How to Have More Productive Meetings?
If you have ever sat through a painfully long meeting for a school project, you are not alone. Many of your seniors have been through that traumatic experience as well. That’s not the worst part. At the end of a lengthy 6-hours meeting, no conclusion is drawn and the progress of the project is at the point it was 6 hours ago. Members of the group decided to call it a day and come back one week later to repeat the same process of unproductive meeting. What a nightmare!
Project meetings are found to be among the biggest consumers of time in an undergraduate’s life. This is not surprising, given that universities in Singapore and all around the world are introducing more and more projects into their curriculum to inject the workplace realism into school. Almost all modules in school are accompanied by projects, even those in some engineering courses these days. Just imagine the amount of time you can save if you simply have productive project meetings. The prevalence of this issue has prodded us to write a guide to resolve the matter. Conducting a productive project meeting not only mean that you spend lesser time with your group mates, but you are also more likely to score higher marks for your project as you get more things done that hit the nail right on its head, which is going to blow your Prof away. Let’s explore the ABCs of a productive project meeting now.
What Exactly is Wrong?
Before we go to the guidelines, let us first look at the underlying root causes so that we can nip it in the bud. The common problems associated with lengthy, draggy and unproductive project meetings boils down to the following:
Top 4 Fatal Causes of Unproductive Meeting
#1 Leadership: None or too many leaders
In project meetings, it becomes apparent that the culture of civility and courtesy is deeply embedded within the fabric of our society. Typically, we see team members who are so unassuming and friendly they have no intentions of asserting leadership. Even the appointed leader does not wish to exercise his authority. So everyone comes to a meeting looking and smiling at each other for many hours, not knowing what to do. As a result of that, the meeting goes on and on without making any headway with the project. Without someone to take the initiative and steer the group in the right direction, the discussion (if any) is likely to go off on a tangent, taking hours on end.
In the more uncommon scenario, we see groups with too many members wanting to be leaders. A power struggle ensues and members become more concerned with politics and being the boss than with getting work done. This is extremely detrimental for the progress of the project. When ego is at play, you end up arguing and wanting to be right than wanting the best for the group. There simply can’t be 2 tigers in a mountain. They will be spending all the time killing each other, while you watch in amazement. Bring out your popcorn.
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#2 Small talks
What is the latest movie to catch? What did you have for lunch just now? yada yada
While small talks are crucial for relationship building between group mates, it can be lethal if it gets excessive, especially when one of the members get carried away and start detailing his/her life story. And when you try to curtail the small talk, everyone looks at you like you are a cold-blooded animal. Good luck when you are assigned to a ‘social’ group.
Technology is a double-edged sword and adds another layer of complexity to project meetings. When your group-mates are looking engrossingly at their laptop and/or mobile phone, you can’t help but wonder if they are doing work or surfing Facebook. Then you realize that 5 people are gathered together physically to go on social media and talk to others digitally. They are so drawn in that they are almost climbing into their laptops, and you feel bad about interrupting them. You then wished you are at home doing something else more productive instead of awkwardly facing each other, but you can’t voice that out or you will be seen as uncooperative. What now?
Tip #4 Membership
There are all kinds of people you will encounter who will pose a challenge to the productivity of the project meeting.
a. Perpetually Late member
Meeting is supposed to start at 10am and he/she arrives at 11am. You are left with half an hour before you have to leave for your next class. What can you discuss in half an hour ? Meeting adjourned. You wanted to give him a piece of your mind but he apologizes profusely, saying that he had to help a grandmother cross the road. The next meeting, history repeats itself.
No matter what ideas you suggest or points you provide, he dismisses it off like trash. His way of doing things is always right and the entire group has to listen to his instructions. No one dares to stand up against him even though his own ideas are full of crap. Meet the university Hitler.
This guy is on the other end of the spectrum from the dictator. While dictator is overzealous and usually takes on heavy workload, freeloader just wants to sit back and chill. He does what is minimally required and with half-hearted attempt, riding on the effort and hard work of his group members, not feeling guilty at all.
10 Tips to the Most Productive Meeting Ever
Don’t go all depressive now, we are not going to leave you in the lurch after telling you why your project meetings are not turning out the way you want it to. Having listed down all the components of awry project meetings, we shall delve into what you can do now. If you think it is impossible for you alone to have an impact in creating productive project meetings for a group of 5, you are wrong. Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If Gandhi can succeed in changing the behavior of an entire nation of several hundred millions of people , you have no excuse with your project team of 5 people. Of course, that applies only if you read and follow closely what is going to be taught in the next section. Continue reading! This section is divided into 4 things you can do outside of your meeting and 6 things within the meeting itself to ensure productivity.
