A proactive methodology for managing project meetings

Introduction

TMA Seminars has developed a methodology for project managers to proactively manage project meetings. Taught as part of TMA Seminars’ comprehensive project management training seminar, this methodology has been successfully applied to hundreds of projects in the fields of software implementation, telecommunications, and information technology.

Overview

Consider first the case of a project manager haphazardly directing a project meeting. Issues are randomly presented with no focus on an agenda, the discussion is often motivated by political or personal agendas, and there is little or no sense of the group moving forward with shared objectives. Basic rules of process and courtesy are ignored. Innovative ideas are rarely pursued. Morale is invariably on the downswing, and the professional standards of the project manager come into question.

In contrast, we suggest a proactive methodology that makes optimal use of people's time and creative energy. Meeting participants are focused on action and results. There is accountability for tasks and timelines. The environment fosters mutual respect and the excitement of a group moving forward toward meaningful accomplishment. The project manager exercises skill and sensitivity, enforcing guidelines and controlling the flow of discussion.

Such positive experiences do not happen by accident. TMA Seminars Principal Consultant, Jay Ress, has identified skills and techniques for creating action-oriented project meetings and has incorporated these techniques into a comprehensive methodology. This proactive methodology is presented here in four sections:

• How to prepare for a meeting.

• How to conduct a meeting.

• How to execute a meeting summary.

• How to follow up after a meeting.

How to Prepare for a Meeting

Our methodology starts with a simple, yet powerful, habit. We recommend that the project manager regularly “touch base” with key project stakeholders the day before the project meeting. The motivation is simple: to have personnel come to the meeting fully prepared. However, many project managers miss this opportunity to build credibility and to stimulate creative work because they have not incorporated this type of regular contact into their work routine. Yet, this one action lays the groundwork for a dramatic increase in the productivity of project meetings.

There are other important benefits to making regular contact with key players prior to the project meeting. These include keeping project tasks on track and addressing potentially damaging issues early in their life cycles. By this type of contact, the project manager gives key personnel the opportunity to be proactive in their work. They will come to meetings to report that a problem has been resolved, or that an issue is being handled, rather than to simply “bring it up for discussion.”

There are four steps to incorporate into the project manager's work routine:

First, the project manager identifies the key players on the project. These are the individuals responsible for the major components of the work. Key players may represent departments, or project resources, or a company that is contracted to provide goods and services, or perhaps they play an important role through their own participation in the project. In addition, a key player may be strategically significant—someone who does not have tasks assigned to them but who does have visibility to or authority over the project. The project manager should identify these key players and have their contact information.

Second, these key players should understand that—prior to the meeting—they are expected to contribute their input to the meeting agenda. Communicate that the agenda will not be considered complete until they have had an opportunity to review it with the project manager. If they feel something needs to be on the agenda, this is their opportunity to make that case, and to collaborate in developing a strategy for handling the issue during the meeting.

At the time of a “touch base” discussion, the project manager has an opportunity to focus the key player on taking immediate action. Is this individual simply waiting for approval that can be generated by an email or phone call? Are they lacking information that can be pursued at once? Are there important tasks that have been overlooked that can be initiated prior to the meeting? Most important, are there critical problems or concerns that need immediate attention? Work together to develop an action plan on the spot, rather than putting it off for the project meeting.

Third, the project manager verifies that key players are prepared to deal with their area of responsibility at the meeting. They should come to the meeting with a status update on their deliverables and also any questions that need to be addressed to the project team. This is an ideal time to reinforce awareness of their role in overall project objectives and of the dependencies associated with their tasks.

An important corollary to step three is the understanding that issues not included in the meeting agenda will not be discussed in depth at the project meeting. If in-depth discussion is needed, it is up to the project manager to identify the need and to set up the time, place, and participants to handle the issue outside of the project meeting. By contacting key players in advance, valuable meeting time is conserved, and issues are dealt with in a timely, effective manner.

Fourth, once the agenda has been developed and reviewed with key players, the project manager emails the agenda to the project distribution list or posts it on the project site. Email is preferred, since it is a more proactive method that encourages people to come to the meeting fully prepared. This step helps to eliminate surprises. In addition, it gives all project stakeholders advance notice of what will be discussed. If they wish to have input or learn more about a particular topic, they will understand that they should attend the meeting.

The goal is to be fair and reasonable. It is not appropriate to ask people to strictly adhere to an agenda if they have not had the chance to have input. Similarly, it is not reasonable for people to expect optimal use of their time to be made if they are not willing to follow the agenda and to adhere to meeting rules.

