A friend recently sent me the meme above which amused me at first, in one of those “Haha, yeah, been there!” moments. A while later though, I started thinking about how much time, how many productive hours, and how much project cost is lost in meetings that end up as rambling conversations with no clear direction. I’ve been in many and if you have spent any time on IT projects, you probably have too.
The reason these type of meetings happen is that often the organiser knows that they have a need to resolve an issue or to discuss a problem but don’t really have a clear idea about how to make this happen. So what they do is to book a meeting with no clear agenda, usually just a subject line that says “meeting to discuss…”. Often they aren’t really sure who the problem solvers are so they invite everyone and their dog. They don’t set an objective for the meeting because they aren’t sure what it is and then they assume that the meeting will somehow govern itself and so don’t apply any clear structure or control.
Inevitably the meeting will quickly fall down to an opinion sharing session, or at worst an argument, where everyone has their own view of what the issue is and how it should be resolved.
As a fairly pedantic test manager I like things to add value to a project (Kind of why I’m there!) and I know that the poor flow or control of information can be as much a quality risk as incomplete requirements or poor time estimates. By applying a few simple protocols to your meetings, you can avoid this breakdown and get quality information rather than wasted time. These points may seem obvious but when approaching the subject of project Quality Assurance, they are often overlooked and meetings can end up being unproductive, tedious and time-costly. So here are a few pointers I adhere to that I hope will help your meetings go smoothly.
1. Know your audience
The first and probably most important consideration for a meeting is ‘who do I invite?’
People’s time is precious and so is yours, so try to stick to the three types of people who will add to the conversation.
Decision influencers: These are the people you want in the room who have a good understanding of the issues. The list will include people who have, for example, technical capabilities, business knowledge, process knowledge, hardware / infrastructure skills or external or time and cost control. These are the people who can give critical information to inform the second type.
Decision makers: These are the people who can take the information and make key decisions that will clear the issues or move the project forward, giving your meeting a successful outcome. They should be the people with authority on the project, who can give you a hard and fast resolution. Often, however, they may be director level business people and will not be in attendance so try to get them represented if you can. If they simply aren’t there, ensure that the key decision information is captured, to inform them after the fact and follow up with them as a result.
Impacted work streams: Decisions will inevitably have consequences to the tasks other work streams are carrying out on the project or programme. Make sure these people are represented as, just like the influencers, they will have valuable input to the impact of decisions and may themselves need to impact assess their own work as a result. Valuable time can be saved by having their immediate view of direct impact on them, but if they need to go away and carry out an impact assessment, ensure this is captured and fed into the overall meeting outcomes.
2. Apply a structure to your meeting
Meetings will go round in conversational circles when they have no clear structure to follow and nobody is really in the driving seat. It is YOUR meeting and so YOU are the one who should be in control of it. Manage the conversation and keep the rambling opinions in check.
Don’t guess how long your meeting needs to be, break it down into sections, allocate time to each one and enforce it. A simple meeting structure might look like this:
Introductions: Five minutes is a good time to allow people to introduce themselves and explain their value to the meeting.
Meeting précis: Again, no more than five minutes, this is a simple walk through of the agenda to ensure that everyone is clear on the order and content of the meeting.
Agenda Items: Time allotted to each agenda item can vary, but a good rule of thumb is that if something has not been concluded within fifteen minutes, it may require a separate and more focussed meeting in itself, to allow more in-depth discussion.
Summary: Finally, summarise the key points and decisions. This is a good time for the person taking minutes to re-iterate actions and owners and capture expected delivery dates from them.
Don’t feel obliged to add ‘Any Other Business’ to the end of your meeting. This isn’t an AGM of the local parish council. If it wasn’t added as an agenda item then it is not part of this meeting anyway. Let someone else add it to their agenda and hold their own meeting.
3. Minute your meetings
There is little point in having the meeting in the first place if everyone is relying on their own memory of it to move forward. Attendees should be encouraged to take their own notes but these can often be biased to their own work stream and can miss or misinterpret key information. Ideally you want an impartial minute taker who can capture this all for you. A PMO representative, if you have one on your programme, is good for this as they will add the minutes to the overall project document control and probably have a template to do this too.
Make sure they capture key points, decisions, actions and follow-ups and ensure that you pace the conversation so they can capture everything in detail. Verify with them that they have not missed anything or if they need clarification on any points before moving on to your next agenda item.
Importantly, after the meeting is concluded, have a detailed copy of the minutes created and send a copy to all attendees and ask them to confirm that this is their understanding of the decisions and actions coming out. Make sure you also send a copy to those who were invited, but not in attendance, to allow them to be informed.
4. Have a clear agenda
There is nothing worse than turning up to a meeting without really knowing what it is for or what your value in it is. This leads to people accepting meetings they don’t really need to be in and sitting there when they could be doing something more useful, somewhere else. Let people know why they have been invited and which items they will be expected to contribute to. It isn’t about putting people on the spot or trying to catch them out. Give them time to prepare and gather any materials they may need to bring to support their contribution.