A. Outside of Meeting
Tip #1 Come Prepared
The first thing you have to be clear about is the purpose of a project meeting. It is not just 4 or 5 people gathering to see and smile to each other. You can save that for a social gathering. The point of meeting up each other is to discuss and get past deadlocks through synergistic thinking. It is not easy to gather 5 busy students with differing timetables together, so do what you are supposed to do ! Discuss!! A fruitful discussion cannot take place if members are not prepared for the discussion outside of meeting in the first place. Here’s what you should do before each of these meetings to maximize the time spent in meeting:
A. 1st meeting:
Do your part as a member by reading up on the project objectives and conceiving ideas for the direction of the project before you turn up for the 1st meeting. During meeting, everyone will throw out their ideas, whether it is feasible or not and put on the table for discussion. If things go well, the ideas will ride on one another to produce an eventual superb idea that sets the stage for your project.
B. Follow-up meetings:
Prepare yourself by finishing up on what you are supposed to do for your part of the project. Prepare any questions/issues that you faced while attempting your work to bring up for discussion. Chances are, you need the group’s opinion on how to proceed. Many brains are better than one.
If majority of the members have not completed their assigned work for whatever reasons(i.e. their cats gave birth or their goldfish died that week), there is no point in meeting up, really. The meeting will be futile anyway as there is nothing up for discussion. We don’t need to gather 5 people in the same place to start working on their assigned tasks, it will be a tremendous waste of each other’s time. Call off the meeting and postpone it perhaps one week later when everyone is fully prepared.
C. Final meeting:
Be prepared to talk and present your part. Typically, the finale of the project requires you to make a presentation, along with submission of a report. Be well-acquainted with the material that you have researched and present it to your group-mates so that they can point out any areas of improvement for you to do a final touch-up before you head for the “execution hall”. Well, if you are not prepared, then you lose out on the valuable feedback that your group-mates can offer to you, and you may risk disgracing yourself in front of the whole class.
The bottom line is to simply come for meetings PREPARED, with the preparation required dependent on the stage of the project as stated above. We can’t emphasize this enough. An unprepared meeting is an unproductive meeting.
Tip #2 Set Agenda
Think about some of the most productive meetings that you have sat through- conferences, seminars and even wedding ceremonies. None of these meetings ended without addressing the objectives of the meeting and they all end on time(most of them at least). Have you come to the end of a wedding ceremony only to have the couple remained unwed?
These meetings all have a similarity that ensures their productivity; that is the agenda. Small or big, important or insignificant; meetings require an agenda for it to be effective. No meeting is too trivial for it to adopt an agenda. Having an agenda ensures that the goals of the meeting are addressed and the meeting does not go on and on forever.
An example of an agenda is shown below. Of course, you don’t need to have an official agenda like the one you see here and adhere to it like a rulebook. You will probably intimidate your group-mates with this. At the very least, you need to have a rough idea of the goals of the meeting and the vague timeline in your head to be able to steer the team in the meeting smoothly.
|10am||Sharing of problems faced|
|11am||Resolving of issues|
|12pm||Home Sweet home|
A long-winded meeting is a result of the team digressing and going severely off track from the main points of discussion, floating into the airy-fairy realms. An agenda does wonders in bringing the team back to planet earth when they realize that an hour has passed and the first item has not even been settled.
That is not to say that gossiping, chatting and talking nonsense is not allowed in project meetings. Come on, university is a time to have fun and make friends after all! After you are done with the agenda of the meeting, by all means, set aside time to verify the latest rumor you heard about the prettiest girl in class. The best part ; when the goals of the meeting are tackled, the weight is taken off everyone’s shoulders. All of you will feel relieved and have a jolly good time chatting J.
Tip #3 Utilize Technology
Technology is amazing and it has enabled us to work on our project even if we are not physically present with our group. That means you can be at your home in your pajamas while you participate in a group meeting with your group-mates. These are some of the essential project tools which have made that possible:
WhatsApp– The group chat feature allows all members to communicate conveniently with one another at the same time. Discussions can also take place on WhatsApp.
Dropbox– All your work, research and reports done can be uploaded on Dropbox to allow cross-viewing with your group-mates. Create a folder to contain all these project files and organize it neatly. Never again will you face difficulty in locating a file.
Google Docs– More than 2 people can work on a document at the same time, making it so much more efficient to carry out a project. The changes are reflected real-time, saving the effort needed for compilation work.
