The Pain of Meetings
Meetings, everyone's favourite topic. Just yesterday I saw a tweet from someone I follow moaning about meetings, and they said,
"Why have a meeting when you could have just done it in an email?"
Because meetings ran poorly kill morale, team productivity can dips and engagement can be terrible. If they're done well, they are a fantastic way to collaborate, make decisions, solve problems, come up with new ideas, and they can be fun.
But running meetings remotely is much tougher than being in the office. The good thing is remote working has shined a light on how important it is to only have meetings when you need them, so hopefully, your company has started to see that as well.
In this post, I'm going to take you through tips on structuring a meeting. It's not the full end to end approach covering every type of meeting so not everything will be relevant for your project, but take the methods that could work well for you.
Running amazing meetings isn't always about having flash presentations and incredible things you haven't seen before. Often it's just about doing them really well. So focusing on being brilliant on the basics to have great collaboration in the meeting.
Like keeping on time, being really clear on what you're trying to achieve, closing down the meeting in a clear and focused way. If you do the basics well and not many people do, you'll soon see collaboration going up and your team getting real value from your meetings.
Before you Book Do This
Before you book a meeting, ask yourself these following questions;
Do I need this meeting or can this topic be solved in any other way? Email, Slack, a 121 call, or can you cover what's needed in another meeting that's already booked?
What is the outcome for this meeting? I'm going to talk about outcomes a lot in this post. You must understand what you need to achieve in your meeting. So not just what you need to accomplish by the end of it, but then what those meeting decisions made or problems solved are going to achieve after that.
Who do you need to attend? So don't default to the usual attendees. Before you send the invite think about who will contribute to the meeting and how are they going to add value? If you don't think they'll do either of these, don't invite them as you're wasting their time and yours.
Next, what is the shortest time you can do it in? Don't default to the normal time. If the default is an hour for most of your meetings, could you do in 45 minutes? Could you do it in 30 minutes?
I'm not saying you should rush the meeting, but also don't want to prolong it either.
By planning a shorter meeting, your attendees are more likely to stay focused and be more productive.
Know The Meeting You’re Preparing For
Next is know the meeting you're preparing for.
Is it team building, so does it need to be fun, collaborative and engaging?
Or is it an ideation session, free-flowing and inspiring?
Is it a status update where you need a clear agenda and action-focused?
Or a decision is needed where you need clear objectives that you must meet to be able to make that decision.
Or do you need to solve a problem? So can you clearly articulate the problem so that everyone understands it with a clear outcome for that meeting?
The reason why I've highlighted these five and these examples, are often when you book meetings you take the same approach for every single one.
If you know the type of meeting you're preparing for, it can help you shape it in a way that you're going to get improved collaboration, you’re more likely to reach that outcome that you need to achieve, and have greater engagement from the attendees as well.
Always plan to have a few minutes at the start of a meeting for context-setting or just for hello's and introductions.
It varies from project to project or meeting to meeting, but you rarely start a meeting straight away, there is always some informal chat before you begin so plan for it.
Plan to stop 10 minutes for the end and review the actions and timings. What you don't want to do is go right up to the wire and then suddenly you're trying to play catch up to get those actions understood, and you might run out of time. This can create a frustrating end to the meeting as the attendees as well as yourself can feel you haven’t achieved what you set out to do.
Next is time box each section or agenda item. Whether you time-box them beforehand when planning the meeting, or you agree in the meeting how long you’ll take, always discuss and agree on timings to maintain control.
To support the timings, have a visible timer or let the attendees know you’ve started a timer and listen out for the bell. By saying to the attendees
“We’re now going to ideate for 10 minutes, and I’m starting the timer” can make facilitation so much easier.
Always plan to end five minutes before the scheduled meeting end time. Working remotely and having back to back meetings is tough as you don't have that F2F opportunity to say, “I'm just nipping to the kitchen to grab a drink before we start.” or “I need to go to the gents before we begin”
Give your attendees this short break and time back and they’ll really appreciate it. They're also much more likely to come out of your meeting saying that was a great meeting!
Preparation is so crucial with meetings whether that's for a big client workshop or a team ideation session. If you don't do the right preparation, then the meeting is just not going to go as planned. Or you're not giving yourself the best opportunity to deliver a great meeting.
The first tip is to be an expert on the tool that you're using. This is really important with remote working. If you have any problems with the tool you're using in a virtual meeting, and you're the facilitator, and you don't know how to fix it, then it's not going to look good for you.
So make sure you understand the tool you're using so you can fix any issues or questions from your attendees fast.
Next is to know your outcome. If it's your meeting, you must understand the outcome you're looking to achieve from it. If you don't, then it's likely the attendees don't either, and you won't achieve everything you need.
Provide some pre-reading for your attendees which could be as simple as the status report for a weekly team meeting. Even if that status report has some bad news in it, don't be afraid to share it beforehand as you'll have a more productive meeting if everyone has prepared better. Plus if there is bad news in there, you're going to have to announce it in the meeting anyway!
But don't always assume that your attendees have read the pre-reading provided. It’s best if you assume one or two attendees haven't and be ready to do a high-level overview, so plan for it.
Next is organise a co-facilitator. This is really important when running remote meetings as what happens if your internet cuts out? The whole meeting grinds to a halt and all your attendees are just left sat there and they may just drop off.
Have a co-facilitator who can be your back up. If you go offline, they just continue with minimal interruption. When you're back online, you can simply take over again.
