Meetings: Making the most of a bad situation

I don’t like meetings. Too often they are a waste of my time. I think Dilbert agrees! Meetings are like pretend work, the full calendar and the flurry of activity gives the illusion of productivity even though the output from many meetingmongers is low. But I must begrudgingly admit that meetings are a necessary evil in my workplace. At the very least we need to communicate progress (or lack thereof) and status to stakeholders. So if you must call or attend a meeting, and sometimes you must, here are some tips for a smoother ride:

  1. Focus on other people in the group, in particular the key stakeholders like your client or boss. Ask yourself what do they need to get out of this meeting rather than what do you need. Listen to them and if you communicate everything clearly the meeting might be cut short and you could save yourself the dreaded “follow-up meeting”.
  2. Agendas are important but we often don’t have time to create one. As a minimum state the purpose and outcomes for the meeting. This could be as short as one sentence each and if nothing else it will help you to focus. If someone else set the meeting without an agenda and you have no idea what the purpose and desired outcome are – be ballsy and politely ask them.
  3. Don’t assume people read attachments you send them before meetings. Do you read every attachment sent to you? Of course not! Be respectful and highlight the top three issues – interested parties can read further if they like.
  4. If attendees are new to the location give clear and concise instructions regarding parking, traffic, building layout, etc. This saves time for everyone. You don’t want people turning up late and flustered, disrupting proceedings and requiring a repeat of issues already discussed.
  5. A quick roll call for key attendees can be helpful and, if the group is new, a rapid icebreaker can help people to connect. But if it’s a recurring meeting, introductions can quickly become banal.
  6. Stay focused on the meeting outcome. It might even help to start from there and work backwards.
  7. A short meeting is a good meeting. Everyone is happy when a meeting finishes earlier than the stated end time. Reverse is also true. Give yourself a little buffer time – like airlines do!
  8. Try, really try hard, to not call a meeting unless necessary.
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Quality, Scope, Time: Pick 2

It’s an old project management adage that appears in many similar forms and the general gist is: in many projects, though we strive to deliver the full scope, to a high quality, and in good time, we often have to choose two and sacrifice one.

For example, if I asked you to cook a chicken breast in one minute, your options are:

  1. Sacrifice quality: I’m sure you could cook it for one minute but the quality would be suspect and I would not recommend eating it.
  2. Sacrifice scope: If I insisted that I needed something in one minute, perhaps you could reduce the scope by cutting off a tiny morsel of chicken and cooking only that.
  3. Sacrifice time: Use as many minutes as you need to cook the full chicken breast to a delicious high quality.

In the above example, I presented the three options in the best case whereby we are taking control up front and choosing which element to sacrifice. Problems are exacerbated when we kid ourselves into thinking we can get everything done and when this happens we often end up in one of the following undesirable scenarios:

  1. Delivering sloppy low quality work on time.
  2. Dropping entire components of the work last minute because we did not have time to deliver everything.
  3. Realizing too late that we are not going to meet a deadline and having to make that awkward call to whoever is awaiting delivery of our work.

There is no silver bullet solution to this conundrum but, in my experience, the best approach is to get ahead of it early and if you sense a project is facing this problem flag it and figure out which of the three elements can be adjusted. Usually we will not want to sacrifice quality so the discussion centers around either reducing the scope to meet a deadline or pushing out the deadline to a more reasonable future date. Don’t rule out sacrificing some quality, there may be options to pare back to a minimally sufficient solution – sometimes the customer just wants a simple tire swing!

A final note: I think the Agile methodology really addresses the nub of this issue because quality is assured by including testing as an inherent part of a sprint. Time is fixed – typically 2 week sprints – and this leave scope to be adjusted and agreed upon at the beginning of each sprint.