Tip #4 Estimate number of meetings required based on weightage
For goodness sake, don’t meet 10 times for a project that only makes up 5% of coursework. The weightage component is there for a reason, a good reason. It is an accurate indicator of how much work your prof expects from this project. Its your Prof’s way of telling you not to spend too much time and effort on this project, so please get the hint. For whatever reasons, you want to spoil the market and produce an exceptional piece of work for the 5% project, we will not stop you. But we would rather you divert the effort to a project that has a higher weightage and will give you more bang for the buck.
The 80/20 rule or Pareto principle(which you should have learnt at economics lesson) states that for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Likewise for projects, more often than not, 80% of your results comes from ONLY 20% of your effort, which means the other 80% of your effort pretty much went to nought(or only 20% of your grades). So you could have saved that 80% of effort for something else and not on that particular project and still get almost the same grades! Can you imagine how much time & effort savings that would be ? If you are a loner and have nothing to do, there is no stopping you from spending time on your project though, purely as a way to occupy yourself. Otherwise, if you are like most people and you have a life in university, you may want to consider this:
Number of meetings required for a 5-10% project : >= 1 x 2 hours
Number of meetings required for a 20-30% project : >= 3 x 2hours
Number of meetings required for a 40-50% project : >= 7 x 2hours
Number of meetings required for final year project: pretty much almost everyday.
*Please note that the above serves as a recommendation based on our experience, not a hard and fast rule to planning number of project meetings as it depends hugely on the type of module as well.
The 80/20 rule in project manifests itself in another dimension- requirements of project. If you want to spend time on beautifying your power point slides or report, do so after you are done with the project. We have seen groups taking more time in designing their end product than in producing actual content. We have nothing against this practice if you are in a design course and are graded for your aesthetic talent, but if you are not, then why are you spending so much time on doing this? Be clear about what the prof is looking out for and direct most of your effort in meeting his requirements and you can cut 80% of your effort and time spent on this project !
Tip#5 Make friends
No one wants to work with a jerk, learning how to be sensitive to the feelings of your group-mates will ensure that your ideas are easily accepted by others, your requests are acceded to without much resistance and your group mates stay motivated and enthusiastic, knowing that they are in the same project group as a nice person.
– Critique ideas, not people
– Seek to understand before being understood (which means basically to listen)
– When offering areas for improvement, always buffer it with something good first
– Stay open to ideas, no matter how bad you think it is.
– Never use the word “But” when evaluating ideas. It’s a taboo. Psychologically, it raises the defense system of someone. Say “Yes…..and” instead of “yes….but”.
– Be concise and to-the-point when voicing ideas, saving everyone’s time.
– Keep your phone off limits during meeting
– Be punctual
– Offer solutions, not problems.
Tip #6 Set Ground Rules
For a group that will be dispersed at the end of the semester, this is not exceptionally important to have. Rather, if you are in a project group that is going to stick together for a long time, you need to consider this aspect. Setting ground rules ensures a smooth long term working relationship that is free of disputes due to unmanaged expectations. Ground rules include:
- Where to meet? Choose a place which is central to everyone.
- What is the timeslot to meet? Considering everyone’s timetable and commitment
- What is the preferred form of communication ? email/WatsApp/Facebook?
- What do you all hope to achieve out of this project ? Good grades/Just pass/real learning?
( You will understand why each member behave differently in the meetings)
- What is it that each of you can’t stand? Lateness, negative attitude, etc.
- Anything else that you feel will lead to a common understanding for better working relationship
Tip#7 Share workload
Yes, sometimes you end up in a group with members who are more laid-back which is in fact, likely. It is rare to be surrounded by gung-ho people all the time, unless you form your own group of course. However, it doesn’t mean that if the members are slightly more passive and quiet, then they are incompetent or uninterested. In fact, in the bestselling book “Quiet” , it has been found soft spoken individuals do more and talk less. They may even be more intelligent than their vocal counterpart, even though they do not express it.
So please don’t tank all the work and shoulder everything yourself. This is not only bad for your health, but also extremely harmful for your group. In fact, limiting the contribution of effort in a group project to just a few louder members is one surest path to the downfall of your group and project.
To prove this point to you, think about some of the most successful websites on the internet: Wikipedia, Facebook & twitter. They all made use of the wisdom of the crowd to beef their humongous library of content, a concept known as crowdsourcing. Wikipedia as a knowledge source has completely trounced its competitor Encyclopedia Britannica. In March 2012, 244 years after it was first published, Jorge Cauz, president of Encyclopedia Britannica Inc announced that the current print version of the famous Encyclopedia will be its last. Let us look at the backdrop: There are 4000 contributors for Encyclopedia Britannica including 110 Nobel Prize winners and 5 US presidents, but apparently, they cannot outsmart the 751, 426 contributors for Wikipedia including your neighbors. Source: Mashable.