The last tip in this section is to distribute the agenda throughout the team. You do this as it improves engagement. If the attendees in your meeting have a role and responsibility, rather than just sitting back and not being fully engaged, they know they can't switch off and become observers and are far more likely to be better contributors.
Start the meeting with a structured and focused opening. So videos on. I know this is self-explanatory, but it makes such a big difference when you can see your attendees faces.
I encourage the attendees to put their videos on whenever possible and then do introductions.
Get the attendees to introduce themselves. If it's a project team you're working with all the time, then there is no need, but when you have new faces, a client or team then do this before you start as it creates real engagement from the start, rather than sitting back and just listening.
Next is to ask everyone to be present. So there are a few ways you can do this, but one approach I like to take is to ask if everyone go can even go full screen as we have a lot of slides to present, so we need everyone’s to focus on the detail.
This is a subtle way of saying stay off email and WhatsApp during this meeting!
Now you can have a check-in round. A check-in round is a few minutes where you ask one question to the whole group, and it could be something like;
"What are you most looking forward to when the lockdown is over?"
Everyone pops their answers on the digital whiteboard or whatever tool you're using.
It's a bit of fun, get the attendees talking and works great as an ice breaker with new clients or if the team are really busy and a bit stressed out. They can take a few minutes to sit back and do something else before you get stuck into the agenda.
I've covered this already, but explain the meeting outcome for everyone before you get stuck into the detail. This is so everyone is aligned on where you're trying to achieve by having this meeting.
Finally, explain the meeting approach because if your attendees don't fully understand how you're going to run the meeting, then they're not going to be able to contribute as much as you want them too.
Running the Meeting
Now we need to think about how you run the meeting. The main objective here is to make sure you're maximising the time you have and utilising the capabilities of the attendees you've invited to achieve the planned outcome.
First one is merely checking in on progress, so now and again just say;
"Everyone okay with the progress so far?"
"Anything we need to cover, we haven't yet".
The reason for this is meetings can quickly run away with too much talking and not enough actions.
This is a great way to halt the conversation, as in some cases other attendees are confident enough to tell someone to move on!
Then you need to be aware of everyone’s engagement. This is harder to monitor when doing a meeting virtually as it’s tough to read the room, especially if videos aren’t on for all attendees.
So be aware of who isn’t engaging and get them involved. You ask them for their feedback on the topic being discussed, or give them something to do. You have to keep the energy up in the virtual room, which is especially important with remote working.
If someone is leaning back in their chair, they’re less likely to present and focused on the discussion.
So be aware of engagement throughout and always be looking to turn observers into contributors.
Create a parking lot. So you might have heard of this approach before as it works great to help facilitate the conversation in any meeting.
When the conversation starts to go off-topic, you can call parking lot and move a virtual ticket onto the parking lot.
The way we do this in the office was with a post-it note. This still works remotely as you can use a tool like Mural to add virtual post it's to a digital whiteboard.
Whatever the tool you're using, encourage the whole team to call people out when they are taking the conversation off-topic. So anyone can call parking lot, and it's a great way to keep control of the meeting.
Next is be brave with timings as the team will thank you for it. Don't sit back and just let the meeting roll on as just because there is a lot of conversation, doesn't mean you'll achieve what you set out to do.
Give the team reminders, 30 minutes left, 20 minutes left etc. Even if the conversation continues, the team know they may need to start moving to a decision or move on. It's also a great way to interject when the conversation is going on for too long, as no one can complain about being told how long you have left.
Knowing how to interject is a tricky skill to master as the team might be in full flow, or a very senior attendee is talking, but you have to remember what you're looking to achieve in the meeting and you're not helping anyone by losing control of it.
You may be aware of how TV interviewers do it in 121 interviews. What they do is wait for the interviewees last couple of words of the sentence and then jump in. That's enough to cut them off.
If you wait until the end of the sentence, by the time you start talking, they've already moved onto the next one, and you've lost the opportunity.
The last one is about empowering the team.
If you've got someone in the meeting who isn't contributing and they've become an observer, the reason might be that they don't have anything to add. This is different from my point earlier about making sure no one is an observer and giving them tasks to do to make them into contributors.
Sometimes you'll make a mistake with who you invite to a meeting, and they simply shouldn't be there. If this happens, don't keep them there, let them drop off and do some work that is valuable to them and the project. Either you tell them this or they should be empowered to speak up to say they're dropping for these reasons.
Closing The Meeting
When closing the meeting, make sure you stick to the timings you agreed on upfront. This basic rule can make a real difference in how your attendees feel when they leave your meeting. By using timing reminders, you can move the conversation into a closing state and then ideally finish 5-minutes before the end.
Revisit and review the planned outcome or objectives with the attendees. Did you achieve what you intended? The more you hit your goals, the more satisfied everyone will be
Ask the attendees to confirm their actions. It’s hard to expect the Project Manager to catch everything that’s an action during the meeting, but by asking the attendees to verify their actions, it makes them think about what’s vital for them and the project.
Remind them at the start to take down their actions as well. This approach helps reduce the risk of missing any, plus makes your life as a Project Manager so much easier.
Remind everyone the meeting has finished 5-minutes early and allow for this mini celebration. It may be a small thing, but it will be appreciated by the team when they get that time back.
Before you finish, clearly articulate not only the actions but the owners for the next steps post-meeting. Like the actions, ask the owners to confirm the next steps for them as well as timings for when they'll complete them.
Don't promise you'll have a full type up of the notes and actions of the meetings by the end of the day if this isn't realistic. The same rule applies for other owners of next steps, make sure they don't over commit.