24

Meetings without agendas which are poorly facilitated do NOT fall into the category of beneficial meetings.

Unfortunately, a lot of PMs or managers do not have the expertise or skill leading meetings effectively to get work done.

As an individual contributor (who also happens to be good at facilitating meetings/projects), these mis/not-managed meetings are unbelievably frustrating, especially when it directly concerns your project work and you can't just skip them.

The problem isn't so much how to conduct effective meetings because I know how. It's the managers who don't.

My ideal outcome is for these meetings to:

  • All meetings have clearly defined agendas ahead of time
  • All meetings result in action items or next steps
  • All meetings are shorter
  • Me simply be in charge of all them (I can dream?)

The problem is I am not facilitating these meetings. I am not calling the meetings. And I cannot simply ignore them as I am a key part of the technical implementation. I also have no interest in working more hours to make up for my time being wasted (and will not), but would prefer my time not to be wasted.

I have considered simply not going to meetings without agendas and/or requesting agendas every time I receive a meeting invite, but because they are often from manager types, I'm not sure how well this would go over.

  • What can I do to drive meetings to be better facilitated well when I am an individual contributor and not the PM or a manager?
  • This somewhat reminds me of this question I asked a while back: workplace.stackexchange.com/questions/9283/… – MrFox Jul 19 '13 at 14:14
  • I'm curious if these meetings are taking place in a different region of the country than the one where you grew up. Probably not the case here, but as I first went to work below the Mason Dixon line a colleague who had worked there told me to call him after my first couple of meetings. I did, he asked me what had happened in them and as I recounted them it became clear that they were not as undirected as I had thought (being a Yankee). Some cultures already understand what is expected and who is doing what so a lot of the meeting time is taken up with polite chit chat seeming to go nowhere. – Martin Fawls Feb 24 '16 at 3:59
18

Call me crazy, but I'm betting that if the meetings had:

  • a clearly defined agenda
  • a focus on end with action items/next steps
  • a facilitator to get from Agenda to Action Items

Then they would easily become shorter and fewer.

So, I'd call that the mission.

The goal should not be you running the meetings - it's nice to be awesome at something, but this is a key organizational skill, and to thrive, the organization needs a LOT of people who can do it. I'd say, ideally, meeting-efficiency is something a PM SHOULD be measured on... but in the meantime, I'd make the goal be spreading your meeting-running skills as quickly as an epidemic.

Depending on your organization, engaging management may or may not be a win. There's a lot of reporting line/who's who type politics in this that make it uncertain.

Basic Human Meeting Rights

I'd say an agenda, action items and the chance to get through a reasonably well-scoped agenda in an hour are basic human rights that meeting participants are entitled. Things you can do to build those rights:

  • Don't accept a meeting with no agenda - when you get an invite without and an agenda, write back ASAP with a list of

    • What is the objective of this meeting?
    • What do I need to be ready to provide, present or answer at the meeting?
    • What do we want to accomplish by the end of the meeting?
    • What else is on the agenda?
  • If you don't get a response, don't accept the meeting. If this is at all connected to an electronic calendar, mark the meeting as tentative and don't let the system auto-mail a response. If it's one day before the meeting and you STILL don't have an agenda (since those questions basically form an agenda) - write to the meeting holder and any key fellow-stakeholders and suggest that if there is no agenda 24 hours before the meeting, what is the purpose of having the meeting? Posit that you'll skip the meeting unless you hear what they need from you.

  • Don't accept a meeting outside of normal work hours or in conflict with work priorities without formal agreement from the boss - Don't let meeting issues eat your life. If the meetings are making it impossible to get work done, or are beyond the scope of your agreed and published hours, don't take them or get agreement from the boss that you SHOULD go above and beyond.

  • BYO-AIs (Bring your own Action Items) - At the start of the meeting, mention that you have a hard stop at X. Mention you'll chime in and make sure to ask for your own takeaways before you leave, so you're sure that everyone's needs are answered. Then do it - 5-10 before the end of the meeting, say you've got to go, and review anything you think you heard relating to your work. Then leave. X may be a conflict or it may just be the published end of the meeting. Doesn't matter - you can only allot so much time.

  • Be a role model - Don't ever be the one who drifts off point. It's easy to join the crowd - try to rise above.

I don't see any of these as a bad thing - even with other managers running the meeting. Particularly if you take the view of "I'm here to make sure that you get the utmost value from my time" - you aren't asking for agendas and AIs to be whiny and complainy - you are asking so that you can properly prepare, have some ideas ready and know that it takes precedence over your existing work.

