5 secrets to virtually cut your meeting time in half!

Abstract

Many project managers struggle with difficult, protracted meetings. Indeed, long, unproductive meetings have become so commonplace, that they're assumed to be the norm in many environments. This paper challenges that assumption by providing five specific techniques that project managers can use to reduce the length of their meetings. When utilized consistently, these techniques should significantly reduce project meeting times.

Introduction

“Sometimes I get the feeling that the two biggest problems in America today are making ends meet -- and making meetings end.” (Robert Orben, The QuotationsPage, ¶6)

Project managers often fulfil the role of meeting facilitator but often don't fully understand what that entails. Wikipedia defines facilitator as follows: “someone who helps a group of people understand their common objectives and assists them to plan to achieve them without taking a particular position in the discussion. The facilitator will try to assist the group in achieving a consensus on any disagreements that preexist or emerge in the meeting so that it has a strong basis for future action. The role has been likened to that of a midwife who assists in the process of birth but is not the producer of the end result.” Indeed, project managers invariably fulfil the role of facilitator in their team meetings whether they recognize it as a distinct role or not.

Project attendees and team members alike are equally frustrated by lengthy meetings, but they seem to be an accepted reality on most projects. Indeed, meetings are a critical tool that project managers use to obtain project status, share information with stakeholders, and address project issues. They can be a very useful communication vehicle; however, meeting time not only consumes valuable project time, but also pulls critical resources off their project tasks. Any time saved by shortening meetings can be used by each project team member to execute his/her specific tasks more quickly. These five recommended best practices can directly impact the project manager's ability to reduce meeting times while maintaining the desired level of effectiveness.

  1. Be serious about punctuality from the beginning
  2. Don't let discussion ramble
  3. Develop agendas that encourage brevity and focus
  4. Assign a timekeeper
  5. Ensure attendees do their homework BEFORE the meeting.

Best Practices to Reduce Meeting Times

Secret #1 – Be Serious About Punctuality from the Beginning

Project Manager sometimes forget that they really do set the example for team members behaviour in many ways. If the project manager is lax and laid back about meeting promptness, others will pick up on that subtle signal and assume that showing up a few minutes late isn't a big deal. It's quite a natural phenomena. Team members pick up on signals sent from the project manager on what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

The project manager must send a clear signal that lateness is not acceptable. This can be done several ways. First, the project manager shouldn't backtrack for latecomers. From the inception of the team, the project manager should make a practice of arriving at the meeting location 5-10 minutes early, starting precisely on time, and not reviewing previous discussions for anyone arriving late. Backtracking for latecomers tends to send the signal that lateness is acceptable. Also, stopping the meeting to review material for latecomers tends to irritate (and even punish) those who arrived at the meeting on time.

Another technique the project manager can use to send the desired timing message is selecting an odd start time for the session. Typically when the session starts on the hour or half hour, attendees tend to assume they can arrive 5-10 minutes late without a problem. However, if the project manager schedules the meeting to start at 9:10 instead of 9:00, it immediately sends a strong signal about the importance of timing.

Another option for reinforcing the importance of timeliness with the group is using some sort of mild consequence for tardiness. This technique is best used after gaining team support and buy in. It should be viewed not as a punishment but instead a technique that the team wants to use to try to monitor themselves. The consequence should be mild as the project manager should always be cognizant of preserving positive relationships with team members (and not overreacting to the tardiness behaviour). Sample ground rules that the team might adopt to provide this mild consequence could include the following:

  1. The last person to enter the meeting room will be the scribe for the next meeting
  2. Anyone arriving late to a meeting (or conference call) must sing the national anthem on the call upon arrival

For maximum effectiveness, project manager should consider factors like the team culture, significance of the problem, personalities of team members, etc. before using this type of technique.