How to Conduct a Meeting

By “touching base” with key project players and distributing the agenda prior to the meeting, the groundwork is in place for a fast-paced, action-oriented meeting. Individuals are expected to come fully prepared, with knowledge both of what will be discussed and of what will be beyond the scope of the meeting. While there is always the need for flexibility in the ever-changing world of most projects, the basic structure is in place. The challenge now is to be as productive as possible. The following directives can be employed to do so. Please keep in mind, however, that—while many of these may seem simple and self-evident—it takes commitment and sensitivity to enforce them in real time.

• The meeting starts on time. If there is a compelling reason to delay the start, the project manager should publicly acknowledge the problem and seek consensus on whether or not to wait and how long to delay before starting. An apology should be made to those who made the effort to arrive on time. By all means, reinforce the understanding that project meetings start on time.

• One person is in charge. For the purposes of this paper, we assume that the project manager is running the show. The PM creates the agenda, enforces the rules, and has the final say on procedural issues, subject to group consensus and democratic principles.

• The meeting follows the agenda. It is up to the project manager to make sure that the focus does not drift onto “non-agenda” items. Intervene if issues that do not affect the entire group start to dominate. Be proactive in identifying these issues and in making arrangements for follow up outside of the project meeting. If there is a critical need for an exception, acknowledge the situation and seek consensus for what will be added to the agenda and for how long discussions will be allowed to continue.

• The project manager monitors the clock so that there is sufficient time for all items to be discussed, for appropriate actions to be formulated, and for a “meeting summary” (see below).

• Discussion is focused on action, results, and what is needed to get the job done. Each action item includes the individual accountable for the work, milestones for completion, and time frames.

• Key players take the lead in discussing their area of responsibility. The project manager should be proactive in seeking input from people when their area is discussed and should make sure that those people publicly acknowledge their accountability for completing tasks on time.

• Basic rules of courtesy and group dynamics are followed. One person speaks at a time. People do not interrupt a speaker. Everyone has a chance to be heard. Attention is focused on the speaker. Phone conversations, people working on computers, and other distractions are immediately identified by the project manager and the request is made to cease the offending behavior. The project manager is proactive in not tolerating personal attacks, ridicule, or inappropriate language.

• The project manager takes detailed notes on information presented, decisions taken, actions assigned, and any changes to project milestones or timelines. These notes will form the basis of the project manager's “meeting summary” (see below).

• The meeting ends on time. If there is a need for extension, be sure to address this to the group and seek consensus on how much longer the meeting will run. If possible, avoid individuals leaving before the meeting is over without publicly acknowledging that their presence is no longer required.

How to Execute a Meeting Summary

This is where a project manager's professional standards are put to the test. The final item on the agenda should be a “meeting summary.” As the meeting winds down, people are usually anxious to move forward into their busy days. They feel that their participation in the meeting is complete. However, there is one last element—the project manager's meeting summary—that is necessary to fully realize the benefits of their participation. It takes real skill and self-discipline to hold people's attention under these circumstances. But the rewards are well worth it.

Before ending the meeting, with the group's full attention, the project manager recaps important decisions and actions to be taken, including:

• Major accomplishments/milestones achieved.

• New information, including agreements and changes to scope, timeline, design, or applications.

• Action items, including who is accountable, milestones and time frames.

• Date/time/location/participants for all meetings and conference calls on the calendar, including the next project meeting.

It is the project manager's job to leave enough time for a complete meeting summary. Often, there is an element of surprise at what “shakes out” during this process. Areas that appeared to have consensus, assignments of tasks and completion dates, future meeting times and dates, all need to be verified before the meeting ends.

The project manager must discipline themselves, and the project team, to do a summary at the end of each meeting. The result will be that people will leave the meeting with a feeling of purpose. They will be ready to focus on the tasks ahead.

How to Follow Up after a Meeting

To obtain the maximum impact from the project meeting, the project manager must follow up. It is a mistake to assume that discussion and agreement in the meeting will automatically lead to action. Instead, the project manager should circulate an “action update”—a concise document that references the statements, agreements, and action items from the project meeting. This document provides a blueprint for near-term action that can be followed by all project personnel. It also creates a public record of the plans and expectations developed at the project meeting.

Using the meeting summary as a guide, circulate an action update within 24 hours of completing the meeting. This should be a regular transmission, which reaches the same distribution list as the meeting agenda.

Summary

TMA Seminars’ proactive methodology will help project managers to create meetings that are lively, focused, and efficient. Key players will develop a greater stake in the proceedings, and they will look forward to attending project meetings. Team morale will improve. Project personnel will develop a sense of purpose and direction that will lead to better results in the field. Last, but certainly not least, these improvements will enhance the credibility and professional stature of the project manager.

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.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
November 1-10, 2001 • Nashville, Tenn., USA

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