How to run a stellar project meeting

How to run a stellar project meeting

We share with you five tips for creating meetings with extra purpose and energy

By Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton

All project meetings should strive to be stellar. If you want people to show up and engage, you need to create an environment that people want to be part of.

Before you know it, your week can be consumed by meetings. Often, they become a chore to be managed alongside your work rather than the mechanism to deliver it. How do you make your project meetings more effective? And by that we mean, useful, productive and enjoyable. Yes, that is right – we are striving for enjoyable. We might not always achieve it, but it’s definitely not going to happen if we don’t try.

We consider everyone who is part of our project meetings to be part of our *Tribe especially given that so many projects no longer have dedicated project teams. Tribe is one of the 5T’S of the ExtraordinaryPM Framework inspired by the work of Seth Godin explored in his book, “Tribes. We need you to lead us.” Seth defines a Tribe as a “Group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” He goes on to say that “a group needs only two things to be a Tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”

We think of our project meetings in their many guises with varying attendees in the context of our project Tribe. We are working with our Tribe to ensure that we are moving towards our Target*, focussing on the ‘Big Why’, as much as the what and the how of the project scope.

Here are five practical ideas that we have used in our project meetings when we sense something extra is needed.

1. Use Positive Intentional energy

We learnt this one while working on a service turnaround project that had monthly contract performance reviews with the customer. The meeting was a half-day of torture, reviewing progress against over 150 improvement actions. The project was making progress but there was still a lot to do and the meeting just felt like we were being summoned for a monthly beating. The customer team was permanently angry, while the project team was tired and defensive.

After several months of dreading this monthly trial, we decided to change our approach, so we intentionally arrived at the meeting with a sunny disposition and a sense of humour, smiling and being cheerful. It was such a shock to everyone that the whole dynamic shifted. We did the same for the second meeting and soon things began to turn around, the customer was less anxious and the whole process became far more collaborative.

We all bring an energy with us when we attend a meeting. It will be based on how we feel about the people in the meeting, the content of the meeting and everything else that is impacting us. As the facilitator of any meeting, your energy is critical for setting its tone. What we suggest is that you should be intentional in your choice of energy and stick with it regardless of the initial response. Sometimes just coming into a meeting with a different or unexpected energy can be the catalyst you need to unlock a problem.

The trick is to prepare. Ahead of your meeting, get clear on your intentions, the energy you want use and muster the courage to shake things up. Just before you go in, take 10 minutes, to get grounded in your values and focus on what really matters about the project. Take a deep breath and be in the energy you intend to bring. It’s a bit like the All Blacks doing the haka before a rugby game.

2. Strive to surprise

Regular project meetings can become predictable and uninspiring – particularly in the middle of a project when things are often not going entirely to plan. If you feel people are not fully engaged in your meetings reenergise them by changing something.

While your meetings still need to cover all the agenda items, they don’t have to be in the same order each time or in the same format. Every now and then do something unexpected to keep people alert. For example make decisions first rather than starting with the status update, ask people to give their updates only in terms of impact on other teams, change the order of the updates – anything that will keep the meeting from being predictable.

A favourite of ours is to randomly throw in an icebreaker, such as sharing something you are proud of inside or outside work. Whilst icebreakers are sometimes regarded as facile they can be effective if facilitated well and not overused. People will start looking forward to meeting to find out what wacky exercise might be used, and it all helps everyone on the team to get to know each better.

3. Make it personal

How often have you attended a project meeting and sat there wondering why you were invited or what you can contribute? Inviting ‘every man and his dog’ to every meeting is one way to ensure that nothing slips through the net, but it can also lead to a group of disengaged people.

Be clear, for every meeting or forum, why every person who has been invited needs to attend, what you are expecting from them. A simple one-page terms of reference document for each regular meeting is all that is needed. Don’t forget to review and update these regularly. If you are still struggling to get someone engaged, then a personal email or call to back up the meeting invite can be more compelling. Whilst this takes more time, it will pay off during the meeting.

Equally, think about who you might want to stand down from a particular meeting. Having someone in a meeting just to keep them informed is often not a valuable use of their time. A personal briefing on the issues impacting them maybe more effective, or alternatively a personal email highlighting the areas of the minutes which are relevant to them.

Don’t forget that the people you have in the room will respond differently and at different times. Introverts might not want to speak up unless specifically invited. Extroverts might want to hold the floor. Some people need time to assimilate information whilst others will respond immediately. You cannot change the way people work, but you can help them all to find their voices so that you get the full value from everyone’s contribution.