Secret # 2 – Don't Let Discussion Ramble

Rambling or veering off topic is a huge time waster in many meetings. Oftentimes, even if the project manager starts with a clearly defined agenda, the discussion can stray into off topic issues, out of scope issues, or discussions that are too detailed or otherwise inappropriate for that particular meeting. When the project manager is also functioning in the facilitator role, it's their responsibility to curtail rambling early to avoid wasting that valuable meting time. This not only saves meeting time but also enhances the credibility of the project manager as a team leader. Very often when the conversation in the meeting rambles, other team members notice the diversion and hold the project manager responsible for not keeping things on track. Too often project managers make the mistake of not stepping in to redirect conversation, and that is a significant mistake.

In most cases, the best way to quickly redirect rambling conversation is to ask the speaker (rambler in this case) to summarize their point. For example, the project manager may step in and say “Ann, I think you're raising a really important point. I just want to be sure that we capture it correctly in the meeting notes. If you could boil it down to one sentence, what would that be?” Another similar technique is questioning whether or not the issue could be taken offline. Posing the statement as a question gives the speaker a choice, but it acknowledges the rambling/lengthy nature of the conversation and allows the group to take action. In most cases, the speaker will agree that the issue can be taken offline. If an issue is taken offline, this typically means that it will be discussed outside of the meeting or considered a parking lot item, action item, or agenda item for an upcoming meeting. In the event that the speaker doesn't opt to take the issue offline, the project manager can either ask the team for their input or suggest that the team “timebox” the discussion on that particular issue to 5 or 10 minutes to ensure that the conversation does not continue indefinitely.

Another great technique at the project manager's disposal involves getting other team members involved in the meeting facilitation (which is a great practice). Using this technique, the project manager would ask for a volunteer co-facilitator to monitor rambling throughout the meeting. This person may be given a physical object (like a flag) and asked to raise it whenever they feel the conversation is rambling. This role should then be rotated so that all participants participate. Alternatively, the physical object could be placed in the center of the table with the expectation that any participant will raise it when conversation rambles. Using a physical object eliminates the need to interrupt the speaker which is often the primary barrier to confronting a rambler.

Secret # 3 – Develop Agendas that Encourage Brevity and Focus

Your agenda is indeed your roadmap, and if the project manager doesn't have one (and properly use it), he/she will likely end up in a ditch (or some other undesirable location). It's absolutely a critical part of the meeting preparation process for the project manager to take the time to think through the goals for the session and devise and document an agenda that articulates how the group will reach those goals. Indeed, the agenda is not just a tool to help the project manager navigate through the meeting, it's also a tool to help the team monitor their time and keep discussion focused.

One important part of agenda development is developing timing allocations for each section of the agenda. While many project managers will document the prescribed time for the overall meeting and identify topics to be discussed during the session, they won't always specify the time intended for each specific agenda item. Doing this helps the project manager determine whether or not the overall time allotted for the meeting is realistic. It also helps provide a basis for managing discussion during the session since each item now has a specific predefined time slot.

Another critical element of the agenda development process is determining the appropriate facilitation technique for each agenda item. While many project managers will document a list of items to be covered in the session, most will not think through (or document) exactly how he or she intends to facilitate each section. For example, the project manager may list “Prioritize top 3 requirements” or “Identify customer service bottlenecks” as agenda items. After identifying these as goals of the meeting, the more important question that the project manager must ask themselves is how will the group accomplish this? More importantly, how will it be accomplished efficiently and effectively? The more time the project manager spends thinking through how the group can best accomplish this, the more time will be saved in the meeting. The most experienced project managers have already thought through each section and identified the best facilitation method prior to the meeting. Facilitation techniques might include demonstration, group discussion and voting, multivoting, nominal group technique, affinity diagramming, and many others. Once the project manager has identified the best facilitation technique for each section, they can then document that next to each agenda item and keep that version of the agenda themselves to help them facilitate the meeting.

Secret # 4 – Assign a Timekeeper

One of the biggest mistakes that most project managers make is trying to do everything themselves. It doesn't work!!! When the project manager tries to lead the meeting, participate in the discussion, settle disagreements, monitor time, keep track of action items, curtail rambling discussion, address negative behaviors, etc., it slows down the pace of the overall meeting and everyone suffers. The reality is that project managers are not objective facilitators (for their own meetings at least); they do need to be active participants oftentimes. This means that many of the facilitation responsibilities are best handled by others.