Make sure that when you send out the invitation, you send the agenda along with it or even include it in the body of the invitation. This allows people to reject the meeting request with a reason and avoids the awkwardness of people sitting for an hour without really being able to contribute to or gain value from the discussion.
Name people who will be expected to contribute to each item and give a concise, one-line description of what the item needs to resolve.
5. Be clear on your objectives
You are holding a meeting for a reason. You have come across an issue or point of discussion that requires several people to work together to resolve it and you need to make sure that your meeting achieves this. A good idea is to talk to the people you are inviting prior to the meeting, to get everyone’s perspective and insight, so that you have some idea where the likely outcome will sit and what decisions are likely to be driven out. In any case, have a clear understanding for yourself as to what the actual questions are that you are asking. “Can we afford to reduce the test time by not running the very low-risk tests?” is a better question than “How can we reduce the test time?”
Wherever possible, try to have garnered at least some of the potential solutions to any problems and present them as options for consideration, rather than just opening the floor to random suggestions (although don’t rule out the chance for people to offer something you may not have even considered!).
Again this is your meeting to run, so try to direct people in such a way that they can be clear as to what it is you are trying to achieve and your view of the options available.
6. Be diligent in your preparation
If you have booked a meeting room, make sure it is ready to start the meeting when everyone arrives. A few simple checks can save a lot of time lost at the start of a meeting when preparation has not been done. This list is by no means exhaustive but it sets out the sort of things that can eat up time if not addressed in advance.
Are there enough chairs for everyone? A simple thing, but precious minutes can be lost in having people walk round the office looking for a chair to bring into the room. Do this yourself in advance.
Is the whiteboard clean? It is bad etiquette, but people who use meeting rooms often leave the detritus of their discussion on the whiteboard. If you know who it was, it doesn’t hurt to check if they captured it before you rub it off but try not to do the same when you have finished. Also check that you have whiteboard pens!
Can you connect your laptop to the presentation monitor / projector?Technical glitches, not having the right cable, dead batteries in the remote control, these can all lead to frustration when you have a room full of people waiting to get started.
Is anyone dialling in? It is quite common in these times of remote working and co-located offices, that people may be dialling into your meeting. Whichever method they are using, telephone, Skype, GoTo meeting, etc, it is always a good idea, if you can, to get them on the line prior to the meeting start. This will help to avoid technical issues at your end and sign-in issues at theirs.
Have you checked your tech? As we all as the remote worker issue, you may be presenting your slides or even hosting the whole meeting via a web platform. Get your laptop set up for this prior to the meeting so that you know that things like screen resolutions work properly. It also gives you the chance to check other open apps that you might not want anyone to see when you change screen on your laptop!
This sort of thinking when you book a meeting will help it start on time and get straight into the proceedings, rather than waste time that could be better used.
7. Meeting taboos
As the meeting organiser there are some things you should both encourage and discourage, to help the meeting flow well.
Powerpoint: Powerpoint is a tool for illustration. If you find yourself creating a forty slide presentation with long passages of text, then perhaps consider creating a document instead, that people can read, review and comment on. By all means, if you do need to create a document with greater detail, then send this out prior to the meeting so that people are informed about the issues at hand, but slide packs should only serve to illustrate your point and should be no more than six to ten slides, with more diagram than text. More than four or five words or phrases on a slide and you run the risk of people paying more attention to that than what is being said. Encourage discussion and use verbal skills to get your point across.
Laptops, tablets and phones: Invariably, people bring electronic devices to meetings. We live on them for most of our lives and there is a great tendency for these to become a distraction in meetings. Unless it is absolutely necessary and they need them for the meeting, politely ask people to leave them at their desk. Their attention should be in the room and on the conversation and often I have seen people replying to emails or even scrolling through social media apps when the conversation drifts away from them.
Side conversations: These should be discouraged as they often draw people in and break the flow of your meeting. If it is not relevant to the topic in hand, don’t be afraid to shut them down. Asking for people’s attention isn’t rude but them not giving it is.
Make time for breaks: Nothing is more disruptive to a meeting that having people pop out to use the bathroom, make a vital phone call or grab a drink of water. Try to avoid this in longer meetings by having timed breaks to allow people to do the things they need. Add these breaks to the agenda so that people know when they are coming. It is always worth asking at the start of the meeting if anyone needs to step out for any reason, and working the break around their absence.
Don’t overdo meetings: I have worked in places that will remain un-named that love nothing more than to book meeting after meeting, sometimes filling people’s entire days, when most of them were totally unnecessary. If you can resolve something by having a conversation with a couple of people, then try to do this rather than book out their time and often scarce meeting rooms. I usually work in the basis that only if it requires the input of more than three people (including me) then consider booking a meeting.
Meetings are an excellent project tool for sharing information and moving work forward, with everyone being clear about your direction. They can drive out decisions, clear roadblocks, identify resource shortfalls, quantify risk and can be used to great benefit. However, like any project tool, they need to be used properly and in the right place. I hope this post helps in some small way to support that.