Developed by Alice Allouche
Meetings are one of the most important driving forces of projects. On average, 11 million meetings take place each day in the United States. These meetings are used for example to share information on a specific subject, make decisions, provide updates, or brainstorm; activities that are inherent to project management too. However, 33% of meeting time is considered unproductive by the participants, and their average salary cost is $338 . Money and time are the two biggest constraints in a project: it is thus a necessity to keep meetings efficient and effective.
Throughout the lifecycle of a project, different types of meetings can take place. The project manager, with the possible help of a facilitator, must understand the difference between them: they serve separate goals and must be managed accordingly. For a meeting to be effective, the roles of each participant have to be clearly defined. It must be run through three stages: before, during, and after the meeting; each step necessitating appropriate preparation.
The digitalisation of the workplace is another challenge for meetings management. More and more, project teams are working in different places and time-zones. Companies, trying to reduce costs linked to travelling, are trying to use digital tools to implement meetings where participants do not meet in person. This requires additional planning for meeting managers, and changes of practices by project teams.
Why Is Meetings Management Important?
Meetings are a part of the daily life of millions of workers. They are indispensable for a lot of projects, and ideally help people be more efficient in their work. A study (Hall et. al) found that 97% of US workers from all levels of employment needed conditions that encourage collaboration to do their best work. However, studies have shown that meetings are often unproductive. First of all, they last longer than they should: 40% of meetings last more than 2 hours. Executives spend 40 to 50% of their time in meetings, 34% of which is judged to be unproductive: it equals 2 months per year wasted, and losses of $37 billion in the US. This is due to a lack of organization (63% of the time, no agenda has been distributed before the meeting), and to the way the meetings are managed: 75% of people have received no formal meeting on how to conduct a meeting. The results are that 25% of meetings are spent discussing irrelevant issues, and 73% of employees do other work in meetings. But more than that, the participants do not feel at ease during meetings: a 2004 survey commissioned by Interactive Meeting Solutions LLC found that 55% of meetings are dominated by one or two people, 32% of people feel they could get fired for speaking the truth in a meeting, and 80% of the discussion is about things people already agree on.
This is why these last few years, companies are investing in training for their employees on meetings management. Teams and managers can enrol the help of a facilitator. Their role is to provide necessary structure in meetings, thanks to their knowledge in group processes. They help plan the agenda and stir the discussions towards decision-making, but do not provide any content to the discussions themselves, and do not make decisions. While facilitators are traditionally outsiders in a team, their role can be played by a team member or leader.
Project managers can find some guidance from the project management standards, even though they do not provide enough information on their own: the British Axelos Standards provide little to no information on meetings, and the PMI Standards provide general guidance on meetings management, but no precise advice. However, PMI provides in its library precise guidelines and techniques for meetings management.
The Different Types of Meetings
Meetings can be divided in a lot of categories. Here is a proposed division:
Status Update Meetings
They are a very frequent type of meeting in projects: the goal is to align the team via updates on progress, challenges, and the next steps to be taken. They involve contributions from every participant that lead to group discussions. These meetings are effective when every member participates and contributes, so the facilitator must pay close attention to the repartition of speech. The frequency of these meetings is important: too few could mean the information is not properly shared; too many is a waste of time and money.
Information Sharing Meetings
Information sharing meetings are presentations made by a person or a group in front of an audience, typically regarding upcoming changes, product presentations, or knowledge about a specific subject. Regarding projects, these types of meetings would occur when presenting a project to the management team or the stakeholders, whether it is the concept, its progress or the final overview. Here, the presenter(s) and the audience are not equal: the audience is spectator, but can also participate through questions and possibly live feedback (with apps for example), and sometimes have decisional power over the content of the presentation.
Decision Making Meetings
The goal of these meetings is making important decisions. The main idea is reaching those decisions through consensus, by hearing from every perspective and making choices accordingly. Making decisions is always the hardest part of meetings and even projects: the discussions can easily become off-topic and time consuming. Therefore these types of meetings must be efficient and based on precise decision-making processes. For this purpose, the ground rules set at the beginning must be respected, and the note-taker must be as impartial as possible in their recordings of the process. It is during these meetings that the strictest discipline is needed by the participants.
