by Dr. Gerald Mulenburg, PMP:

I once headed up an organization for a year while their chief was off getting a masters degree in business. I soon learned that the organization had an obsessive-meeting-compulsive-disorder. It seemed like none of the managers knew how to reach a decision, including just making it, without having a meeting of all of the key people involved and discussing every aspect of what could be done and the impact of doing it.

I found my time being consumed by attending meetings that I did not need to be at, but my name had been added to the meeting via the meeting scheduling software. With this tool, others could look at my calendar and see when I was available, and just schedule me for a meeting. I soon fixed that problem by blocking out large portions of my calendar as “not available.” This helped provide me with free time to do my work, but did not slow down the number of meetings being held. They just went ahead without me, which was fine with me.

In addition to having excessive numbers of meetings, this group of managers had difficulty getting anything done that had been decided at the meeting. There was a large poster on the wall that described what a good meeting should consist of. This included:

  • Notify people in advance of the meeting, what it would be about, where, and when.
  • Have an agenda and follow it.
  • Document and assign action items with due dates and follow up at the next meeting.

Believe it or not, they did those things. The problem was that the action item list kept getting longer and longer as things didn’t get done – the due dates were just extended. Despite my best efforts to change this group’s obsessive-meeting-compulsive-disorder, I failed. But with the experience I gained with them, and with familiarity of the PMBOK’s® five key process groups, I did learn how to better manage meetings myself and have passed this information along to my students.

Looking at the five key process groups of Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing, I developed what I call Mulenburg’s Meetings as Projects. The result is quite simple and, if followed, will help guarantee if not fewer, at least more productive meetings.

– Be prepared by developing a Meeting Charter of Why the meeting will be held with Who should attend, What their roles will be, and When and Where it will be.

– Plan How the meeting will be run and develop and publish an agenda in advance with clearly articulated purpose, expectations, and responsibilities identified for those invited.

– Start on time and set the meeting rules.
– Follow the agenda.

– Have a Facilitator to manage the meeting, not the Project Manager who needs to be listening and participating.
– Occasionally summarize what has been decided or assigned and timing of agenda.

– Assign deliverables or actions with clear responsibilities and due dates.
– Circulate minutes immediately after the meeting to all attendees.

We all have heard about the need for the first three of these items for meetings, but our meetings still suffer once they begin. That’s where defining the entire meeting process as the Initiate-Plan-Execute-Monitor & Control-Close process of project management can make your meetings actually work. The key of course is to get someone besides the Project Manager to facilitate the meeting. This person can be anyone who can control who is speaking, who will speak next, and sticking to the agenda by staying on track and declaring when it is time to move on to the next agenda item. This can be when an item is complete or looks like more time will be needed, and can be tabled if needed or dealt with off-line from the current meeting.

The other key item in the process is to be sure the meeting is closed and decisions, actions, and responsibilities are delineated and documented in the minutes. Having a separate person take minutes on a laptop during the meeting allows for a quick review by the Project Manager and with one click sending them to all who attended, which is normally those who were invited to the meeting so you therefore already have their email addresses. Done! (At least until the follow-up begins for tracking the actions.)

With a little practice, this technique will ensure your meetings improve even if you never quite achieve perfection. Excellence is sufficient.