Tech Manager—The Haves and Have Nots of Meetings
You need to have meetings – but you need to have good ones. I have read a lot about having effective meetings. Efficient meetings that happen like clockwork. Meetings that stay on track and get things done. Meetings that move the project along. I have attended many and held many that I thought were well run and got the job done. I have also been part of some that seemed to go nowhere and get nothing accomplished. I have even held a few that seemed to get derailed and fail to make progress. They can be torture or treasure… depending on the interactions and outcomes.
Here are some ideas related to meetings. Many you may have heard before. Some you may be doing. And some that you may need to be reminded to do again.
Have a Reasons for the Meeting
No one likes meetings with no purpose. There are so many other things to get done, and those things do not happen in a meeting. But meetings are needed. They establishing a cadence of accountability which is done via regular meetings. These happen on a cycle at intervals like weekly, bi-weekly, monthly and even quarterly. Depending on the need of the project they establish an unwritten deadline. As the meeting approaches, those who are attending feel the need to get something done in case they have to update others on their progress. If there is no reason to meet – then do not meet. If there is a reason – state it in the invite.
Have an Agenda
A meeting without an agenda is not a meeting… I have heard that before, have you? What should the agenda look like? It can take on many forms. It can be informal and just a list of topics that need to be covered. It should at least be sorted by order of importance. Get the most important items at the top of the agenda. And send the agenda out to everyone before the meeting starts.
A more formal agenda has agenda items with start times or duration times associated with each topic. This helps keep things on time. Think through the timeline and duration of each topic and keep it real. If you know that 30 minutes will be needed on a topic so that everything gets discussed, don’t set the duration as 15 minutes. If you finish a topic quickly, move on. Don’t just keep talking because the agenda has more time. Get done early – everyone will love that.
Flag agenda items as Introduction, Discussion, Decision, Update or whatever, so that people know what is expected. Introducing new items does not call for exhaustive discussion. If you do not have all the players or facts yet, just bring up the topic and define the next steps. Then move on. If you have a decision to make, don’t leave the topic until you decide, or have a defined next step toward the decision point.
Before you move from one agenda item to the next, summarize what happened. Restate the next steps. Restate the decision. Get decisions down on paper. Get agreement, verbally or just a nod. Make sure that everyone knows what is next or what was decided.
Have a Time Keeper
If you have a timeline on your agenda (or even if you don’t) have someone designated as the time keeper. Their job is to remind the meeting leader that the time is dragging on. They should encourage the leader to move on. They should remind everyone that time is valuable and there is more on the agenda to discuss. This person should be forceful enough to get action, but not demand it. The meeting leader is in charge, not the time keeper. Don’t let the time keeper shut down a conversation that might lead to a decision quickly. The leader defines when to cut off discussion.
Have Action Items
Record who is going to do what. Every meeting has some action items that need to be completed next. Write them down as they are defined. They include making phone calls, sending emails, setting appointments contacting vendors, writing documentation, etc. The lists are endless. Each action item should have a person responsible, what they will do and when it should be done. This might be the most important product of the meeting. Don’t leave until you have it.
One of the last things you do is review it together, in the meeting and get it recorded correctly. Don’t put it off. You could start every meeting with an update on the last meetings action items. If you put the update of prior items at the end of the meeting, do it prior to reviewing new action items and carry over anything that is not done.
A few days before the next meeting, send out a reminder email with the Action Items list.
Have a Time Set for the Next Meeting
Speaking of next meetings, set the time for the next one (or remind everyone when it is coming). If the time is not set, have everyone check their calendars and make sure they can attend. If someone cannot attend, they should speak up. Then the group can define another date or decide to carry on without that person.
The Have Nots
Do not have conversations that drift away - Like a dandelion in the wind, we can so easily drift away… Conversations need to stay focused and they seem to get derailed by a puff of wind. As conversations extend, they tend to not come to conclusions. If you see that happening, stop and recap what has been said and seek to narrow the discussion again. “Here is what I think I am hearing…” works well to get back on track and summarize the many points that might have come up, seek to unify the discussion and drive toward decision. The leader may need to offer a solution and seek agreement. “How about this…” can precede a summation and proposal.
Do not have pointless discussion/decision – meetings generate a lot of talk with few bottom line decisions. If that is happening, then the meeting or the conversation does not need to continue.
Cut off topics or entire meetings if…
- more facts are needed before a decision can be made
- discussion needs input from people that are not present
- leadership needs more time to think about the subject or discuss it with their team
- there is not going to be enough time to fully vet the topic (as happens with late agenda items)
Do not let people skip key meetings – not having the right people in the room just delays the decision-making process. If key people can’t come, postpone the meeting. If key people don’t show up, move their agenda item to the next meeting and move on.
Do not have meetings go on forever – if you say a meeting will last one hour, keep it to one hour. Staying within your time frame encourages people to continue coming. If you have to go longer, ask people if they agree to stay another 10 minutes since you are getting close to a decision point. If items do not get discussed because others took too long, then move them to the next meeting and rethink your time estimates for topics.
Do not have procrastination - difficult discussions or decisions are not a reason for avoid a topic or a meeting. If you are called on to discuss and decide, then you need to do just that. You just need to get the team to stay focused, do the homework and decide.
Meetings are Good, when you make them good
Meetings that are good are needed, but they can easily wander away from the topic and be unproductive. If you are the leader of the meeting, keep them on track. If you are a participant, help the leader bring out the best in the team. Have everyone contribute to a productive meeting and they will all reap the benefits, as well as your projects.