Problem Solving Meetings
These meetings aim to find the optimal solution or reach the best compromise that can resolve an issue that the group faces. Crises and problems almost always occur in a project, and solving them efficiently implies knowing how to deal with problem solving meetings. Because of the difficulty to identify the root problem, tensions among people being exacerbated by the potential crisis, and the time pressure to find a solution. During problem solving meetings, the first action to take would be identifying the precise issue, and explaining it to all the participants. Then a brainstorming for solutions should take place, which should be evaluated according to the conditions and restraints of the project. A solution must always arise of the meeting. The role of facilitator and coordinator is extremely important in these meetings, to make the meeting run as smoothly as possible.
Innovation meetings are meant to create a product or solution. They most often use brainstorming techniques, which stem from the belief that the collective intelligence of the participants is greater than their individual one. These meetings are less formal than those presented above: they are made to explore everyone’s ideas, regardless of the hierarchy of the participants. Accordingly, there is less need of a meeting leader or facilitator to manage the proceedings: the participants must feel free to create in a productive atmosphere. However, these meetings must be structured and regulated. The leader and participants must not forget that a decision must come out of the meeting. Thus, the recorder must keep track of all the ideas proposed in the first part of the meeting, where the ideas are created. The second part of innovation meetings is more challenging: the solutions must be reviewed, classified, and evaluated, until one (or several) are finally selected. Keeping track of time is also very important in these meetings, to ensure that a decision is taken in the end.
Team Building Meetings
Project teams often work together for prolonged periods of time. Ensuring cohesion in the team also helps the members understand each other and work more productively (including in work meetings), as well as reducing conflicts. Having team building meetings helps aligning the team towards the same goal. They consist in combining work and fun, allowing the team members to get to know each other and participate in a productive activity in a cheerful environment. In these meetings, there must be one or several activity leaders. It is better if this leader is not directly from the team. It is preferred to start these activities at the beginning of the project, to prevent work conflicts before they happen. They are a different type of meetings, which do not require the same planning and organizing as the types presented before.
Which type of meeting for which stage of the project?
Projects can be made of one of several phases, which are divided into 4 stages, described in the PMI Project Management Standards: the initiating, the planning, the executing (where the work gets done), and the closing. At the end of a phase, one or several deliverables are to be handed in. During these stages, meetings will take place. Although any type of meeting can be arranged at any moment, it can be useful to know globally where each type of meeting belongs within the phases of the project:
- Status update meetings will typically happen frequently during the execution phase, when the work is actually done and has to be followed. Those meetings can happen within a project team, or between project leaders and program or portfolio managers, for example.
- Information sharing meetings will be used to present a project and its advancement to a group, whether it be managers, clients, or stakeholders. These happen during every stage, but most likely at the beginning and end of a project phase.
- Decision-making meetings happen when important decisions must be made. It could be during the Initiating, Planning, or Executing stages of the phase.
- Problem solving meetings are more likely to happen while work is being done, that is to say during the planning or executing stages.
- Innovation meetings could happen during the first 3 stages of the process. However, they frequently happen during the initiating or planning phases.
- Team building meetings should happen regularly during the lifespan of a project, but they are often more efficient at the beginning of one, to create cohesion among a team.
Facilitator: Their role is to help define the meeting purpose and desired objectives for a meeting. They help create the agenda, guide the discussions and keep the meeting participants on track by asking key questions and reminding groups of their stated goals. They possess no necessary knowledge about the content of the meeting, and do not partake in the decisions. The higher the stakes or the number of participants, the better it is to use a professional or completely neutral facilitator.
Meeting leader: They are the one who decides to call up a meeting and gives it a purpose and objectives. They are content experts on the subjects and themes of the meeting.
Meeting planner: They are charged with the logistics of the meeting: finding a room, organizing the space, providing the supplies. This role is very important in meetings with a lot of participants.
For meetings with few participants or within a project team, the roles of facilitator, meeting leader and meeting planner are often taken by the same person.
Recorder: Their role is to write down the processes, deliberations, decisions, actions taken and outcomes of a meeting, along with their responsible and the deadline assigned to each action.
Participants: They provide input, discussion, and feedback on the topics provided on the agenda. Participants can also provide feedback on the meeting design after the meeting has concluded.
The 3 Stages of Meetings
Before the meeting
The meeting leader or facilitator have different tasks to take care of before the meeting:
- Define the meeting purpose and objectives. The type of meeting will result in different management strategies. The objectives must be specific and measurable (tangible product or measurable increase in knowledge or understanding, for example). It is important to make sure the meeting is really necessary, that is to say that collaboration is needed to solve the issue.
