Meetings are an essential part of any project – how well they are managed is critical to the success of the project and yet many stakeholders and team members see project meetings as an interruption to their real work and a waste of valuable time.
Project meetings vary considerably depending on the organisation and the people involved. Unfortunately they are often regularly scheduled meetings that once had a purpose but now people attend out of habit or obligation. Or they are ad-hoc meetings called as a knee-jerk reaction so some event for which no-one is prepared and so nothing is really achieved.
What is clearly obvious is that every meeting should have an objective and that all the attendees should know what that objective is before they attend. So it is essential to clarify the purpose of the meeting for each and every meeting to ensure there genuinely is a purpose. Of course, it is perfectly acceptable that the purpose of a regular project meeting is to keep everyone informed of the progress of the project and to provide the opportunity to ask questions about the project.
All project managers know that there are certain meetings that will always be necessary and are an essential part of good project management. Such as those to co-ordinate different teams or departments working on the project to ensure a “silo” mentality does not develop. Or those to clarify business requirements, manage risks or discuss quality.
By clearly stating the objective of a meeting this helps to define what should be on the agenda (and what should not), who should attend, what decisions need to be made and what action plans need to be put in place. Attendees may be less reluctant to attend if they know the objective of the meeting.
So to avoid project meetings ending in frustration with nothing being achieved, it is important that a detailed agenda is set and distributed in advance. This gives everyone the opportunity to prepare any necessary information beforehand and ensure that all data is available to make decisions and action plans at the end of the meeting.
The agenda should be entirely relevant to the purpose of the meeting and should not be used as an opportunity to discuss issues that are not relevant to the meeting objective. Unrelated issues should be discussed elsewhere. The only reason an item should be listed on the agenda is if it provides information to those present that could not easily be provided by any other means; if it is an item on which a decision has to be made and all the attendees need to be involved in the decision-making; or if it is an action item related to a problem which requires everyone’s agreement.
When setting the agenda bear in mind that any meeting that goes on for more than an hour or two will certainly lose its effectiveness as everyone starts to lose concentration. It is better to have several short meetings that stay focussed and lively than one long meeting that drags on to the point of boredom.
However, it is always worth considering whether a particular meeting is actually necessary and whether the same outcome could be achieved more efficiently by some phone calls or emails or perhaps by assigning a small core team to gathering the required information and making the necessary decisions. These are judgements that can be made relatively easily by an experienced project manager who knows the team well. Improvements in reporting may also minimise the necessity of too many meetings.
But don’t forget about the unspoken functions of meetings. No matter how people might complain about the disruption to their working day, project meetings are in many ways a social event, particularly for those who regularly spend their working lives in front of a computer and deal mainly with colleagues via emails. Project meetings that include junior team members are also a good opportunity to make those junior members feel more valued and to give everyone the opportunity to have their voice heard during discussions.
For your next project management assignment, whether using formal methods such as PRINCE2, APMP, PMP or not, consider thoroughly how you will schedule and manage the project meetings for the greatest effectiveness. This is one of the essential project management skills that every project manager should master.