DISCUSS PROJECT

How to Run Meetings that Don't Suck

project management May 25, 2022

Written by Eric Sugalski

Meetings. When you hear the word, what comes to mind?

You're probably imagining a large assembly of colleagues listening to a self-promotor monologue on some irrelevant topic. It's long and tedious. Everyone, except for the monologer, is resentful for the pointless hour that has been drained from their life. The team is no further along at the end of the meeting than they were at the start. In fact, another meandering meeting now needs to be scheduled to cover the same topic that was intended to be addressed during this one. On and on it goes.. 

Meetings don't have to suck.

When run effectively, meetings have the opportunity to propel projects and initiatives forward. They can and should be a leader's most effective tool to drive progress, maintain accountability, and gain team alignment. But, it's easier said than done...

Want to improve your meetings? Try the following 5 tips: 

1. Nominate a Tangent Czar

When you add up the hourly rates for each individual in a meeting, it turns out to be one of the most expensive activities a company can undertake. As the babbling colleague turns a 10-second point into a 10-minute sermon, that costs the company money -- often significant amounts when you string these tangents together. Someone needs to put an end to it, and quickly.

Enter the Tangent Czar.

The Tangent Czar has the power and duty to keep the meeting focused and on point. The Tangent Czar should be nominated up-front and wields this responsibility with everyone in the meeting -- even the CEO. When the usual suspects decide to use this valuable time to rant aimlessly..."Tangent!," flags the Czar. Back on track we go. It's an innocuous yet effective tactic that will ensure the rules of the meeting are visible and relevant to everyone. Rotate the Tangent Czar during subsequent meetings for added fun and impact. 

2. Same time. Same place. Same agenda.

Critical initiatives, such as new product development projects, require recurring meetings. Before launching a new program, get the full project team to commit to a recurring time slot. Put it on the calendar, book the room (or Zoom session), and make it mandatory for everyone that is critical to the success of the project. After it's scheduled, the time is locked, and the expectation is that everyone booked will be there. There are two acceptable reasons for skipping the meeting -- vacation or death. Otherwise, you're there, active, and engaged.

Equally as critical, the team needs to have a focused, up-to-date, published, and easily accessible agenda. This agenda should be the same for every single meeting. Our 60-minute project meeting agenda is as follows:

  • Good news - personal, business (5-minutes)
  • Scorecard - tracking the critical project metrics (5-minutes)
  • Milestones - on or off track (5-minutes)
  • To-Do's - tracking completion from last week (5-minutes)
  • Issues - resolving obstacles that prevent execution of milestones (35-minutes)
  • Close-Out - recap to-do's, cascading messages, rate the meeting (5-minutes) 

Ideally, the agenda also serves as a trackable to-do list. Even better if the agenda includes the milestones and the issues list. Consolidating these documents means there's less to update, circulate, and review. The agenda gets revised during the meeting with the new information due next meeting. It becomes a central document that teams reference in between meetings. 

3. One person assigned to each to-do

When you have a to-do (or action item) with more than one person assigned, what happens? It doesn't get done. Ensure that you can point to one single person to complete a to-do. This doesn't mean that this one individual is solely responsible for completing the to-do. It means that the assigned individual is accountable for getting the to-do done, which often means engaging and coordinating others' activities.

To-do's should be focused on activities that are able to be executed in 1-2 weeks. If there's an initiative that requires more time, then it should be considered a Milestone (we call this a "Rock" at Archimedic), which is typically due on quarterly basis. If the assigned team member doesn't get the to-do complete within 2-weeks, then it triggers an issue (discussed below). This keeps the pressure on to-do completion and ensures that critical issues blocking to-do progress are discussed and resolved. 

4. Reserve majority of time to discuss and solve issues

The bulk of the meeting should be focused on IDS - Identifying, Discussing, and Solving issues. The issues list should be a running log of topics brought up by the meeting participants. The intent is not to solve every single issue during the weekly meetings. It's to select the top 3-4 issues and discuss with the intent of driving action. 

When diving into an issue, it's critical to first get to the root cause. Most of the time, the issues will be presented as symptoms or outputs of the root cause. It's the job of the meeting facilitator to figure out what's creating the symptoms. The "5 Whys" is an effective method for this purpose. If a team hasn't gotten to the root cause, then the issue will just continue with a different manifestation of symptoms.

Effective issue solving sessions are intense. This isn't Happyland. This isn't the time to seek agreements and compromises with one another. It's the time to debate pros and cons. It's the time for conflict. It's the time to get all ideas and challenges out on the table. Tension and conflict during issue solving sessions are normal and should be encouraged. While it can be difficult and uncomfortable at times, this type of conflict is often what is needed to vet ideas and perspectives so that a rational decision can be reached.   

5. Reach decisions, not consensus

Most teams strive for consensus -- the happy medium that satisfies all stakeholders. But pushing meaty issues pushed through the consensus grinder only stalls progress. The main goal of a meeting should not to arrive at consensus. Instead, the goal should be to reach:

Decisions.

Not every decision will be the right one, but a decision is always needed to make progress. It's better to move forward with a bad decision than it is to stall, compromise, and avoid a decision all together.  Reason being is that bad decisions will reveal themselves shortly after they are made. This reveal will cause a team to reconsider the decision and change course to an alternative path. That's progress. By contrast, decision avoidance guarantees that no progress will be made.

In order to make decisions, there needs to be someone authorized and willing to make the call when it's needed. This person should be one of the recurring team participants in the weekly team meeting in order to keep progress moving. So, it's critical that the key decision makers are present during these recurring project meetings. Needing to defer key decisions to executives external to the meeting will massively slow progress and limit the project leader's ability to drive. 

Shout-out to EOS

in 2019 Archimedic adopted the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS). This is a framework that businesses use to simplify, clarify, and manage business operations. We engaged an outside EOS Implementer to help us understand and drive the operating system effectively. This has been one of the best business decisions that we have made to date. Over the last 2+ years, we have adhered to the EOS principles, and we have gained clarity, accountability, and purpose in all aspects of the company. We still have plenty of issues to solve, but EOS has helped us tremendously. 

The tips above are borrowed and adapted from EOS, in particular from the Level 10 meeting structure.

If you are interested in learning more about EOS, I would highly recommend reading Traction (by Gino Wickman) and engaging an EOS implementer to help your team put it into action. More on EOS can be found here.

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