Grass Roots

Also - where possible, do what you can to be an example. If/when you or your manager are running a meeting, offer to write the agenda, run the meeting, and deliver an AI list. Show folks how it can be a more effective method, and have a cheat sheet ready incease others want to leap on board.

This includes getting people thinking. If you leave a meeting not understanding what on earth was accomplished and why it took so much time from so many people -- ask! Chances are, there is no good answer - but until everyone realizes there's a problem, no one will be engaged in fixing it.

  • What is "BYO-AIs"? That entire point is well beyond my realm of understanding as written. – jmac Jul 24 '13 at 23:29
  • Ah, wait, BYO-AI = Bring Your Own Agenda Items? – jmac Jul 25 '13 at 4:17
  • Alrighty, I just sent those exact questions back to another vague "no agenda" meeting. Hopefully goes over well :) – enderland Jul 25 '13 at 14:24
  • @jmac - yep - BYO-AI was merely wittiness, not a complex peice of jargon. – bethlakshmi Jul 25 '13 at 14:54
  • @enderland - good luck! – bethlakshmi Jul 25 '13 at 15:04
10

This biggest hurdle you will have is the fact that management doesn't realize how dysfunctional these meetings are. They are locked into either a weekly meeting without a true need, or a desire to equate meetings with progress.

If a manager realized that bad meetings are a waste of time, and they realized they lacked the skills/training to run a good meeting, they would either get that training or turn to somebody for help.

Lacking this awareness you risk that any attempt to address the situation by skipping meetings or trying to have stealthy meetings can be seen as insubordination.

These meetings tend to either be void of an agenda or have such a skimpy one that it is worthless. A typical agenda I see is (start time, stop time, last weeks activities, this weeks activities, next weeks activities; or old business, new business)

You need to start small: propose to run a single meeting to come to an agreement on a small part of the project; then make sure that meeting is a model and a success. Don't make it a status meeting, but one where a decision will be made.

You might also volunteer to run a meeting when the leader can't be available.

One way to stealthily improve a meeting is to get a agenda produced for people that have to participate online or over the phone. The first ones won't be good agenda, but they can be improved over time.

7

I really like @mhoran_psprep's approach. This is not intended to be a competing answer, but a supplement.

First, in software development, you need to have three types of meetings:

  1. Progress and task assignments. These should be managed very much like you've outlined, with the possible proviso that the agenda should be limited to previous tasks and new management action items. They should be very focused, very short (15 minutes max, 10 if you can), and never (well, almost never) stray from the agenda. No one should have more than 45-60 seconds of floor time. Essentially the SCRUM stand-up meeting. This is the best one to "break in" with, as managers with poor meeting skills will not even want to be in this one. If you have a really bad manager, you probably don't even have these. You should have them 3-5 times per week, preferably first thing in the morning.
  2. Management reporting. These would also be agenda-driven. They should be limited to project leads and direct management only. Ideally you would have a director, a project manager, and 1 or 2 team leads. This would be where the project tracking is handled, and resource requests are made and responded to. They should be agenda-driven, scheduled for 30 minutes and expect a bleed up to 45 minutes. Weekly or bi-weekly (not semi-weekly) as deemed necessary.
  3. Brainstorming. These are for project managers, team leads, and line developers. This is where you bring a feature request or architecture change up and allow all to weigh in. The key here is to keep them on-task without letting them drift off into other areas of the project. These should be no more than an hour, with 5 people maximum.

Now there are other "gatherings" that take place, but they're not really meetings. If you're addressing 10 or so people, that's a presentation, not a meeting. If you have a "meeting" that has 10 people in it, then stop going. It's a complete waste of time.

Presentations are where project management informs a "panel" of directors / VPs how things are progressing, or where project management addresses the developer / testing / support team(s) as groups for training or "status awareness." Those should also be agenda-driven, and only 2 or 3 people presenting with a time-limited Q&A session afterwards.

In my experience in both project management and in serving on boards of non-profit organizations, the tipping point is 8 people. If you have 4, you can have a really productive meeting. 5-7 can work if you are a self-disciplined bunch. Any more than that and nothing is really accomplished.

My opinion only - your mileage may vary.

6

First, leave your frustrations at the door. You're probably not as arrogant as your question makes you sound, but your venting is making it sound that way (e.g., "Me simple be in charge of all them"). That's fine here, but if your frustration comes out in these meetings, it really won't matter how effective your methods are.

