Meetings, bloody meetings! We all remember the video John Cleese created many years back (well, some of us do, anyway), and the recent video "“Conference Call in Real Life” that is great for some big yuks. But how do you run effective virtual meetings?
I felt prompted to write this article when I saw the many comments after a colleague posted a link to the “Conference Call in Real Life”. I thought this demonstrated that there may be a need to provide a few guidelines on how to conduct virtual meetings effectively. Professional behavior in virtual (and, of course, in-person) meetings is the key to success.
Collecting requirements virtually is becoming more and more common as organizations try to keep costs low. So it is more important than ever to use virtual meeting tools effectively. But it isn't all about tools. As is so often the case, it is more about the people who use the tools. After all, a wise man once said that a fool with a tool is still a fool.
So, let’s get on with it, shall we?
Tips for Meeting Chairs
So, you need to have a virtual meeting. Well, guess what? Just a like an in-person meeting, you need an agenda. Send it out ahead of time and ask that people prepare. Be clear about the meeting purpose and objectives. If it is a recurring meeting, allow people to make agenda suggestions in advance in case there are burning issues they feel need addressing that you didn’t think or know to include.
When you communicate the agenda, lay out the ground rules for the upcoming meeting. You can probably derive some ground rules from the following tips designed to help you engineer a successful meeting:
As mentioned above, you need to share decisions made and action items to which attendees commit during the meeting with the group. I find most virtual whiteboard tools are cumbersome, so I usually share a document using a word processor like Word or Google Docs.
If you are an ambidextrous cranial sort who can take notes while thinking, chairing and talking, you can do this yourself. Otherwise, ask a colleague in advance to take on that responsibility. But watch what is being typed, because it has to be accurate and reflective of what everyone agreed.
Make note only of important items and action items that have been agreed, including who is responsible and when the item is due. You can send these notes to meeting participants directly after the meeting. No more creating minutes after the fact and having people disagree with what was written since they will already have seen what was recorded during the meeting.
Highly visible decision logs and active action item lists on your collaboration site are priceless.
Noise can render a virtual meeting ineffective. Be sure extraneous noise is addressed politely and firmly. If you have to, force mute. Occasionally, people are interrupted and don’t control the situation well, talking with the intruder and failing to go on mute. You can mute them and decide to continue the meeting or not. You may need to use alternate means like their cell phone to communicate with them so they know they have committed a virtual meeting sin. This is the same as if someone gets up from an in-person meeting and leaves the room. Should you continue the meeting? Your call… maybe ask the person or the attendees as appropriate.
Having trouble getting some people to contribute? Try doing a round table about a specific issue, suggesting that each person talk for no more than a minute or two and that if they have nothing to say, just “pass”. Some people are too shy to interject, but are happy if they have time to think about what they want say and know they will receive the “talking stick” eventually. Start with someone you know won’t mind talking to give the more introverted a chance to collect their thoughts.
Tips for meeting participants:
There is a certain degree of flexibility with virtual meetings that can save time and money, and you can take advantage of easy to use features (like record and share screen) that are sometimes more difficult to do in an in-person meeting.
Virtual meetings don’t need to be like the Virtual Meeting in Real Life video, as humorous as it is since it is so very close to the reality of those in first-time virtual meetings. Let common sense, respect and preparedness rule the meeting, and success will be yours – and your team’s.
There appears to be a bit of split in the use of terminology in defining the scope of a project through the creation of the Work Breakdown Structure. Some seem to take an activities-based view, as evidenced by the template on this site called Project Work Breakdown Structure Guidelines, while others seem to take a deliverables-based approach, as found in PMI's Guidleine to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, which says that creating a WBS is the process of "... subdividing project deliverables and project work into smaller, more manageable components". Still others take a hap-hazard approach - don't worry - we won't talk about that here.
I have long held that a deliverables-based approach to project planning, executing and, most importantly, progress tracking and reporting is key to creating a mindset on a project that focuses not on what you have done (the "activity"), but on what you have produced (the "deliverable"). Have you seen status reports that focus on activities done last period, and activities planned for next period? Are they effective? How about status reports that delve into what was produced last period and what is planned to be produced next period? See the difference? One pulls you down into the whirlpool of things people did, often with no relation to why they did these things and what they hoped to accomplish. The other is much more concrete - what you produced in relation to the project WBS. You can even get very black and white about these things using the done/not done approach - a given deliverable is done, or it is not done - 0% Complete or 100% Complete. Of course, this doesn't work very well with ill-formed project schedules where a deliverable can consume many months or even years of effort. But if deliverables are concise, well defined and restricted to maximum effort levels, it works very well. Or you can consider breaking large deliverables into work products, the "done/not done" of which determine an overall %Complete, and track your deliverables that way.
If you consider a deliverable to be the output of an activity, why not flip it around and relegate activities to those things you must do to produce a deliverable? You can structure your project schedule around deliverables, and you can measure your progress based on the deliverables you have produced, or the portion of a deliverable you have produced. This ties in very nicely to Earned Value Management, but that is another topic.
How do you define the scope of your project? Are you an Activities-based or a Deliverables-based thinker? Do you measure progress based on what your team did for a period of time? Or on what they produced?