- Create the participants list. It must contain the right people: all of those concerned in the decisions, and not more. Meetings are more efficient when there are few participants.
- Create the agenda. It contains the subjects that will be mentioned in the meeting in a logical order, and includes the meeting title, location, beginning and end times, objectives, discussion topics, leader for agenda items, and presentations. It can be useful to add the goal of each discussion next to the items: “for information”, “for decision”, or “for discussion”. Unless the meeting requires a lot of preparation, the agenda should not be sent more than 3 days in advance, otherwise it will be forgotten by the participants.
- Plan the meeting. The meeting leader or facilitator should know the order of the items and their objectives, the process techniques used for each discussion, the supplies needed for those, and the estimated duration of each discussion. It is however important to keep the agenda flexible and adapt it to the participants’ expectations too.
- Inform the participants. The leader must make sure to send all the relevant information and background material to the participants in advance (agenda, list of participants, and anything else that could be relevant). All of these must be studied by everyone before the meeting.
- Plan the meeting space. The meeting planner must organize the furniture in the best way according to the type of meeting that is taking place: everyone around a table, facing the front of the room...
During the meeting
- The participants have to know the scope, goal of the meeting: what will be discussed and what won’t; what is expected of them and what information they will have to supply.
- The facilitator must manage time: it is important to make meetings start and end on time, and that there be no delays. A participant can be charged with keeping time and letting everyone know how much time they have left. However, flexibility in the time allotted to each discussion is important too.
- Ground rules must be set at the beginning of a meeting or collaboration process. They can include time constraints, phones or computers use limitations, requests for equal participation, interdiction of interruptions, speech distribution rules, and the chosen decision-making process.
- The meeting leader and facilitator should be aware of how discussions work: they start with an opening, where ideas diverge with multiple points of views; then there must be a narrowing, where information is filtered and analysed and classified, and then the closing stage, where the decisions are made.
- The recorder should write all the information (decisions and tasks) that take place during the meeting, following the structure of the agenda. A template can be provided by the facilitator.
- It can be a good idea to start with some icebreaking activity, and then review the objectives, agenda, and ground rules of the meeting before starting the discussions.
- The meeting leader must be aware that some points unite, some are more controversial, and decide their place in the meeting knowingly. It can be a good idea to end meetings with a unifying item.
- The meetings should not last too long: almost nothing productive is achieved after 2 hours. Often, 1.5 hours is enough.
- The facilitator can use the Parking Lot device during meetings. It is a temporary storage place for ideas, concepts, desires, and thoughts that are not directly included in the meeting discussions. When they come up, these ideas can be written down separately by the facilitator to show they have been taken into account, and to prevent them from rising up again. They can be added as an appendix to the meeting report.
- Several techniques for decision-making exist. Here are some of them:
- Consensus Decision-making: the goal is to reach an agreement that satisfies everyone, or that everyone can live with. It can happen through majority vote.
- Consultation: the goal is not to make everyone agree, but to give a series of recommendations that help understanding each other’s points of view, potentially delaying decision-making to reach consensus further on.
- Prioritization: participants classify components in their preferred order, according to some pre-defined criteria. The overall priorities are determined by adding up those of all participants. One technique used is sticky-dot voting.
- Deciding between alternatives, with the use of a pros and cons list, nine-block diagram, or impact matrix.
After the meeting
- The person in charge of taking notes must organize them and send them quickly, preferably within 48 hours. They must include the decisions, actions, deadlines and who is in charge of them; as well as the location, date and time, and participants of the meeting. Any additional documentation must be added too.
- The facilitator can ask for feedback on the meeting, to find some improvement possibilities.
With globalisation, there are more and more international project teams that do not work in the same place, country, or even time zone. To make these teams work, and to save money on travelling, more and more meetings are held virtually. But teams separated by distance can find it harder to work together, and the members never really have the opportunity to get to know one another. It can lead to misunderstandings, feelings of isolation, in addition to potential cultural differences. This is why managing virtual meetings is a challenging and extremely important task, if the project is to work out. However, there are some methods that can be taken to ensure that these meetings are effective:
- Using video and not just audio transmissions: putting a face on a voice helps integrate the team, and prevents people from getting distracted.
- Keeping meetings for important information-sharing and decision-making: all other information can be sent out in advance to be studied by the meeting participants, and mentioned in meetings only if participants need clarifications.