Second, a lot of the other answers are taking a hard line (e.g., "don't accept meeting invites that don't have agendas"). If you don't want the backlash that will come from that, you need to find a way to improve the meetings with more subtle methods.

Luckily, there are a lot of subtle things you can do that can improve the meetings:

  • At the end of a meeting where decisions are being made after a lot of debate/discussion, say something like, "so just to make sure we're all on the same page, we decided X". Once everyone agrees, ask the meeting organizer if you send an email to the attendees restating that, so that everyone can refer back to it if needed. Don't make the email into full blown minutes; just succinctly record the decisions (and the reasoning behind them, but only if that reasoning isn't obvious or was debated for a while).
  • Similarly, if there are action items, at the end of the meeting verbally summarize them and ask if it's ok if you send that out. This comes off better if you have at least one action item (so it doesn't look like you're trying to tell everyone else what to do).
  • If a meeting is wandering off on a tangent, use phrases like:
    • "Ok, but I really want to get back to the question that started this: X"
    • "Can we circle back to this after we resolve X?"
  • If the discussion seems to be stuck in a loop, ask to summarize the points on a whiteboard.
  • If the meeting is in danger of running longer than the time specified, you can use body language to communicate that and people will subconsciously notice the time without noticing that you're the one who "raised" the issue. You can look at the clock on the wall, look at your watch, start closing your notebook, etc.
  • If you think the meeting is ready to be wrapped up, but it's not technically "late" (i.e., everything gets done in the first half hour of a one hour meeting but it looks like everyone is just going to keep talking until the end of the hour), you can ask, "Is that everything we needed to discuss? I'd like to get back to X" (where X is project work that the PM will want you to be doing).
  • Getting agendas ahead of time is the hardest to do in a subtle manner. I would tackle that after you've had success with the previous things. Here are some ideas:
    • At the start of the meeting, ask what needs to be done in the meeting.
    • When a meeting seems like it's on a tangent, ask the organizer, "Do we have time to discuss this? I just want to make sure we don't run out of time without covering the things you called us here for."
    • When you have a really busy day on the proposed meeting date, reply to the invite with "I accepted the invite, but that day is really busy. What is on the agenda?" If that seems to go over well, start doing the same thing on any day that you feel you could defend as "busy".
    • A few hours before a meeting, (in order of preference) stop by, IM, or email the organizer and ask "What's this upcoming meeting about? I just want to make sure I have everything together for it". Obviously, you can't do this for every meeting. Again, start with ones where you really want the agenda and you suspect having the agenda in advance will allow you to prepare in some way that helps the organizer's goals (e.g., by reviewing your notes from previous related meetings, bringing relevant information).
    • If you scatter these techniques across various meetings and use them when they're particularly relevant, you'll be able ask for agendas without as much pretense.

In general, just remember that a participant is allowed to do quite a few things to help the meeting, so long as it's done from a "helping other attendees" or "helping the organizer" perspective instead of "taking charge".

Having done these things consistently but unobtrusively, people will start to notice that meetings that you don't attend don't go as well, and they'll start adopting some of the techniques ad-hoc. Or they might mention to you that they really wish you were in such-and-such meeting, and then you can offer a relevant piece of advice (e.g., "just send out the action items at the end of all your meetings, then you don't have to worry about two people each thinking the other was going to do that task").

  • I appreciate this answer because I feel it is the only answer that addresses what you can do if you don't have substantial sway or authority in your workplace. – MackM Oct 13 '15 at 16:25
3

Executive Summary

What can I do to drive meetings to be better facilitated well when I am an individual contributor and not the PM or a manager?

  1. Make sure this is a serious issue to getting the job done
  2. Convince participants that the meetings are not being facilitated well
  3. Provide guidance on how to facilitate them better

Personal Preference or Professional Necessity

We all have those things we really care about. Things that we are convinced are critical to any successful team/company/whatever. For instance, I really care about having nice simple graphs. I hate excessive use of color, I despise 3D bar graphs, and I can't stand it when there's a lot of chart junk. I want to believe that no self-respecting customer would accept a report or a presentation filled with such hideous charts.

At the same time, I know that 90% of the office world uses them every day, and a good portion of those are successful.

So while I may have a personal preference to have everyone learn how to make charts properly, or at least to get out of the way and let me do them, I am far better off ignoring the urge to have everyone meet my standards because at the end of the day, bringing it up will cause friction for the sake of my personal preference. That isn't a very nice thing to do.

