Friday, April 17, 2015

Leading Meetings


I spent this past weekend with my son at a scouting event for scouts and scouters from across Central Maryland which included a large meeting that was run by a youth leader of probably 18 or 19 years of age. As I drove home, I realized that what I had witnessed was similar to many meetings that I have attended with the "same as it always has been" agenda and too many opportunities for too many people to speak. My son described the meeting as "boring" and he is right. However, age and maturity helped me see through the boring repetition and glean out the important information that was imparted. 
My son and I discussed a couple of things as we drove home from camp. I asked him what made the meeting boring. He said basically it was too long and too many people talk too much. I told him that I know many adults who don't know how to put together an agenda and lead a meeting so I didn't expect this 18 year old young man to be able to do it. I do, however, expect an adult to help teach him.

I've witnessed many types of youth leadership education because of my two oldest children being involved in them. I've also attended many leadership opportunities for myself as an adult. Very few of the opportunities that  I've attended and I don't think any of the youth ones I've encountered broach the subject of being a presiding officer at a meeting. 
I'm an architect by education and licensure. I'm a project manager by definition of my firm. I have the opportunity to lead people in both my profession and in my volunteer activities. All of those titles and opportunities have something in common: I lead many meetings and attend many meetings: design meetings that I prepare and chair, OAC meetings that I actively participate in but do not chair, scheduling and management meetings inside our office, board meetings, committees meetings, way too many meetings!

There is a common thread through all of these meetings: when the presiding officer or leader is prepared and executes a well thought out agenda, the meeting tends to flow better and be more efficient. When the meeting is not planned or poorly thought out, boredom may ensue. I have some thoughts about how to plan and execute a meeting that are beneficial to all involved in meetings. 


1. Understand the Purpose of the Meeting
Meetings can have many different purposes. Some are presentational in nature: we present our design work to our clients and they offer feedback. The agenda for these meetings are fairly straightforward as is the discussion and flow of the meeting. The minutes are straightforward and easy to prepare. Other meetings, such as Owner-Architect-Contractor meetings, are held on a regular basis for a finite duration and with a set agenda. Here, too, the minutes are easy to prepare. 
Other meetings are to discuss problems or issues. On a large project that I'm involved in, we have many meetings to review submittal comments or RFI responses as our client takes a heavy hand in reviewing submittals and RFI responses. These meetings are either face to face, via conference call or some combination of the two. There typically is not an agenda but the meeting involves a review of the submittal comments or RFI responses so that sets the flow of the conversation. Board meetings are held with less frequency tend to follow a typical agenda of allowing committees to report, chapters or other groups to report, review of old business and allowance for discussion of new business.

Regardless of the purpose of the meeting, all attendees should understand the purpose and be prepared to participate in the meeting efficiently. Communication is the key to understanding the purpose and how to be prepared. That communication best occurs through the meeting agenda. 

2. Prepare an Agenda
An agenda helps set the tone and duration of a meeting. It helps set expectations for the business that will be covered in the meeting. It also helps attendees come to the meeting prepared for the discussions and better able to make decisions and be efficient in the conversations. 
The agenda should be more than a review of the minutes of the previous meeting. OAC meetings tend to be nothing more than review of the last meeting's minutes along with time allowed for new business. The trouble here is duration and preparation. It is easy to prepare for items that remained open from the previous meeting: all you have to do is review the minutes and be prepared to discuss the items that require your participation. However, the duration of these meetings are left wide open so any attendee can take control of the meeting by trying to discuss open items for a much longer duration than necessary or because of the attendee group. Also, leaving the forum wide open for any new "business" furthers the opportunity for one attendee to hijack the meeting.
A coherent and efficient agenda lists the open items that require discussion, perhaps with some notation of how to reach a conclusion to the item, along with a duration of discussion allowed. For example, I chair my church's Mission and Planning Council and therefore preside over our monthly meetings. Our agenda opens with approval of the previous meeting's minutes, a review of committee business and then discussion of open items from the last meeting. I allow limited time for each item and then expect the discussion to move on. The time limit is noted on the agenda which allows us to end after an hour or at least minimize our time because of this efficiency. 
In order for the agenda to be most effective, it should be prepared and sent out well in advance of the meeting. This is especially critical when the meetings occur infrequently or have a varying agenda. Our Mission and Planning Council meets monthly, so the distribution of the agenda allows for members to be reminded that the meeting is forthcoming. Our design meetings typically have varying agendas depending on phase of design and the issues that have been raised on the project. While these meetings may occur biweekly, sending that agenda out early is critical to ensure that all are prepared for each meeting.