One easy role to delegate is that of timekeeper. This works well because it not only relieves the project manager from one more responsibility during the session, but it also sends a signal to the rest of the team that he or she is very serious about timing and that managing time is everyone's responsibility. It's best to rotate the role of timekeeper so that everyone participates at some point. Essentially, this person should provide a 5 minute (or other increment) warning whenever the team only has that amount of time remaining in that section of the agenda. It's important that the timekeeper focus on the time for each section of the agenda not just the overall meeting. After all, if the timekeeper alerts everyone that there's only 5 minutes left in the entire meeting, but the group is still stuck on agenda item 2 (of 6), there's not much the team can do at that point to correct the problem. The timekeeper should be alerting the group early and often.

Secret #5 – Ensure that Attendees Do Their Homework Before the Meeting

Project managers often conduct meetings requiring attendees to have completed some pre-work before the session. Invariably, they will have one or two (or more) attendees who haven't completed the requested pre-work and that can significantly slow down the progress of the meeting. It can also create a bit of a tenuous situation since some may have taken the time to complete the homework but then have to sit through a lengthy explanation provided on the behalf of those who didn't. Indeed, it saves the team significant time in their meetings when they can ensure that everyone has completed their pre-work as requested. Dale Carnegie said years ago that the only way to get someone to do something is to get them to want to do it. So, the real challenge for the project manager is determining how to best accomplish this.

One effective technique is providing the team a choice of whether or not to have homework at all. For example, if the team needs to validate a lengthy requirements document in an upcoming meeting, the project manager might give them this choice. “We can either conduct a 2 day war room session reviewing the document as a group and discuss all issues together or agree to review the document individually before the meeting and submit any questions or issues 36 hours prior to the meeting, then have a 2-3 hour meeting to resolve all issues. Which approach would you prefer?” Most groups will opt for the shorter meeting with the homework. Using this approach in most cases participants will have reviewed the document as requested because they were given a choice, and they chose the option with the homework. Anytime the project manager can solicit real buy in from the team, executing the selected option becomes much easier.

Another effective method is asking team members to not only review the information beforehand but also send the project manager a list of comments/questions three days prior to the meeting. This gives the project manager a tangible indication of whether the homework was completed or not. Obviously, if the project manager has not received feedback from anyone on the team, he or she will know to place a call to them to follow up.

Finally, the project manager should consider assigning various team members to lead different agenda items. If someone on the team knows that they are expected to lead a particular section of the meeting, they will more than likely complete the necessary pre-work in order to do that effectively. No one wants to appear unprepared! Obviously, the project manager should talk to that person during the meeting planning process to ensure that they are comfortable with that role. Indeed, getting other team members involved in the meeting facilitation is not a luxury but a necessity in many cases.

Conclusion

PMI's A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK Guide®) refers to facilitated workshops for more complex project meetings like requirements workshops (PMI, 2008). The reality is that virtually every meeting requires active facilitation if it is to be effective and efficient. Too often this role is ignored by project managers, and it is this neglect that results in protracted, unproductive meetings. The project manager isn't responsible for playing the roles personally; however, the project manager should ensure that all roles are covered by someone on the team or an external resource. Indeed, the most mature project teams are those that become self facilitating over time where all participants recognize the value of facilitation and play an active role. Meetings don't have to run long and take up critical project time. When consistently applied, these five secrets can dramatically reduce meeting time and increase overall efficiency.

References

Facilitator Defined. Retrieved 5/7/10 from Wikipedia Web site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facilitator

Motivational Quotes. Retrieved 5/7/10 from http://www.workfromhomenetworkmarketing.com/motivational-quotes.html#motivating people.

Brownlee, D. (2009, January). 5 Secrets to Virtually Cut Your Meeting in Half! Retrieved 5/5/10 from self published instructional DVD.

Project Management Institute. (2008) A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge. 4th Edition. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute, Inc.

The Quotations Page (2007) Robert Orben, Retrieved from http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Robert_Orben/

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.

©2010 Dana Brownlee
Originally published as part of Proceedings PMI Global Congress 2010 – Milan, Italy

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