The Chief Information Officer at a company for whom I consulted asked me to audit some of her company meetings. Her concern was that there were too many meetings facilitated by too many people and that they were largely ineffective. In this capacity I attended not only status and lessons learned sessions but also multi-day project planning meetings.
But let’s first talk about what a facilitator does. Facilitation is the “ability to effectively guide a group to a successful decision, solution, or conclusion.” A facilitator ensures that:
- There is effective participation
- Participants achieve a mutual understanding
- All contributions are considered
- Conclusions or results have buy-in from attendees
In our book, “How to Facilitate Project Planning Meetings,” my co-author and I address these necessary (if unloved) everyday business events. In that tome, our primary focus is on large multi-functional planning meetings. But many of the precepts are just as applicable to status or lessons learned sessions.
- Have an agenda and publish it in advance. People want to understand what’s going to be discussed and why it matters to them.
- Have an objective (or objectives) for the meeting. If you have that in mind, it will keep you from getting distracted.
- Know your stakeholders and make sure they are invited. As the name suggests, these are people who have a stake in the project. They need to “in the room where it happens.”
- Set expectations in advance. “I thought we were here to discuss the size and shape of the new product” is not what you want to hear.
- Facilitation is meeting management writ large. Whether the meeting is one hour or two days, keeping it moving along smoothly is your job. And you must cover everything in the agenda. And so therefore you must also …
- Be large and in charge. Too many of the meetings I observed were run by people who were more interested in being liked than respected. Don’t allow someone to hijack the session and solve technical problems or vent about a situation.
- Be flexible. All that said, you may well find that there is some nagging problem that has not been dealt with. I have advised that you must have an agenda. Now I will advise you that sometimes you have to rip it up or modify it in flight.
- Watch body language. People will communicate silently by folding their arms in front of them, giving you the “cold shoulder,” frowning, smiling, nodding or shaking their heads.
- Take off-line discussions off-line. Don’t stifle conversation rather say “we need another meeting to discuss that new data center.”
- Be culturally sensitive. You’re not there to impose your culture on the team.
- Watch out for hidden agendas. You would like to think all the stakeholders are on your side. Alas, that is not always the case.
- Be prepared. If you’re planning a large multi-day meeting with team members from various geographies, make sure your logistics (building, technical, meals) are taken care of.
- Test your technology. My meetings are typically with people from all over the world and you communications must work reliably.
- Sweat the small stuff. For want of a nail – the old saying goes – the rider was lost.
- Expect resistance. Your mother loves you, others may not.
- Plan. Both waterfall and Agile projects need planning. They just approach it differently.
- Manage conflict. Stop the meeting, pull people aside and try to either resolve or diffuse the situation.
- Maintain an action item list. And make sure before adjourning that someone owns them and has a due date. And follow up.
- Publish meeting minutes as soon as possible
These are just some of the ideas that help keep meetings on track. Running meetings well will not guarantee that your project will be on time and on budget. Many other things will affect it. But it will provide you with a level of necessary discipline and increase the probability of success.