PM Clinic: Week 10 Summary

Topic: Meetings, bloody meetings

Compiled: 12/16/2004

The Situation:

A two part situation.

1. The overall project leader, my boss, is a kind of blowhard. In our team meetings he wastes all kinds of time talking about things no one cares about (war stories, pet peeves, bad jokes, etc). He seems to believe that he's entertaining, but few others share this belief. So our weekly team meetings are tortured affairs. He doesn't follow his own agenda, and has little sense of urgency about using up so many people's time.

2. When I try to run lean meetings on my own sub-team, it's hard to get people to come. Everyone thinks any meeting that happens will be more like my boss's meetings (slow, boring, annoying, and dominated by team leader guy). So I'm struggling to convince people that my meetings will be different, and then once they come, struggling to actually make them different, since they behave much like they do in the big team meeting (stay quiet and hope it ends soon).

So I'm looking for two different piles of advice. First, how to deal with a team manage that has horrible meeting habits. And second, how to get people to trust me in meetings and show up, and then once they're there, how to keep meetings short and effective.

- Meetings, Bloody meetings, San Francisco, CA, USA

Meeting basics

  • There are different kinds of meetings. The status meaning is a very different beast from a design discussion. The number of people in the room and the goals of the meeting all change how the person running the meeting should go about it.
  • Ask "Why are we having this meeting?" and "what are the goals of this meeting?". If everyone is clear on the answers, they'll agree there is a reason they are in the room, and a reason to invest energy in the discussion. For example, consider: What questions do we need to answer in this meeting? Are the topics in the agenda in service of those questions? How long should this meeting take (base it on previous successful meetings of this type). Who needs to be in the room? Who "could" be in the room?
  • If you are the meeting organizer, and you've clearly defined the goals, solicit input on how to make the meeting effective, and as short as possible, while still satisfying the goal of the meeting. They more involved people are in setting the agenda or other aspects of the meeting, the more involved and interested they'll tend to be.
  • Good meetings have someone facilitating them, keeping people on track and taking the floor away from people who talk about irrelevant things. Good meetings also have someone setting an agenda early on, and hold the meeting to whatever time limits per topic the agenda requires.
  • One alterative to status meetings is to break it up - If there are 10 people who are in the meeting, go door to door and collect status on your own. This is way more time efficient for everyone else, and if it only takes 5 minutes to talk to each person, it still only takes you an hour to collect status information.
  • For recurring meetings, Faisal pointed out you must consider the team dynamic. Some teams communicate well naturally and self-organize easily: an informal casual structure might be just fine. Other teams may need more structure, tighter agendas, and clearer rules for how the meeting will be run.

A warning for status meetings

A common status meeting behavior is "go around the room and tell us what's going on". This is easy, convenient, and seemingly democratic, but Scott was terrified of these kinds of meetings. They tend to force people to believe they have to say something to establish that they are working hard. It also tends to push people towards self-promotion. The real question should be "What is happening that will impact other people?" or go for the standard status trio "What is the most important thing that has gone well? What is the most important thing that has gone poorly? What can the team do to help improve the thing that's gone poorly?". So if you do the go around the room thing, make sure everyone has it beat into their brains exactly what kinds of comments have value to the group, and what you as meeting organizer expect to get out of the exercise.

Dealing with blowhards

For whatever reason, not many people commented on this one.

The simplest approach is to ask for more control over the meeting. Ask the manager to delegate responsibility for the meeting to you or someone else. Once you have power over the meeting, it will be easier to deal with the problem manager's behavior. Start perhaps by asking for the responsibility of setting the agenda, and slowly work your way into running the meeting itself.

Another approach is to get the manager to agree to a set of ground rules for behavior in meetings, including a defined way the person running the meeting can hold people accountable to those rules. Get the manager to agree that he/she also has to follow these rules. Then in the meeting when they take over the floor for silly and annoying reasons, you can rely on the rule/agreement to pull things back on track. Won't always work, but it's worth a shot.


See the SCRUM method for stand up meetings.

Meetings, bloody meetings. A short training film staring John Cleese (of Monty Python). There's a series of them, but this is the only one I've seen.


Neil Enns, Casey McKinnon, Gareth Howell, Faisal Jawdat, Scott Berkun (editor dude)




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