Meetings - How Many, What Kind and How Often Do You Need Them?

This article explores how to optimize the efficiency and effectiveness of meetings needed to manage a project; balancing to make sure we are not creating obstacles to getting work done by individuals and coming together for meaningful communication and collaboration.

Meetings are events at which people come together to accomplish a purpose. They are integral parts of projects. PMI's Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) identifies meetings as tools/techniques for directing, managing, designing, planning, deciding, controlling and closing projects.  They are forums for project communication and collaboration - the life blood of projects.  

Clearly, meetings are a fact of life. Yet, they can be a drain on project resources, an incredible waste of time and a barrier to progress.  Project managers must ensure that the right meetings, attended by the right people, at the right time are managed so that they add value and do not interfere with the needs of project performers to do the work they must do in individual, uninterrupted work sessions.  


The Purpose of Meetings

Meetings have a variety of purposes, they are used to

  • inform and exchange information (for example status meetings, debriefing and presentations)
  • make decisions that range from project authorization to the color scheme on a website
  • explore complex issues in open dialogs and brainstorming sessions
  • perform collaborative work, for example designing, planning, etc.
  • build emotional and psychological connections to support teamwork 

Kinds of Meetings: Face-to-face and Virtual

There are virtual, face-to-face, synchronous and asynchronous meetings.  The right mix is important to optimize meeting effectiveness.  Face-to-face meetings enable "human moments" – the "in-person connection where we feel the closeness that allows bull’s eye contact, the kind of interaction that resonates, moves people, and makes a lasting impression. Such moments allow a powerful psychological encounter that simply cannot happen on-line." [1]  

Face-to-face meetings support team building by providing the room for the emotional and psychological connection that better enables collaboration.  At the same time, face-to-face meetings are expensive, particularly when team members are not co-located.  For example, in one situation, face-to-face status meetings for a high-profile project were being held in a location that required three of four attendees to travel an hour to the meeting location, the office of the project's sponsor.  Each half-hour meeting therefor cost the three attendees an additional two hours each, more than a quarter of their work day.

When we analyze the situation, we acknowledge that the first few meetings were worth the cost.  They established relationships between the sponsor and managers accountable for the project.  With that relationship established it became possible to transition to virtual video meetings, enabling the three participants to make more efficient use of their time.  The video simulated face-to-face contact though it is still not the same as when the participants are co-located.


Synchronous and Asynchronous

In this case, the participants chose to keep the meetings synchronous - the participants being present at the same time.  The alternative is an asynchronous meeting.  This is often not recognized as a meeting, since the participants are not there at the same time.  However, we can see with a closer look that a group of people are joining together to accomplish a purpose - exchanging status information, solving a problem, or writing and editing a document.  

In an asynchronous approach to our example, the status information would have been posted on the project site and the sponsor would access it there and, as needed, engage in a question and answer dialog by posting to the site.  This approach requires the right collaboration tools and the willingness to use them. 

The efficiency gained by enabling the participants to choose the most convenient times and places to engage in the "meeting" could make the exchange less effective because the attention required to make the most of the situation might not be there.  It is far easier for attendees to be distracted when they are not present at the same time or cannot see one another.  If they are all able to see one another, peer pressure keeps them focused.  In addition, there is the possibility that participants won’t access the site and read or listen to the content.

Look at the costs and benefits of different kinds of meetings and choose the ones that are most efficient and effective.


Meaningful Meetings

No matter what kind of meeting, it must be meaningful.  One of the most critical goals in projects is to maximize the time project staff spends performing productive, meaningful work.  Individual and group work sessions (e.g., collaborative design sessions) generally are most effective when they have two to four hours of uninterrupted time.  If the work day is filled with sync-ups, presentations, administrative and status meetings (all of them important), the time for doing the work of creating deliverables is reduced.  The stop and start time required when work sessions are interrupted by inconveniently timed meetings causes productivity to fall.[2]

Group work sessions are meetings at which people come together to produce a deliverable, make a decision, plan or otherwise contribute to the project in a concrete accomplishment oriented way.  They might include information transfers, design sessions, reviews, etc.  

Minimize time spent at informational and administrative meetings, but do not eliminate them. They are important but need to be scheduled and managed to maximize productivity.  The more you and your organization make use of collaboration tools, the fewer of these you need. Collaboration tools enable asynchronous meetings.


Meetings Are Tasks

To make meetings meaningful and productive, plan, schedule and execute them as you would any task.  Keep attention on the "agenda" -- the work that you have decided to do during that session.  Protect against interruptions.  Depending on your situation, turn off phones and notifications.  Put tangential issues on a parking lot list and avoid getting caught in discussions that are off topic or at a level of detail that is not in-keeping with the meeting purpose.

Make effective use of asynchronous and virtual meetings, recognizing that they require the right technology and the self-discipline of participants to stay focused and contribute. At the same time, recognize the power of face-face meetings and the need for human moments.

In other words, take the time and effort to plan the way you will communicate and collaborate in your projects by holding the right meetings among the right participants given the needs of your environment with its unique social, technological and cultural conditions.

[2] 2 NY Times Magazine Feb 28, 2016, "Meet is Murder" by Virginia Heffernan, p.30


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: George Pitagorsky, PMP, integrates core disciplines and applies mindfulness meditation and people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. George authored Managing Expectations: A Mindful Approach to Achieving Success, The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict in Projects and PM Foundation. He is a senior teacher at the NY Insight Meditation Center.

Online 1/4/2018
George Pitagorsky
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