Is the fact that these meetings are poorly facilitated threatening your project schedule? If they are causing issues that threaten the project schedule, then it is definitely something that should be brought up. If the work is getting done despite the meetings, and you just personally dislike the meetings when nobody else has an issue, it may be better to let the issue drop.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

If you've established that this isn't just personal preference, but something of consequence to the project, you need to bring everyone's attention to the issue. You say yourself:

I have considered simply not going to meetings without agendas and/or requesting agendas every time I receive a meeting invite, but because they are often from manager types, I'm not sure how well this would go over.

I'm a big fan of Dentsu's 10 Working Principles which are recited in a lot of Japanese companies. Of particular interest is #10:

摩擦を怖れるな、摩擦は進歩の母、積極の肥料だ、でないと君は卑屈未練になる。

When confrontation is necessary, don't shy away from it. Confrontation is often necessary to achieve progress.

If you are a key member of the technical implementation, and the whims of management are wasting your time, it is the responsibility of you (or someone else involved with the technical implementation who should handle this issue) to bring it up even if it does cause friction. At the end of the day, if the job isn't done right, you are the one left holding the bag, so speaking up now may not go over well, but it will go over well than making excuses about meetings after it's actually delayed the project.

Each project will be different, so there is no universal way to prove impact, but some simple methods are:

  1. Point out required development time, subtract meeting time, show disconnect
  2. Show specific delays due to meeting outcomes (or lack of meeting outcomes)
  3. Display lack of actionable items to progress the project from meetings

Ideally you are not the only person seeing the issues the meetings are causing. If you can get several members involved in technical implementation who feel the same way, bringing it up together will make the point far more strongly than just bringing it up alone. The point is not to be critical of the way meetings are facilitated, but rather show that the current meetings are getting in the way of project success.

Pave the Way for Progress

You say you have three goals:

  • All meetings have clearly defined agendas ahead of time
  • All meetings result in action items or next steps
  • All meetings are shorter

I would reconsider changing your goals from reading all meetings to reading all meetings my technical team attends. Trying to influence meetings you don't participate in will be a headache and a half, and probably well beyond the scope of your job description. If there are meetings that ramble and do not directly influence the technical team, ask to have the technical team excluded from those meetings. If something important does come out involving your work, ask to receive an e-mail outlining the important action items, which can be discussed in the next technical meeting if necessary.

For meetings where the technical team is involved, you should ask if the relevant project managers lead the meetings, and coach them as needed to make it run smoothly ahead of time. Have them explain that to make technical meetings run more smoothly and make the technical development more efficient, that these technical meetings should have clearly defined agendas, should all be summarized, and last no longer than X minutes to maximize development time.

The story becomes much more simple this way:

  1. Technical implementation is falling behind because of meetings
  2. Meetings not involving technical issues shouldn't have technical staff attending
  3. Meetings involving technical issues should be led by technical staff to keep things on track

The management has an incentive to let you do things your way (if they don't, and the project fails, they were informed but refused). Your project manager has an incentive to run meetings you attend better (if you hold the same meetings and there isn't any difference, he looks like he doesn't understand his team's concerns). You guys have an incentive to support your project manager (so that you get to stay out of silly meetings). Everyone wins.

Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200

Though implied above, I want to reiterate the following:

  1. Do not tell the management they cannot lead an effective meeting
  2. Do not try to change meetings outside your realm of responsibility
  3. Do not focus on personal preference in regards to meetings, focus on achieving project goals
2

Make sure you work things out with your direct supervisor. This is the person who determines if you're getting enough done.

Some things to try:

  1. Ask if they can focus the beginning of the meeting on the technical/your part of the project because you have a time constraint.
  2. Ask if there is anything in the meeting you need to know about before excepting.
  3. Tell them you can't attend but would like the 'minutes' or whatever summary someone may put together in writing.
  4. Don't be afraid to leave a meeting if you have things do to and you don't think anything you need to know about will be covered.
  5. Maybe there should be separate technical meetings? I'm sure the managers don't want to sit around and listen to the "geek" stuff either.

As much as you may want to teach everyone else how to hold a meeting, make sure you can take control of your time first. If they can't allow you to make necessary adjustments, so you have the time to attend the meetings, you'll just have to stop going. Again, make sure your supervisor understands you are not going to a meeting because you're spending time on getting things done he/she things has more priority. If meeting attendance makes his job easier because your not going looks bad, then that is what is most important, so the other work suffers. You can't put 10 pounds of meat in a 5 pound bag (If you could then it must be a 10 pound bag.).

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.