4. Schedule gaps

Why not schedule your meetings for 25 or 55 minutes? This will give your attendees time between meetings to grab a coffee or go to the toilet. Everybody complains that meetings never start on time, but if everyone is running from one meeting to the next, common sense dictates that people will be late. It is far wiser to create gaps between meetings in your calendar.

With a more practical schedule, you will find that the attention levels in each meeting will increase and the quality of decision-making will improve. Don’t be afraid to say ‘No’ to a non-essential meeting request – and allow your team to do the same.

5. ”Free from” meetings days

Schedule days for the whole team to be free from regular project meetings. This has two advantages: it’s a whole day for people to make progress on their deliverables, plus a day when everybody is likely to be available in the event that you need a workshop or an urgent issue resolution meeting. This is a really challenging objective and you will need to consider which managers or stakeholders can give you the ‘air cover’ to enable you to achieve this.

Ideally, don’t make this day a Friday – which is usually the best day for having virtual meetings and allowing people to work from home – so that everyone in the meeting has the same experience rather than some people being in the room while others are on the phone. Having ‘free from meeting’ days also sends the message that meetings need to be held in a focused and intentional way – they are not just habits or necessary evils of the project world.

All project meetings should strive to be ‘stellar.’ If you want people to show up and engage, you need to create an environment that people want to be part of. Have the confidence to try something a bit different – you may be surprised by the results. Acquiring the reputation for calling and holding highly effective meetings with the right participants, and communicating their outcomes to those who need to know, can transform your project.


If you need help with running good meetings there are some useful articles in the References below:

  • The Seven Secrets of Successful Virtual Meetings – Penny Pullan
  • Making project meetings work – Penny Pullan
  • How to run an effective business meeting – Adam Bryant (New York Times)
  • 5 Best Meeting Practices Every Leader Should Follow – David Finkel
  • First published in the Spring 2020 issue of Project


*Tribe is one of the 5T’s of the ExtraordinaryPM Framework. Your Tribe is much wider than your team. It is those people you need to build connections with around a shared goal, the Target (another of the 5T’s), in order to get the best from the people around you – whether they’re taking action, controlling risks or delivering a physical product.

On our courses, we show you how to lead and influence, inspiring your colleagues, peers and stakeholders to step up and become more effective and engaged. Because building better collaboration is the best way to create real change and measurable impact.


*Target is another of the 5T’s. Target focuses on the how, the why and the what of a project and its scope.

On our ExtraordinaryPM Mastery programme, we explore the mobilising power of the Target (‘Big Why’) for your project. With a clear Target in-sight you can align and lead your Tribe more effectively. Your Target is your ‘North Star’ for decision-making and prioritisation and will guide you across the Terrain of your project.


For more information, please contact

Managing your sponsor

A mutually beneficial partnership between a project manager and sponsor is crucial to the success of a project

By Marion Thomas and Sarah Walton

It doesn’t matter how brilliant you are as a project or programme manager, if you don’t have a good sponsor, successful delivery is going to be a huge challenge.

Looking back at our most successful projects, they all had an excellent sponsor. Not having great sponsorship does not prevent you delivering, it just makes the whole process a lot more painful, and where there is pain, there is more risk of failure.

If you are lucky, you start with a good sponsor. Frequently however, part of your role as a project leader is to train your sponsor for their role on your project.

For us, the key to good sponsorship is that your sponsor understands the following:

  • The project process is different from managing ‘business as usual’. The sponsor should appreciate the value of good project discipline in terms of good governance, regular reporting, project board meetings and RAIDs (Risks, Assumptions, Issues and Dependencies) management
  • The business landscape – both political and operational – in which the project is delivering. Sponsors must be able to leverage the wider business to provide support for and engagement with the project
  • The relationship between sponsor and project manager needs to be almost symbolic; neither can succeed without the other, but together, they can create huge synergy if they just trust each other, have complementary skills and challenge one another
  • Even the best project managers do not have magic wands, and a sponsor should not simply appoint a project manager and then just leave them to get on with it

A good sponsor also ‘gets ‘the content of the project. They need to understand enough technical detail to be able to have informed discussions, and be committed to the project journey as defined by the plan and the project roadmap.

So how do you train your project sponsor to be successful?

Exploring the why?

One way is to focus on the ‘5T’s’ from our ExtraordinaryPM framework – Target Terrain, Tribe, Time Mastery and Taking Care of Yourself. This article focuses on how to use the Target to foster engagement and alignment with your sponsor.