3.  Arrive Early
Early arrival allows the meeting to start on time. Presiders who respect the time of all attendees will receive more respect for their time and their ideas. Make sure the room is set up and has enough chairs. Pass out copies of any materials before the meeting starts by leaving in front  of seats anticipated to be filled. Have the sign in sheet ready and make sure everyone signs in. 
For recurring meetings, I use an Excel spreadsheet that already contains the regular attendees names so all they have to do is initial or place a check mark next to their name. This saves time and makes the attendees feel like they are welcomed and are special. 

4.  Work the Agenda

During the meeting, follow the agenda. There is nothing more frustrating to me than a meeting that doesn't have a clear leader. When the meeting lacks a leader, it is a free-for-all that tends to revolve around ego and who wants to be heard the most. As the presiding officer or leader of the meeting, you should constantly endeavor to keep the meeting flowing along the agenda. You don't have to cut off important conversation at the times noted on the agenda, but recognize when the discussion needs to move on. There is nothing worse than uncomfortable silence or long-winded story tellers to drive all participants to check their phones and therefore check out of the meeting. 

However, there are times when even the best meeting leaders fail. I had a client once whose culture revolved around the loudest in the room got his way. Meetings with this client were incredibly inefficient and at times painful. 


5.  Take Accurate Notes

Part of the duty of the meeting leader is to ensure that accurate minutes are distributed in a timely manner. It is difficult to run the meeting and take good notes. I worked with a GC once who brought his admin assistant to the meeting to take notes for him. That worked well but is an expense that not all firms or contracts can bear. 

I tend to use my iPad because I can type faster than I can write. When I do write, I have a short-hand that I've developed which helps with speed. I've also noted that with most meeting attendees, brief pauses to allow for note taking are not an issue, especially if they lead to good minutes follow the meeting. 

Part of accurate meeting notes is getting the attendees accurately recorded. I touched on the sign-in sheet earlier. I usually take my own notes of attendees on my meeting notes to ensure that I have an accurate record.

6.  Distribute the Minutes Quickly

Any OAC meeting whose agenda tends to be a review of the previous meeting's minutes probably has those minutes distributed the evening before the next meeting. I feel it is incredibly disrespectful to all involved to not distribute the minutes earlier. I have a 5 business day rule for myself and I almost always hit it. I know we all get busy with other projects and other business on the project that the meeting is about but its difficult to prepare for the next meeting without the reminder of what happened last time. 

Minutes also form an incredibly important part of the project record. We tend to work on large projects which mean thousands of decisions, dozens of meetings and very long design and construction durations. Its hard to remember why we didn't put natural gas in chemical fume hoods three years after the decision was made. Meeting minutes help with everyone's memory, especially those who have selective memory!
7.  Constantly Evaluate Recurring Meetings

Consider the purpose, duration, location, invitees and every facet of the meeting regularly. When I start a design project, I schedule out every meeting for the entire design duration. Recurring meetings work best when they are regularly scheduled, on the same date and time and in the same location. People get used to attending every other Tuesday at 8:30A and you are able to get better attendance and better preparation. 

When I took over as chair of my parish Mission and Planning Council, I knew I had to change the culture of the meetings. Committee business was occupying way too much time. Agenda items were included that didn't have a purpose. The meetings were boring and took way too long. While not perfect, we've addressed most of these concerns. 

Evaluating attendees is probably the hardest part. Many of our clients tend to invite the entire project team and sometimes that is not appropriate. I also have CM's who like to say "the architect isn't really needed in this meeting." Both of those are problematic for different reasons. If you have attendees who don't say a word for several meetings in a row and don't seem to be participating in any of the business covered in the meeting, excusing them from attendance might be in order. Conversely, if you constantly hear "we need so-and-so to make that decision" maybe so-and-so should be invited to attend. If decisions are made and then reversed by someone not in attendance, like the architect in the my comment above, then perhaps that person should be invited.
Meetings are a necessary to many businesses, but especially in construction. Even the smallest project has an owner, A/E team and builder who need to collaborate and communicate regularly. Meetings are essential to that level of communication and collaboration. Hopefully, you can work these seven points into your management of your projects and make your meetings shorter and more efficient.

2 comments: said...

Thanks for raising this role of leadership. I add one more suggestion: Know Parliamentary Procedure or have a competent parliamentarian at the meeting. A few years ago, the CSI Annual Meeting was brought to a standstill by a simple procedural motion that could have been dealt with in 60 seconds had the chair understood the motion. (I regret to say, I was the one who made the motion. My intentions were noble, however, as the intent was to move the agenda along.)

Marvin Kemp, AIA, CSI, CDT said...

Thanks, Michael. You are absolutely correct. I was at that annual meeting and remember the events. When I was elected chapter president, our chapter secretary gave me a pocket guide to Parliamentary Procedure which I passed on to my successor.