Project Management Foundations – Planning & Conducting Effective Project Meetings
By Steve Hart
Project meetings can easily become the nemesis of your project success. Some of the things that I overhear when team members talk about project meetings:
“My day is fully consumed by meetings. I have no time to do my real work.”
“That meeting was a waste of time. Not sure what we were trying to accomplish.”
“We talk about the same things in every meeting.”
“The only decision we made today was that we need another meeting.”
Do your project meetings have a regular cadence (timing, content, and attendance)? Do the project meetings have an established purpose and objectives? Do the meetings drive positive project outcomes in terms of information sharing, problem resolution, and tracking and planning of work? Are action items regularly captured, and follow-up actions proactively initiated and tracked? If the answer is “no” to several of these questions, your project meetings may be a source of project churn. Project meetings that create churn ramble on, and provide limited benefit to the project team. In many cases, ineffective project meetings will actually be the source of confusion and misunderstandings on the team. It is a strong indication that your project meetings might be creating churn if you discuss the same issues/problems meeting after meeting, and team members become disengaged in the conversations — or do not show up at all. Communications within the project team, the ability to remove roadblocks, and the tracking and prioritization of project work are all negatively impacted by meeting related project churn.
Comments from my blog on Project Churn: In the workplace, churn represents the counterproductive discussions, emails, and actions that create a “drag” on generating positive business results. In the context of project delivery, churn represents the “negative energy” within the team and the overall project environment that prevents your project from progressing at the planned rate, or successfully completing project milestones. Churn is manifested in a stakeholder’s negative communication, a team member’s non-productive actions, or project delivery processes that are slow or ineffective. At its worst, project churn can paralyze a project team, and overwhelm a project. You will find project churn at the heart of many challenged or failed projects.
How Meetings Impact Your Project
On the surface, project meetings seem pretty harmless. How can getting people together to discuss topics and collaborate have a negative impact on my project? Below are several tangible ways that ineffective project meetings can have a negative impact on project outcomes:
- Consume Time – Project meetings represent an investment in people’s time. If team members were not attending project meetings, they could be completing project work assigned to them. If project meetings do not contribute positively to project outcomes (e.g., sharing of information, making decisions, resolving issues), then they represent non-productive project overhead. Churn.
Do Not Result in Action – Project meetings without a defined purpose and agenda do not drive decisions and actions required to achieve project milestones. In many cases, action items are identified or decisions are made in meetings, however there is no follow-through or accountability established to ensure that the actions are completed or decisions are implemented (and the desired results achieved). Churn.
Create Confusion – Ineffective project meetings often generate confusion or misunderstandings within the team. When a project meeting is not facilitated and summarized in an organized manner, team members tend to take away very different perspectives from the meeting. The confusion resulting from the meeting can cause team members to communicate inappropriately, and/or work ineffectively. Churn.
In other words, meetings can consume a significant amount of your team’s time, do not drive productive decisions and/or actions, and in many cases are the source of confusion and chaos on the team.
Start With Why You Have Team Meetings
In my experience, the place to start when creating a foundation for effective project meetings is establishing an understanding of why you need meetings on your team. If the meetings do not contribute to one or more of the reasons for having a meeting, they should be transformed or eliminated. Below are the reasons I generally utilize when establishing project meetings:
- Project Status Updates – Meetings represent an effective means to establish a common understanding amongst the team of where the project is at, and where the focus of the team needs to be. This includes knowing where the team is against plans, and what corrective actions must be taken to get the team back on track. It also includes establishing or clarifying where dependencies exist within the team, and how these dependencies impact achieving upcoming milestones.
Forum for Making Decisions – Decisions are required throughout the project life cycle to keep projects moving in the right direction and at the planned pace. In many situations, the decision requires collaboration of key stakeholders, and either a regularly scheduled meeting or an impromptu meeting is utilized to drive the decision.
Review Project Content – As milestones are achieved, it is important to ensure that the product(s) delivered meet the expectations of key stakeholders. Meetings are utilized to review project deliverables, resolve issues associated with deliverables, and gain consensus on the approval of a deliverable.
5 Ways to Improve Your Project Meetings
- Create a Regular Cadence – It is important to establish a well-defined meeting schedule throughout the project life cycle. The meeting schedule includes core team meetings, steering committee meetings, and deliverable/milestone reviews. The meeting schedule establishes both expectations and constraints in terms of team member involvement and investment in team meetings (including both frequency and length of meetings).
Target the Audience – Team member involvement in meetings should be established during the definition of team roles and responsibilities. Identifying the target audiences for scheduled meetings includes forming the core team and steering committee, as well as defining stakeholders involved in reviewing and approving deliverables and/or milestones.
Establish the Appropriate Approach & Content – The team should decide on the appropriate approach for conducting each type of project meeting, as well as the scope of the content to be covered in the meeting. Does the meeting represent a facilitated discussion, or a sharing of specific information? Do materials need to be prepared or reviewed in advance of the meeting? Most regularly scheduled project meetings have a “standing” agenda that is tailored for each meeting occurrence based upon the current phase/status of the project.
Proactively Manage Meeting Follow-up – The wrap-up of each meeting should include a summary of key decisions and actions. These decisions and actions must be documented (as efficiently as possible), and reviewed in a systematics manner (to ensure that they are completed/implemented). I will generally start each regular team meeting with a review of key actions and decisions from previous meetings.
Keep Track of your Meetings – Tracking of project meetings helps teams ensure that they are getting the appropriate payback on the investment. For each type of project meeting, I will track the following information:
- Attendance (including total hours and cost)
Decisions made and actions resolved (including deliverables reviewed/approved)
Value derived from the meeting (primarily based upon periodic input from meeting participants)
Your comments on this blog are appreciated. What experiences have you had with project meetings? How have you improved the effectiveness of your project meetings?
Steve Hart, PMP is the Practice Manager responsible for project leadership & delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. He has 25 years of project management and technical leadership roles, and has developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. Steve recently transferred to the North Carolina Chapter of PMI from the Dayton Ohio PMI Chapter, where he was active as the editor of the chapter newsletter, and PMP certification instructor. You can read more from Steve Hart on his blog.