- Sending out a very detailed agenda allows everyone to get prepared ahead of the meeting, and clarifying their own opinions on the subjects.
- The meeting leader or facilitator should try to make the team feel connected, for example by starting the meeting with a round up of the participants’ feelings and state of mind, personal or professional.
- Every participant has to be focused on the meeting, and going “mute” or doing several things at the same time is not advised. To do this, the meeting leader can randomly ask participants for some insight on a subject, or stop regularly and ask if everyone is following.
- Get immediate feedback from the participants, to improve future meetings.
These actions are a basis for implementing virtual meetings, but they are still quite a new concept that often proves difficult to deal with for teams.
Moreover, even though theoretically it looks simple to run an efficient meeting, some organizational challenges can arise.
- First of all, although one of the staples of meetings is free communication and equality, it is in practice very difficult for people to completely forget their status inside a group: meeting leaders must find ways to work around that, and to really facilitate speech.
- Companies often face from their employees some aversion to change: it can take really long time to change the work processes and people’s habits and it is the same with new rules about meetings. Moreover, theory is not enough to solve this problem, implementation Is the key factor, and it is often hindered by unwillingness to cooperate, or forgetfulness by some people.
- As mentioned previously, a majority of employees are not formed to meetings management: doing so will take time and cost a lot of money to organizations.
NOAA Coastal Services Center (2010). "Introduction to Planning and Facilitating Effective Meetings", http://www.reefresilience.org/pdf/Facilitation_Effective_Meetings.pdf
This document is a precise handbook for meeting managers and facilitators. It provides precise and concrete techniques and methods on how to manage meetings, the particular points to focus on, and the best strategies in different kind of situations. It does not provide an in-depth analysis of meetings and their challenges, but gives an interesting set of rules and advice that planners and facilitators can try to put into practice.
Means, J., Adams, T., & Spivey, M. (2007). “Facilitating effective project meetings. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2007—North America, Atlanta, GA”. Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute., https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/four-techniques-facilitate-project-meetings-7249
This article is issued by PMI and provides a complete guide with helpful figures that help understand the facilitation process. It gives a good overview of the task a facilitator or meeting leader must complete in relation with Project Management.
Tomano, Nunamaker (2001). “Meeting Analysis: Findings from Research and Practice”, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.570.6650&rep=rep1&type=pdf
This paper collects the results of several studies about meetings realized from the 70s up to the beginning of the 20th century. It contains a lot of information about the level of productivity of meetings and the impressions of American workers. However, the data has to be used carefully, some of it being quite old now, and some studies having been realized on quite a small scale.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 [http://attentiv.com/america-meets-a-lot] Daniel Russell "America Meets a Lot. An Analysis of Meeting Length, Frequency and Cost", (2015).
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 [ http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.570.6650&rep=rep1&type=pdf] Romano, Nunameker, “Meeting Analysis: Findings from Research and Practice ”, (2001).
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 [ https://ideas.ted.com/the-economic-impact-of-bad-meetings] Emily Pidgeon, “The Economic Impact of Bad Meetings”, (2014).
- ↑ 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 [ https://www.pmi.org/learning/library/four-techniques-facilitate-project-meetings-7249] Means, J.Adams, T., & Spivey, M., “Facilitating effective project meetings. Paper presented at PMI® Global Congress 2007—North America, Atlanta, GA. Newtown Square”, PA: Project Management Institute, (2007).
- ↑ 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 5.15 5.16 5.17 5.18 [ http://www.reefresilience.org/pdf/Facilitation_Effective_Meetings.pdf] NOAA Coastal Services Center, “Introduction to Planning and Facilitating Effective Meetings ”, (2010).
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 [ http://meetingsift.com/the-six-types-of-meetings/] MeetingSift, “The 6 Most Common Types of Meetings”
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 7.2 Duncan W. R., “A Guide to Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK)”, PMI Standards Committee, (2013).
- ↑ 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 [ http://meetingsift.com/how-to-run-successful-meetings/] MeetingSift, “How to Run Effective Meetings”
- ↑ 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 [https://hbr.org/1976/03/how-to-run-a-meeting] Antony Jay, “How to Run a Meeting”, Harvard Business Review, (March 1976 Issue).
- ↑ [https://hbr.org/2015/03/how-to-run-a-great-virtual-meeting Keith Ferrazzi], “How to Run a Great Virtual Meeting”, Harvard Business Review, (2015).