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 firstname.lastname@example.org