Meeting Behaviors: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
By Andrew Buck
I realized yesterday that it had been a while since I’d communicated my thoughts on the topic of Project/Program Management — I’ll thank a colleague for reminding me of that recently — so in keeping with that theme, I’ll use today’s article to explore Communication as a short topic. In specific, no one goes for two decades in the profession without seeing the good, the bad, and the downright ugly of communication in a variety of environments, so I’ve focused today’s post on Meeting Behaviors.
We’ve all been through meetings where we’ve asked ourselves why we were wasting an hour of time that could have been devoted to other important work. Sometimes, the outward manifestation of that angst, anxiety and impatience results in what I’ll later refer to as “Bad Meeting Behaviors”. That aside, I’ve provided a checklist that practitioners can review with their teams to underscore and outline expectations during meetings.
For those of us who spent way too much time in the Dentist’s Office as a kid reading the copy of Highlights, we’ll remember the cartoons of “Goofus and Gallant” as the contrast between irresponsible and responsible. This list is the modern day project manager’s version of that.
Good Meeting Behaviors
A few bullet basics surrounding good behaviors:
- Agenda mandatory. Make sure that you are following an agenda and that all participants are kept apprised from time to time via a verbal prompt (“Next agenda item is…”) or some other queue that will keep the meeting on track.
Ensure there is one chairperson who will run the meeting and document any issues or summarizing points (preferably, delegate a scribe so that meeting progress isn’t slowed by note-taking).
Be clear but succinct. Phone lines often prevent the speaker from hearing others contribute when needed or interrupt when appropriate. Be conscious of that while speaking, and do so succinctly allowing time between speech bursts for others to comment. This trait is a little more pronounced over Voice over IP (VOIP) networks that may delay transmission briefly due to routing and packet switching.
Remove distractions. Unless the meeting involves a live presentation, the meeting chair should insist that laptops be closed so that they don’t detract from the flow of the meeting. In addition, it can be perceived as rude.
Provide for wrap-up and summary. In the second bullet, I suggested that someone should scribe the meeting – at this point, he or she should read back the items discussed, actions, ownership, and status or timeframes involved. A five-minute wrap-up is customary, and should be included in the agenda (an AOB or Q&A item is sufficient).
Timing. If the meeting is about to run over, quickly poll the room to determine if further discussion is needed or if others have commitments immediately afterward.
Make sure that your agenda is not “hijacked” or you’ve unwittingly ceded control of the meeting to someone else’s agenda, by politely but firmly reminding that the agenda of the meeting has been established, and the procedure for adding agenda items before the meeting. For those wondering why that was my first point, this is one example.
Squelch side conversations that may occur in the meeting. A diplomatic way of doing this is either to point out that multiple conversations are distracting attention away from the speaker’s point, or more to the point asking the other party if their sidebar can wait until the conclusion of the meeting. If those don’t work, interrupt the speaker and stop the conversation to bring attention to the bad behavior. Supplemented by a comment such as “Pardon me, are you finished?” or “If your conversation is critical, please take it outside the room”, the sidebars from will generally cease allowing the chairperson to assert control of the meeting.
Ensure that progress is being made against the agenda by holding to times. This means that when conversation topics are getting sidetracked, action the participants with a follow-up shortly after the meeting to resolve.
Summarize all meetings with a written follow-up based on the Communications Plan as quickly as possible following the meeting. If there is an area of dispute, ask that someone “respond directly to the author” to clarify – thereby avoiding any confusion that a mass reply might trigger.
Bad Meeting Behaviors
Now that I’ve covered Good Meeting Behaviors, let’s also focus on behaviors that should be discouraged.
- Distraction behavior. If you noted my fourth bullet point above, you’ll understand why I’ve placed this first. A mobile workforce with portable devices and wireless networking has enabled us to instant message, web surf, and use meetings as time to do other tasks that detract from the purpose of the meeting. A former colleague of mine found a subordinate checking Cricket scores on the Web during a very useful presentation. It became a career-limiting move for the offender. Answering IM’s or email during important discussions is also a distraction – believe it or not, most humans cannot multitask.
