August 10, 2009

Project Productivity Killers: Why Most Meetings Suck

It happens all too often. It starts out with a meeting invitation that contains nothing more than a meeting title and maybe an attached document. The invite list looks long enough and diverse enough to be the roll call at the United Nations. As the meeting begins, everyone sits there looking at each other before the meeting organizer begins a discussion. People continue to trickle into the room, and each time they do, the meeting organizer recaps the discussion that has taken place thus far. A few minutes into the discussion it becomes apparent that very few participants had reviewed the document attached to the invite prior to the meeting. The discussion continues for a few more minutes before it diverts to a related, but completely different topic. That topic is discussed for the remainder of the meeting. The conversation is dominated by two or three people, while the rest of the crowd focus on their blackberries. As the meeting ends, everyone gets up and moves on, not exactly sure what the final resolution was, or who needs to do what. This repeats itself over and over from one meeting to another. Sound familiar?

This is a meeting that sucks. It’s a project productivity killer, and I believe there are four reasons why poorly executed meetings occur: a failure to define meeting objectives; a failure to define a meeting agenda; poor meeting facilitation; failing to invite the appropriate participants. Let’s examine each of these a little further.

Failure to define meeting objectives
A meeting without objectives is a project without scope or requirements. It is destined to fail. Without clearly defined objectives the meeting participants are unable to prepare. A meeting without objectives is difficult to facilitate, as it is hard to determine if the discussion is appropriate to achieving the goal of the meeting. Finally, without an objective, at the end of the scheduled meeting time, it is hard to determine whether anything was accomplished and whether any additional action items are needed. The objective of the meeting should always clearly be defined when the meeting invitation is sent to meeting participants. Further, to allow all participants adequate time to prepare, meeting invitations should be sent at least 24 hours prior to the meeting.

Failure to define a meeting agenda
A meeting without an agenda is like a project without a plan. It is nearly impossible to achieve the objective of a meeting without an agenda. An agenda sets the guidelines for the meeting, level setting all participants on the plan for achieving the objective, and also allows for time-boxing the various topics. With an agenda, tangential discussions can easily be spotted and put aside in a “parking lot” for later discussion. With an agenda, meeting participants are likely to agree that a discussion should be halted if it deviates from the agenda. Time-boxing agenda items ensures that no item dominates the meeting discussion, ultimately ensuring that each agenda item receives appropriate time and increasing the likelihood that the meeting objective will be accomplished.

Poor meeting facilitation
A meeting without proper meeting facilitation is like a poorly managed project. The meeting facilitator is responsible for executing the meeting agenda in order to achieve the meeting objective. If there was any preparation required prior to the meeting and this was not completed, the meeting facilitator should cancel the meeting and reschedule it for a later date rather than waste everyone’s time. The meeting facilitator is responsible for delegating any other duties necessary to conduct the meeting. This may include someone to take minutes, a timekeeper, and someone to take notes on the whiteboard. Should attendees come in late, the meeting facilitator should keep the discussion moving forward. Recapping the discussion for late arrivals only interrupts the discussion and validates and encourages repeat offenders. The meeting facilitator is responsible for keeping the meeting on schedule. If any topic exceeds the allotted time, unless there is some dependency on subsequent topics, the meeting facilitator should end the conversation and move onto the next topic. An action item will be assigned to schedule a meeting to complete the discussion of the first topic. If at any time the conversation moves off topic, the meeting facilitator should step-in and move the topic to the “parking lot”. Should time allow at the end of the meeting, parking lot items can be discussed. Otherwise, an action item should be assigned to schedule time to discuss parking lot items. As the meeting wraps up, the meeting facilitator should confirm all action items and assignments that came out of the meeting so that everyone is clear on next steps. Shortly after the meeting, meeting minutes should be sent out to all participants along with other interested parties in order to confirm the discussion that took place and so that decisions made in the meeting can be referenced in the future. Above all, it must be recognized that meeting facilitation is a skill. Expecting that anyone can facilitate a meeting is like expecting that anyone can design a normalized database.

Failing to invite the appropriate participants
All too often, meetings do not include the appropriate participants. This has several flavors. Sometimes, the appropriate subject matter experts or decision makers are not invited to the meeting and as a result, the objective of the meeting cannot be accomplished. However, it seems more common that too many people are invited to meetings. This results in wasted resource time. Often, too many people are invited to meetings because project members feel that they must attend all these meetings in order to understand the direction of the project. In other cases, the meeting organizer will invite more participants than necessary in order to ensure that the right parties are present (error on the side of caution). However, since minutes should be taken with each meeting, anyone who does not attend the meeting should have insight into the events and decisions that were made in the meeting. Again, the key is ensuring that subject matter experts and decision makers are present.

In more quantitative terms, think about what a meeting costs the project in the case where too many people are invited. Assuming a blended cost rate of $80/hr, 10 meeting participants for 90 minutes, that is a quick $1200 spent which potentially achieved very little. That figure doesn’t even include the potential opportunity cost associated with the individuals that did not need to be present in that meeting. These are the meetings I have come to loathe. These are the meetings I no longer tolerate. These are the meetings that I have placed in the cross hairs. No longer will I allow these meetings to suck the life, money, and productivity out of a project in which I am involved. Remember: invite the appropriate participants based on the objective, and only the appropriate participants.

A meeting should be treated similarly to a project. A meeting should have an objective. A meeting should have smaller tasks to achieve the objective (the agenda). Those tasks should have a planned beginning and end (schedule/time-box). Each of the tasks will require specific resources to complete (meeting participants). No different than a project, the failure to properly plan or execute will likely result in failing to meet the objective. Most often this occurs when no objective is set (why are we meeting), when no agenda is defined (what is the plan), when agenda items are not time-boxed (when should we move on to the next topic), and when too many, too few, or the wrong resources are invited to meetings. At a deeper level, poor meeting execution is typically a symptom of a larger issue elsewhere in the project. If this is repetitive occurrence, somehow you need to hone in on the root cause.


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