Target*, is focused not just on what the project is trying to achieve, but also the why. We still need to deliver a comprehensive scope document, but this tends to focus on what the project is going to deliver and how it is going to do it. The ‘Why’ is often taken as a given, which moves it into the realm of being an assumption – dangerous ground.

Taking time to explore the ‘Big Why’ of a project with your sponsor can be both enlightening and efficient. Simon Sinek explores why this principle in his book Start with Why, where he talks about how great leaders inspire people to take action through identifying the ‘Why’ before defining the ‘what’ or the ‘how’.

Being clear about why we are doing a project offers deeper insight to the wider stakeholder group, which can:

  • Aid decision-making, particularly in relation to change control and issue management;
  • Make project communication better targeted; and
  • Give risk management a more focused context

Identifying the ‘why’ also helps at the concept stage, because it provides a good basis for challenging the business case. (How many projects have you been on where the business case doesn’t really stack up?). If you’re not involved in the concept stage of the project, it can be challenging to get your sponsor to revisit work that has already been done. However, time invested in understanding why the project is important to your sponsor and the organisation will make it easier to engage other stakeholders and the project team.

It is easy to accept a ‘quick response’ project rationale, such as:

  • ‘Because we need to’;
  • ‘It’s critical to our business strategy’; and
  • ‘The board wants this’

While valid reasons, these responses do not get into the depths of why the project is important. In theory, a good business case could explain the project rationale and all the risks of non-delivery, but the pressure is always on to ‘just deliver’ and so the business case often becomes a purely numerical view of the project. How many business cases have you seen that you could use to inspire your project team?

Working with your sponsor on the ‘Big Why’ for your project enables you to understand where this project sits on your sponsor’s list of priorities, and to establish a close working relationship with your sponsor. A good ‘Big Why’ can be used as a call to action, and as a guide for all decision making, because it gives insight into where the passion for the project sits. Passionate project managers and sponsors make it easier to develop a motivated and productive team.

But all is not lost if your sponsor will not engage in an exploration of the ‘Big Why’ at the beginning of the project. As a project manager, you should still create a ‘Big Why’ statement to help engage your other stakeholders and the project team. The review process will then allow your sponsor a further opportunity to engage with the statement.

Supporting role

One of the main things that can derail a project is a nervous or absent sponsor. Therefore, as a project manager, you need to spend time ensuring that your relationship is mutually beneficial – you need to help your sponsor grow into their role, and the sponsor needs to protect you and the project from organisational noise.

Unless your sponsor has been involved with a number of previous projects of a similar size, the role you are asking them to perform is probably outside their comfort zone. As project managers, we understand the project process, but it is a very different from a ‘business as usual role’ where the sponsor is likely to have:

  • A good operational and functional knowledge;
  • Overall responsibility and decision-making autonomy;
  • The mandate to set priorities; and
  • Their own established communications mechanisms and styles

By contrast, the role you need them to perform on a project requires that they:

  • Stay out of the technical detail unless it is to help with the resolution of an issue;
  • Make decisions with or on behalf of the project board;
  • Facilitate agreement around priorities with their colleagues in the business (who may or may not be interested in the project); and
  • Deliver appropriate communication about the project to all those affected, not just their direct report

Once you are clear about how far the role of project sponsor is going to stretch your sponsor, you can plan the work you will need to do to coach and support them. Even if your sponsor is not great, keeping them close to the project allows you to limit any damage that they do.

A simple approach to managing your sponsor is to ask for their help and to give them very special tasks to do (preferably, mostly ones that they are good at) so that they are prepared when you need to ask them to do something difficult. Also take their counsel – they may not be an expert on the project, but they probably understand the organisation better than you do.

Mutually beneficial

In our experience, we can only be effective project managers when we have a good sponsor who both really understands the scope and acts as an advocate. The relationship between sponsor and manager is vital.

Even when your sponsor is experienced in a project role, your relationship is unique to any given project, and working together to align around the ‘Big Why’ and defining the roles for your project provides an ideal opportunity to create that strong relationship. Ultimately, creating a mutually beneficial partnership that will prove crucial for a successful delivery.

First published in the Spring 2018 issue of Project


*Target is one of the 5T’s of the ExtraordinaryPM Framework

Target focuses on the how, the why and the what of a project and its scope.

On our ExtraordinaryPM Mastery programme, we explore the mobilising power of the Target (‘Big Why’) for your project. With a clear Target in-sight you can align and lead your Tribe more effectively. Your Target is your ‘North Star’ for decision-making and prioritisation and will guide you across the Terrain of your project.


For more information, please contact