Friday, October 28, 2011

How to run meetings

Seth Godin said recently in his blog that the reason why he is so productive is because he doesn’t attend any meetings. I’m pretty sure this is an exaggeration but he does have a point: some meetings should never be in the first place and the ones that should are sometimes conducted in a very inefficient way. That’s why I’m sharing my views on meetings and also some tools and tips to deal with them, including a ready to use meeting template.



This is relevant for Project Managers
Because they all attend lots of meetings. And because they need to be as efficient as they possibly can (can you imagine someone wanting to hire an inefficient Project Manager?). The statistics vary from source, but I have no doubt that Project Managers spend most of their time communicating and that most of this time is spent communicating in meetings. And so spending less time in meetings, preparing them and follow up on them seems like a great idea to me.
How efficient do you think such a meeting as the one in the picture above is? How many time were you in a meeting thinking "This is going nowhere, I should be doing something else"?

A meeting minute template
Some tools may help you to get a grip on those meetings. Let's start with the most complete and complex meeting template I use. Just consider it and adapt it to your particular needs (and maybe share it here). Keep in mind that you have every benefit to use just one template to all your meetings (for example, no need to waste time deciding which template is the best for this meeting, or to try to remember which template you used so you can search accordingly). So here we go:

Meeting topic
Where, date and time
Attendees
1. Agenda
    1. Topic
    ...
    N. Topic
2. Decisions
    1. Decision
    ...
    N. Decision
3. Tasks (Task, Responsible, Done by)
    1. Task
    ...
    N. Task
4. Comments
    1. Comment
    ...
    N. Comment

The header contains:
  • The meeting topic that should be as straight to the point as you can (something like “Project X, Status Meeting” or “Guidelines for the 2012 budget”).
  • Where and when the meeting took place. You should take care in writing places and dates in the same format for ease of search sake.
  • The name of all the attendees. The previous note is also valid and I have some others tips that may be of use to you:
    1. The names of people that work regularly with me are shortened to their initials (for instance, Luis Seabra Coelho becomes LSC),
    2. For people I meet from other companies I also add their company name (it’s easier for me to remember them this way) and
    3. If someone was supposed to be on the meeting but missed it for some reason I add an”X” after the name (if I missed a meeting I’d be in the attendee list as “LSC X”)
The Agenda is the Agenda, right? The topics that are going to be covered in the meeting should be listed here with the estimated duration.
Decisions are not stuff for people to do, those go into the tasks. Decisions are more broad, like “Outsource this work”, for instance. In this case case there are multiple tasks that must take place in order carry out the decision.
Tasks are what is assigned to someone to do like “Susan will issue an RFP for something to suppliers A to D by the end of the month”.
And Comments are everything else. These are usually personal, but I find myself adding comments on project status meetings public minutes whenever there’s something worth mentioning that doesn’t fit any of the previous sections. Some details on Susan’s task could go here, for instance, including a 60 day payment or a maintenance add-on of 20 hours per month or whatever.

One thing I've tried for some time was to keep the decisions, tasks and comments under each topic of the agenda but in some cases this doesn't work. There could be a decision or a comment that doesn't fit none of the topics as it may apply to more than just one item on the Agenda.

10 Tips for running meetings
  1. Meetings involve people. Often, what people show with their attitude or facial expression is more important than what they actually say. Forget about this template and tips if you must but don’t forget this one: meetings involve people.
  2. Take your notes live. Some people simply can't do this, do it just after the meeting if this is your case. Notes taken 2 days after are of no use to anyone.
  3. Clean up after the meeting. After the meeting, read your notes, clean the text, check the spelling and rephrase them if necessary.
  4. Keep it focused. If you find something in your notes that you’re not sure if it's relevant or not, delete it. Yes, delete it. If you’re not sure now if you’ll ever need it, the odds are you will never need it.
  5. Add a topic to follow up previous pending tasks. When you have regular meetings, such as project status meetings, you can add in the Agenda a topic for checking the status of the previously assigned tasks. This way you keep the template simple and keep the focus just on the tasks that are pending.
  6. Set the example. Be on time and start the meeting as soon as you can, whatever that is in your particular case. It would be perfect to start at the scheduled time but this won't happen at least in my part of the world. If you’re still alone at the time the meeting was scheduled to star, start the meeting as soon as the first person arrives. This will give a strong sign to whoever arrives late.
  7. Give people time. Schedule the meeting some time in advance and send the Agenda when you do it. Also send any documentation necessary to the meeting if you can. If you can’t, like most project status meetings, send the documents as soon as you have them - unless you have a good reason not to do it.
  8. Account for what's not in the Agenda. Reserve time to everything happening in the meeting. If you need some time to chitchat prior to take on the Agenda topics, include it in the first topic of the Agenda – but don’t make it explicit there!
  9. Timers. If you can, try to use a timer during the meeting to keep each topic in the Agenda under control. I bet this works in some cultures but not on mine.
  10. Odd times. If you can, try setting the meeting to start at odd times like 9:13 AM. I’m pretty sure I’d be locked up in a psychiatric Hospital really fast if I tried this one at my office. But in some cultures this could be seen as a sign that the meeting is to start on time.
Conclusion
Meetings are all about people communicating so running them is more like an art then a science. But there are some things you can at least try to make them work in a more efficient fashion. And there also tools, like the template I shared, that can help you to keep track of what's going on, what are the tasks still pending on a particular topic and so on. You can be more efficient and because of that you can save some of your precious time to do other things.
And you are most welcome to share your experience here. I think I'm to used to this template to get it any better, maybe you can help.

Pictures taken from http://en.wikipedia.org/

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2 comments:

Steve Wilheir said...

I find it difficult to be leading the meeting, tracking the time, taking notes, and participating in the actual value-add -- all at the same time. One great tip is to get someone to help with those administrative parts while doing the leading and/or participating. But, if you can get a facilitator as well... yowza... jackpot!

Luis Seabra Coelho said...

Hi Steve,

And thank you for taking the time to share that.
You are absolutely right, in fact most of the best practices for running meetings do include a time keeper and a facilitator. But in my experience, it's difficult to have someone with enough experience available to take those roles effectively.
Now some people can run a meeting and do all that, some people can't - I did mention that in the article. If you can't do it and you don't have anyone else to do it you have to be creative: use a stopwatch, take your notes immediately after the meeting or whatever you can think of that helps.
The truth is each person is unique, so each person has to look for his/her strengths and use them and get around the things he/she doesn't do all that well. And be creative.
How do you run a meeting when you can't find someone to take notes and keep the time?
Again, thanks for sharing this.

Cheers,
Luis