Here’s a staggering statistic for you: there are estimated to be 55 million meetings per week in corporate America! That translates into over 1 billion per year and estimates say that this amounts to more than 30% of people’s work weeks!
What’s the one thing we really want to do this summer (or at least the one thing we want to do if we are going to work)? Cut down on time spent in meetings, particularly bad meetings that are a waste of time, non-productive, don’t get results, or go on, and on, and on.
We’re going to explore project management meetings, along with some strategies to avoid them or alternatively to make them effective and efficient. That way you can focus on the work you need to do and get outside for some summer fun!
I’m Annie MacLeod, a seasoned project manager who has worked in the digital world for decades. As a devout introvert, I’m not a big fan of meetings, unless they are on topic, get results, and respect my time (ie. start on time and end on time)!
To that end, I’ve thought through a bunch of strategies that are effective at reducing the number of meetings you need to attend!
Why Does Project Management Involve So Many Meetings?
When I asked the Miro AI what the most frequent project meetings are, it returned this mind map:
When I asked Google about project meetings, I found this article from PMI about project managers spending 90% of their time on communication.
While that percentage may appear excessive, think about it. As PMs we are the cornerstone between the project team, the customer, sponsor, and the stakeholders of our projects. We are constantly interacting with each of these groups and juggling expectations.
As we can see from the mind map, there are constant opportunities to meet!
Whether it's in the early stages of the project during planning, or the latter stages of monitoring progress, it's a constant back and forth of gathering information from the team, massaging it for key stakeholders, gathering feedback from the stakeholders, and then delivering back to the project team.
Let's explore each of these major groups of meetings to see why they are important. Then we’ll suggest some techniques to eliminate them or at least make them more effective!
We’ve got four different activities under planning: kickoff, scope, budget, and timeline. I would suggest that all of these meetings are critical, particularly for digital project managers, for the following reasons:
This is all about building relationships that will make our project teams resilient and productive and a meeting, or more particularly a workshop (more on that later), that builds relationships and team norms or a team charter go a long way to getting a project off on the right foot!
These activities, when done well, build a resilient team that can weather the storms of project delivery and change.
Scope, Budget, and Timeline
These meetings are all about collaborating to understand not just what the scope, budget, and timeline are but to ensure that each person understands the dependencies between the work that others are doing and the risks to the timeline.
Focusing meetings on these key dependencies will make them truly effective. The budget for a project can often be developed as a result of this work, meaning you can eliminate the requirement for a separate budget-related meeting.
In our mind map, we’ve got three different activities under progress: status, review, and retrospective. These are particularly important activities to ensure that we are managing expectations between our diverse stakeholders.
What we need to focus on is what project progress actually requires a meeting (ie. things like changes in project results, requested changes from customers, and key decisions) versus just reporting information.
I would suggest that two of those can be reduced or eliminated: status and review.
If you have a robust task management system that is focused on results aligned with customer and sponsor expectations, then you can have meetings that focus on collaborating to resolve issues with the timeline, scope, and budget, or make decisions in relation to change requests, risk management, and issue resolution.
Retrospectives are critical to continually improving our project delivery and learning! That said, we can do asynchronous brainstorming to gather ideas and then save our meeting time for getting to the root cause of the issues and developing action plans from the learnings.
Decision-making meetings imply that we are using collaborative decision-making, hence requiring a meeting.
The reality in my experience is that many projects operate in a more hierarchical authority level, so while a meeting may be necessary, it may only require the project manager and the sponsor and/or customer.
It’s critical to not allow decisions to take too long and delay our project, but it may not be necessary to have an entire project team meeting.
You’ll want to look at the key components of the decision to make these meetings focused and effective. You’ll need different people in these meetings with different knowledge and authority to actually get a decision made.
- Framing the decision: Who has the authority to decide? Does this decision affect the project activities, project outcomes, strategic direction of the organization, or the service to our customers? Each of these has very different people who need to be involved as well as ultimately decide.
- Evaluating alternatives: You may need specific knowledge resources to determine what the viable alternatives are. This can be a separate meeting to flesh out the alternatives and then develop a recommendation to take forward to the sponsor or customer.
