August 25, 2010
People always cringe when a meeting request hits their inbox, especially web designers and project managers. To us, meetings are boring and endless, taking far too much of our time. Perhaps that’s an overstatement, but the fact remains: meetings can be tedious. But what if our meetings with clients and project stakeholders weren’t tedious? What if after every meeting you walked away knowing you accomplished something important that will push the project forward?
I’ve been running meetings with a variety of clients on a variety of subjects, and through these experiences, I’ve compiled a list of my own tactics that I employ to ensure meetings are efficient, valuable to everyone, and on point.
People hold meetings because they feel like they’re doing something, but the truth is, they’re just wasting time. Unless a project is huge, with numerous stakeholders, you often only need to meet a handful of times. Anything more is unnecessary filler. So what sort of action items and subjects merit a face-to-face interaction?
Every meeting held during a project should have a definable purpose — in fact, you should be able to define that purpose in one sentence. Like a mission statement, the purpose of the meeting should clearly outline the overall objective that needs to be accomplished. Here are some examples:
Once you’ve narrowed down the purpose of your meeting, make it a point to list out actionable goals. An actionable goal should be specific, measurable, and attainable — in other words, your goal should make sense. For example, one goal of a mid-project status update might be to collect final content updates from the client for implementation on the website prototype. That’s a pretty clear and realistic action item. Without goals, the meeting will seem vague and meaningless.
For larger projects, there are often a multitude of stakeholders involved, and meetings for these projects tend to be more complex and harder to setup. Knowing ahead of time who you need to interface with can help prevent meetings from devolving to a free-for-all of requests shouted from different participants who have different interests. Make sure only those people who you must absolutely hold a discussion with are present and communicate with them before the meeting happens.
Agendas are simple documents outlining different topics to be discussed during the meeting and the times appropriated for each topic. Despite the seemingly simplistic nature of this document, most meetings are run without agendas. I see this akin to trying to run a company without a business plan. A purpose and set of goals are a great start, but the meeting with remain directionless without an immediate plan of action to achieve them. The agenda will enable you to touch on each critical area of the project as it relates to the meeting, and it can be as simple as this:
Of course, meetings will never go as planned, so letting some air into those time blocks is not a bad thing, and minor deviations will not harm the purpose of the meeting.
While minor deviations are indeed acceptable, you can’t let meetings run wild, especially if there’s a defined agenda in place. As the facilitator of the project, it is ultimately your job to ensure meetings go smoothly — regardless of who called the meeting — and to make sure everyone stays on task. This role becomes difficult when more people are involved, so it’s often a good idea to establish your authority at the very beginning of the meeting, and by this, I mean you should let everyone know you’re going to be facilitating the meeting and that you have an outlined agenda to share. When the discussion begins to go off course, gently remind people to stay on topic and refer back to the agenda. You don’t need to be extreme in your rigidness, but it doesn’t hurt to let meeting attendees know when they’re being a nuisance (in more friendly terms, of course).
The end of a meeting is probably the most critical point and often the most neglected. Before people leave, you need to discuss specific takeaways and tasks, including what you’re going to work on and what the different attendees are responsible before. This builds in accountability and allows you to refer back to the meeting if tasks don’t get done. Meetings tend to dissolve toward the end (especially if there’s no agenda), but finishing strong will instill a sense of accomplishment in every participant.
After a meeting is complete and everyone has had time to digest the discussion, it typically makes sense to follow-up with each attendee. Send out a quick recap in an email message and ask if anyone has any further thoughts or questions. Human minds are best able to solve problems that are not in an active thought process, and giving people a day will allow them to subconsciously come up with new ideas and questions.
Meetings don’t have to be a pain. Done correctly, meetings can actually be the most valuable moments of your project and you’ll thank yourself for having held them. Always keep in mind: meetings for the sake of having a meeting is neither efficient nor constructive.
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