to the derailment of the project itself.

How can we leverage agendas and timelines to increase our meeting productivity?

The next step is to include timelines in the agenda and to make sure that they are followed. Although it sounds simple, many meetings tend to get off-track or last much longer than anticipated. Every item need to have a timeline and an “owner”. Ideally, the time allocations are realistic so that there is ample time to complete the discussion. Make sure the meeting starts on time, and consider having an incentive for people to arrive on time, or a symbolic “fine” for those who are late.

We should then follow our ground rules and ensure that if we reach the end of the time allotted for an item, we need to take it “offline” and move on to the next item. “Offline” does not mean “we never talk about it again”, rather it means that at the end of the meeting we go back to the item and decide who will take ownership of it for a follow-up and when the next touch-point for an update of this item will be scheduled.

Another thing that derails meetings is when items are brought up that are not part of the meeting agenda; these items should be “parked”. As we have a purpose for the meeting and it includes covering all agenda items sufficiently, non-agenda items that are brought up should be parked and either discussed further at the of the meeting, if time allows, or they should be treated the same as the “offline” items: someone is appointed to take them away and come up with a follow-up date.

What are other roles to consider for a meeting to be successful?

For these things to happen, we need to have a time keeper for the meeting. The time keeper is not necessarily a “dedicated” person sitting in the meeting and taking times. Rather, we can rotate this role to ensure that the person who keeps the time for each item is the one with the least interest and involvement in that topic.

There are two other roles we should also include in the meetings: a minute taker and a facilitator. It is possible for these two functions could be performed by the same person, but the delineation between tasks should be clear. The minute taker can be the PM or the person who called the meeting. This doesn’t require a stenographer that records each and every word said in the room, but rather someone who can “extend” agenda items and record the decisions, actions items, who is responsible for what, and the timelines for each item. It is a big responsibility, but not a big job. It might be a good idea to go over the minutes at the end of the meeting and ensure that all the participants are on the same page.

The facilitator has what is perhaps the most important role in the meeting.  If more attention was paid to having a facilitator in each meeting, more meetings would be labelled as a success. Whether internal to the organization or external, the facilitator is an authority that owns the process of the meeting. This person is not a subject matter expect, and hopefully does not have a stake in the outcome of the meeting.

The facilitator should be neutral; someone who bounces ideas, manages the flow of the discussion, and addresses conflicts, not by taking sides, but rather by allowing everyone to participate. The facilitator is like the conductor of an orchestra, making sure that all the instruments play the right tune at the right time without descending into chaos. “Authority” in regards to the facilitator does not necessarily mean seniority, but rather an authority to own the process of the meeting and to allow achievement of the meeting’s goals. We can have the project manager or the BA assume that role, though both are often stakeholders with vested interests in the outcome of the meeting. The same goes for the sponsor and other senior management. Organizations that bring in outside facilitators show a definite improvement in the quality and effectiveness of their meetings, and in turn, their projects. While it is not appropriate or cost effective for all meetings, it is worth the effort for the really important ones.

Stakeholder Management and Conflict

Meetings can also change the momentum of a project. Showing ownership and control, extracting the appropriate information timeline, making sound and timely decisions; all of these show we have someone at the top that cares, controls, and understands the stakeholders. People appreciate knowing that their needs and desires are being looked after. By controlling the meetings, we can also get the stakeholders to behave according to our code of conduct and our ground rules, which may in turn signal collaboration and create momentum as the project moves forward.

Meetings are where we get together. Stakeholders come to the meeting from various areas of the project to share ideas, discuss issues and progress, and try to make decisions. A lot of ego is involved, expectations are set, and they all leave impact the participants. Giving people a free pass to be late and break the rules, or managing the meeting by allowing exceptions, will lead to disaster. They set the wrong example, signal a lack of decisive leadership, and create a feeling that some others can get away with anything.

Meetings are often not where work happens, but rather where all the work that has been done or needs to be done comes together. We do not come to meetings to do work, but to share and discuss ideas. Having a successful meeting that has been owned and controlled will leave a positive impression on the participants, and allow the PM or BA to maintain control going forward. Having “weak” meetings is an indication that there is no control over the stakeholders and that there is a lack of proactive leadership, which will be reflected in the project.

Conflict is another “participant” in meetings; often uninvited, yet frequently leaving a mark. We know how to recognize it, and as with other aspects of stakeholder management, it is the job of the facilitator to handle the conflict situation. There is no one clear solution, but the conflict can be managed if the facilitator does not take sides, and handles it based on their understanding of the sides involved. We need to seek out a sustainable resolution that allows us to go back, as quickly as possible, to making progress and focusing on the original agenda of the meeting. Handling conflict effectively will add to the positive impression and the momentum that we are trying to build.

How can you leverage your experience to improve meeting quality?

Those of us who have worked in projects for many years can walk into a project meeting and just by observing the behavior and conduct of the other participants get a strong indication as to how the project is going. A sloppy meeting with no focus or agenda, without times being kept, and that is constantly interrupted by people coming and going, is often a sign that the project is not doing well. And even if that project is somehow doing well, these are signs that it is on the wrong path.

The same goes for stakeholder management. Giving everyone the impression that things are under control, and providing structure and leadership can go a long way.

Good meetings don’t just happen and they aren’t a matter of luck. They are the result of a lot of upfront work, expectation setting, communication planning, stakeholder analysis, maneuvering, and the effective use of leadership skills.

Research

  1. Freeman, R. Edward “Strategic Management: A Stakeholder Approach” Cambridge University Press, 2010
  2. Freeman, R. Edward; Harrison, Jeffery S; Wicks, Andrew C. “Managing for Stakeholders: Survival, Reputation, and Success (The Business Roundtable Institute for Corporate Ethics Series in Ethics and Lead)” Yale University Press, 2007
  3. Bourne, Lynda “Stakeholder Relationship Management” Gower; Har/Ele edition, 2009
  4. Scharioth, Joachim; Huber, Margit “Achieving Excellence in Stakeholder Management” Springer 2010
  5. Carroll, Archie B.; Buchholtz, Ann K. “Business and Society: Ethics, Sustainability, and Stakeholder Management” South-Western College Pub, 2011
  6. Svendsen, Ann “The Stakeholder Strategy: Profiting from collaborative Business Relationships” Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1998