- Deciding: what are the most appropriate methods and authority levels within the organization. Don’t invite the whole project team to actually make the decision when it is really up to the project sponsor or customer.
As we cited earlier, project managers spend 90% of their time communicating, so it is critical to our project's success. The mind map covers four distinct types of communication: stakeholder updates, team standups or check-ins, client meetings, and vendor meetings.
While all these are appropriate audiences to communicate with, to reduce meetings we want to focus on communication for the purpose of consulting versus informing. If we are just informing them, there is no requirement for a meeting—don’t have status update meetings just for the sake of meeting!
When we are informing stakeholders we can deploy video updates, status reports, visual tools such as project dashboards, or even read-only views into our task management tool of choice. When using these methods, don’t forget to ensure that you have a way to get feedback from each of these audiences.
Allow them to comment on your video, send responses to a status report, and make comments on your project dashboard or task management items. Follow-up and keep them engaged; each piece of feedback is an opportunity to get insights into whether these stakeholders' expectations are being met.
5 Ways To Avoid Having A Meeting (& Make Existing Ones More Effective)
Strategy number one is to eliminate unnecessary meetings wherever possible. If you can’t eliminate a meeting, look for alternatives to meetings, such as asynchronous communication.
If you must have the meeting, you want to at least make sure it’s effective. If you do need to have a meeting, let's make sure that they get results and are respectful of people’s time.
1. Block your calendar for rituals and work time
The best way to avoid meetings is to be unavailable! At a minimum, it will preclude people from putting unsolicited meetings in your week and it can make people think twice about that meeting—they’ll reconsider whether the meeting is really necessary when the ‘right’ people can’t attend.
Also, don’t forget to control those deadly apps like Calendly that can plop meetings into your schedule. It’s wonderful to be responsive to outside clients, but not at the expense of actually getting the work done.
When your blocking off your calendar here are a couple of other tips and tricks:
- Make sure you allow for ‘startup time’ in addition to deep work time. Often when we’re building or creating something we need time to get into the zone or refresh our brains before we begin. This also allows you time to review where you were when you last worked on it.
- Also, allow for wrap-up time. When you finish your work block make sure you think through what the next steps are for when you pick it up again. Make a brief summary on a sticky or add it to your calendar item with the details. This helps you get started quickly next time.
- Consider implementing a no-meeting rule for one or two half days per week across the organization. By doing this regularly, people will get into a rhythm and start to think twice before scheduling meetings. Also, a half-day is a small enough amount of time that it won’t interfere with daily customer demands or team emergencies.
- Schedule downtime. Whether it's personal time for a breath of fresh air, some yoga stretches, or a short walk, put these on your calendar! We can’t be productive or healthy if we don’t manage and be proactive with our self-care.
2. Use the video for information sharing and asynchronous communication
Research by 3M found that we can process information visually at 60,000 times faster than text. Images are processed simultaneously while auditory information is processed linearly making it even slower than text.
Also, 65% of the population are visual learners. This goes a long way to explaining why corporate presentations that drone on and on with reams of information are not only boring as heck but why PowerPoint has taken over the world! If you’re skeptical try this:
That said, you still need to get information out to key project audiences. Think about project status reports or updates. I’d highly recommend finding ways to make these visual and have them recorded for consumption by stakeholders on their time schedule and at their pace. Think about these two images:
Which one do you find more informative? If you did a quick 3-5 minute video of the first report narrating the project status you’d not only have much more information conveyed but better absorption and retention of the information.
Don’t forget that you’ll want to be sure to include feedback loops should people have questions, comments, or concerns about the information. That could be comments on a video or annotations on a Miro board.
Be creative, but don’t forget this step! Also, don’t forget to follow-up on those comments. These are key moments to manage expectations with your stakeholders.
3. Always have a meeting agenda
How do you even know you need a meeting? Too often people call meetings just because they can or just to ‘air’ an idea.
If you go through the process of developing a clear agenda you can confirm whether a meeting is truly required, who should attend, and what the desired outcome is.
I can’t count the number of times that going through this thought exercise has eliminated the need for a meeting, typically because we didn’t have the right information to actually have the meeting.
I use the format of:
- Purpose: What is the purpose of the meeting?