Late and lax meeting start times. This is rewarding the behavior of showing up late versus promptness. It likely takes two meetings before the reality of on-time arrival becomes habit. Make sure you start no more than a minute behind schedule as a grace period; you’re otherwise eating into important time.
Sidetracking. I’ve worked with some masters of the art of confusion who use any opportunity to spin a meeting or subject out of control until the original topic has been forgotten. Set the rule that if it wasn’t on the agenda, it isn’t being discussed. Be friendly but firm about that, reminding them of the procedure for updating the agenda.
Interrupting the speaker. Briefly interjecting on the interrupter to suggest that they hold their thought until the person speaking finishes generally works in most cases. If the behavior continues, be more candid and direct by sidetracking the interrupter, admonishing, “In order for the meeting to progress orderly, I really need you to hang tight until the current speaker finishes, and I’ll be happy to recognize you afterward.”
Mobile Device abuse. We’ve all seen the person who constantly pulls out a mobile device to check on anything more urgent (or interesting) than the meeting at hand. If you have not otherwise set a rule about this during important meetings, a suggestion to break people of the habit is to suddenly refer to them during the discussion — it will get their attention, although it won’t engender you to them. Otherwise, if the individual is truly ancillary to the meeting, concede that you understand his tight schedule and if something else seems pressing, he can certainly be excused and informed of the outcomes later.
The control freak. I’ve been witness to some embarrassing situations when such a person has been publicly admonished, or clearly directed to “sit down and shut up” by a superior. The control freak is another version of the ‘hijacker’ I mentioned a few bullets back, and must be reminded of their role and position in the project. Politely but firmly assert that you’ll keep to the standing agenda of the meeting; if that presents an issue, arrange to speak privately after the meeting. Then follow-up by approaching them with the reminder that you’ve scheduled and are responsible for chairing a productive meeting. Remind them also that they probably wouldn’t care for their own meetings being taken-over in such a manner, and ask that they extend you the same courtesy. It’s a firm but friendly way of emphasizing the behavior and tone that needs to be established.
The meeting windbag. We’ve all encountered them – he or she is the individual whose car doesn’t need airbags because he or she comes equipped with their own. Simply put, the windbag will say in 10 minutes what could have been said in 10 words. This is where you can take a bit of creative license in keeping a meeting on track. Given my personal flair for sarcasm, which may not go over well but will certainly drive a point, I’ve listed some clever (or sarcastic) options below:
- “I’m sorry (name), you’ve probably lost us on the way there. Is there a 25-words-or-less version of that?”
- “That’s 10 minutes I’ll never get back, can you shorten that so everyone gets the essence of the point?”
- “If there was a point to be made there, I’m not sure I heard it. Can you summarize that in response to the meeting minutes we’ll be issuing as a clarification?”
- “Can you condense that into a Cliff’s Notes version, please?”
…and while I could suggest even more sarcastic responses, I’m sure we can think of our own. The point simply is to change the behavior of the more long-winded speaker to come to a more concise distillation of their point. In a friendly manner, have a sidebar with the individual, invite him/her for coffee, and start by explaining how valuable his/her input really is, but that his/her points would be much better adopted if expressed concisely. Don’t shut him or her down, but you do need to keep meetings on track.
Lack of summary / lack of clear conclusion. When scheduling any meeting, the value proposition for the meeting should be clear to everyone. If the participants leave and have neither a sense of accomplishment or decision, nor any tangible reference that outlines and captures the discussions and decisions, it undermines the value of future meetings. Again, this underscores the importance of post-meeting recap, actions, and outcomes.
I’ve used these to help drive the desired and productive behaviors in meetings, and suggest it for anyone seeking a guideline of practice. While my style (especially in one of the above bullets) might not be to everyone’s liking, each practitioner needs to develop their own style and the best methods for that to work for their situation.
Feel free to share your own views on the topic, and what has worked for you in past situations.
Andrew Buck, PMP, is the author of “(Not) PMO-in-a-Can: Pragmatic Management of Strategic Objectives (as told from the trenches)” (ISBN-13: 978-1449968229), available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other outlets, and online at http://www.pmoinacan.com. This and other thoughts around strategic project/program management can be found in his book.