We all know about the importance of meetings and how they help to get people on the same page. But we’ve all been in meetings that dragged on for hours, meetings where the discussion was wandering all over the place, and meetings with far too many people in them.

Badly conducted meetings can be harmful to the project. Let’s take Ben as an example. Ben is a (fictional) project manager who does not want to complicate relationships with stakeholders (office politics are fun, aren’t they?). His project has a rather tight schedule, and he’s called a meeting for business review of a solution. Two external parties (let’s call them Sam and Mary) have been invited to the meeting. Mary is the nominal “lead” stakeholder and Ben invited her to keep her involved in the project. Mary is pretty vocal but doesn’t really keep up with the progress of the project.

During the discussion Sam is agreeing with the presented solution, but Mary starts asking questions about previously approved documentation. Sam tries to grasp why the planned discussion suddenly took another direction. Ben allows Mary to continue to question the subject to avoid conflict with her.

So, what is the impact on the project in this situation?

Mary takes control of the discussion, the meeting runs for an extra hour, and Sam asks for an extension of project time to address Mary’s concerns because he can’t answer everything on the spot (the issues have been covered previously though). An extra meeting is required to re-confirm everything. Of course, Ben is now worried that the project is going to be overdue.

If you add in a distributed team, time zone differences and scheduling conflicts, this fairly small distraction can sidetrack the project for quite a while.

How can situations like this be prevented?

  1. Keep the meetings as small as possible, and make sure that only stakeholders with actual power to make a decision are invited.
  2. Double check to ensure that nobody in the meeting has outstanding questions about the topic to be discussed.
  3. Should the discussion veer off the agenda, don’t hesitate to remind the participants what the main objective of the meeting is and steer the discussion back.
  4. Respect time and resources booked for the meeting. It is especially important when the meeting is between people in different time zones.
  5. Be firm but polite.

Have effective and enjoyable meetings!