- Process: What is the process or workflow we are going to use to achieve the outcome of the meeting?
- Payoff: What is the outcome of the meeting? What are we trying to achieve?
This works most effectively when you start with the payoff and then work backwards. How are you going to bring your attendees along to get to the desired outcome?
Also, make sure to time-block your agenda. Figure out how much time each agenda item is going to take and set your meeting start and end appropriately.
Nothing is more powerful than getting a reputation for productive meetings that respect people’s time!
4. Ensure you have the right people in the meeting
This is a way to reduce or eliminate meetings. There is no point in having the meeting without the right people attending, and it’s even more frustrating when you’re asked to attend meetings that you aren’t adding value to!
To help figure out who needs to be there, develop your agenda as we discussed, and then determine the reason to have a meeting. This can really help you focus on the people that need to be there.
Four meeting types applicable to projects that I use that can help are:
- Co-create: Typically to determine dependencies, resource plans, and risk mitigations; these often involve brainstorming activities
- Make a decision: To develop scope or decide whether to proceed with a project change; you need to make sure that you have the people with the right authority in these meetings
- Build relationships: We talked about this earlier with project kickoffs, but this can be true of other meetings too and will require activities such as empathy mapping to be successful
- Solve a problem: Usually involves addressing a change request or determining the plan to resolve a project issue related to time, scope, or budget. This can mean you need attendees with some creativity and some decision making—these are not always the same people!
Being clear on the purpose can ensure you have the right people there and also help clarify your agenda. Also, remember to not include too many different purposes in one meeting—you’ll never get through all the material in a succinct amount of time.
5. Move meetings to workshops to get results
We talked above about ensuring we have an agenda, part of that agenda being the process. Thinking through the process to achieve the desired outcome will allow us to reframe the meeting to a workshop.
If we use workshops, our meetings will be more collaborative and more effective. People don’t mind attending meetings when they have the opportunity to contribute to something that achieves results!
We want our workshops to be hands-on and interactive and to do that we need to ensure that we prepare appropriately. Key workshop activities you could prepare might include:
Project Kickoff Workshop
- Reviewing lessons learned from a previous project and brainstorming how the team would either replicate the wins or mitigate the issues for each lesson.
- Collaborating to develop a team charter or project norms that will set the expectations of team members for the project, as well as develop standards for issue resolution between members and resources to support each other. Here’s a great template that I’ve used in the past.
Planning Scope and Timeline
It’s critical that project teams understand not just the scope of the project but the interdependencies within the team. I’ve found two workshop activities that can help with this:
- Brainstorming then grouping project deliverables and
- Building a plan backwards to understand interdependencies.
Here’s a template that, in Step 2 & Step 3, shows you how to do both these activities in a workshop format.
Also, remember that workshops shouldn't have a duration of longer than two hours—this is a tried and true constraint or rule of thumb. It's almost impossible to devote significant energy for any longer than that—you can feel the energy drop in the group.
Lastly, don’t forget to not only summarize your meetings into action items but to communicate the outcome from the meeting.
3 Benefits Of Fewer Meetings
Let's remember why we want less meetings! Here’s the top three reasons:
- More productivity: we will have to produce the work we are supposed to do and be able to focus on quality output
- Less expense to the organization overall: meetings cost money; preparation time and the cost of every single person attending the meeting
- Better work life balance: when people are more productive and less frustrated they feel better about their job and their organization
Go Out And Have A Great Summer With Less Meetings!
One last piece of advice: don’t boil the ocean! No organization can implement all these ideas all at once. Do an assessment of where the biggest pain is in your organization and select one or two strategies to implement then get feedback!
One thing digital project managers are great at is doing retrospectives! Do one on your next meeting and then pick from some of these strategies or have the team come up with other ideas.
Also, don’t forget that some of these strategies (particularly meeting free half days) will take some executive buy-in—that may be a project in itself! 🙂
I hold a free workshop that will give you an opportunity to practice building some effective meeting agendas that will restart in the fall of 2023. But that said, just start with the agenda template above and give it a try.
I’d love to hear what your biggest project meeting challenges are! Comment below and we can possibly work on DPM templates, content, or workshops to help!
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