Likewise, if you do not want your group to face the same fate as Britannica, you should pick up a lesson or two from this groundbreaking episode. “Crowd source” your project work as well ! Remember that everyone in your group wants to contribute to make this a successful project(just like Wikipedia), so assign work to them or ask them for their opinion/ideas in propelling the project forward. If you happen to be one of those underutilized members, then take the initiative to ask for workload and how you can help out. Legendary psychologist, Viktor Frankl said: “If we take man as he should be, we make him capable of becoming of what he can be.” Have faith in your group members and they will surprise you with their capability. On how to delegate properly, refer to the next point.
Tip #8 Understanding personality types
We are not going to ask you to treat your group-mates like patients and make them answer a 100pages questionnaire to find out their personalities. There are many different types of personality tests in the market. The one that consistently works well for us is the DOPE bird 4 personality types test which is one of the simplest and most practical for sizing someone up in the quickest time.
Understanding the personality types of you and your group members could be the single most effective measure in improving the productivity of your meetings. This allows your team to allocate the correct task to the most suitable person. A member who is assigned what he/she is most comfortable in doing will excel in that role, taking the least amount of time in producing the best work. This allows the productivity of the team to skyrocket.
If no one wants to step up as leader, a simple personality test will do the job. Don’t have to waste time in pushing and offering the role to one another.
Eagle is someone who is assertive, decisive and clear-headed. – Leader
Peacock is the life of the party and is naturally inclined to talk- Presenter and Power Point slide designer
Owl is a detail-oriented and logical person who thinks critically and evaluates ideas thoroughly- Researcher and Analyst
Dove is peace-loving, easy going and fun to hang out with – Cheerleader, food packer and/or water bottle filler. (Okay with doing most things actually.)
Of course, a simple test like this has its limitations. It is not a comprehensive personality test that will accurately help you to identify the best role for a member, but it definitely works 100times better than random assignment.
Tip #9 Managing your time effectively
Parkinson’s law states that work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion. The understanding of this law alone has helped tons of business people save tremendous amount of time in their meetings, not to mention students. One of the professed beneficiaries include New York times Bestselling Author and entrepreneur, Tim Ferris who managed to trim down to a 4hours work week as a result of the law.
That means if you don’t put a cap on the duration of your project meeting, don’t be surprised if it drags on for 6 hours. This is not too hard to reconcile since a meeting without a limit in place will induce the mentality among group members that “we have lots of time to spare”, thereby reducing the urgency to get things going. Of course, you can’t just bash into the meeting room and impose a time limit, that will make you look like a dictator. You can do the following instead
- Politely say that you have another meeting 2 hours later and need to leave at that time.
- Book a room that allows only 2 hours of duration.
- Schedule the meeting such that it is exactly 2 hours before the next class
As such, there is no other choice except to expedite the meeting and end it in 2 hours time. The time pressure forces people to be on their balls and to focus on the bare essentials. No more surfing on Facebook and cutting of toenails during meeting. The end product of the meeting will be of equal or higher quality of that produced by a 6-hours meeting. You will be amazed what Parkinson’s law can do to the productivity of your meeting.
Tip #10 Deciding What’s next?
What goes on after the meeting is as important, if not more important than what goes on within the meeting. Post-meeting is when real work is being done based on what was agreed and discussed in the proceedings of the meeting. A fruitful meeting discussion is futile if its not followed by work carried out during the free time of respective members. Here’s what you need to do to ensure things get done.
- Determine what are the tasks required to be completed by breaking down the project. Be very specific with the output expected of each task.
- Each member volunteers to take on each task, else assign according to expertise.
- Rule of thumb: everyone must be accountable for at least one task. Ensure equal workload.
- Set the next meeting date or a deadline in which the tasks have to be completed
- Write down the personal responsibility for each task in black and white. ( Don’t be surprised that many people are stricken with amnesia)
- Send out the written agreement to everyone.
Congratulations! You are now a pro at conducting productive project meetings! The tips provided above are meant to be as practicable and applicable as possible so you can easily put them to use. This means that if your project team is derailing, you have to be proactive in applying what you learn to bring them back on track. You may or may not be the leader of the team, but that does not stop you from voicing out your opinion on what is right and should be done in order to save the team. Your team members will thank you for that when they receive their stellar results for the project. More importantly, you gain excellent practical experience on what it takes to make a project meeting ultra productive. This is a life skill that will follow you throughout your entire career where project meetings are a norm.
It is an uphill task to bring the team forward with your solo action. To allow for maximum effectiveness, it is paramount that you share this guide with your team members as well, so that everyone has a common understanding on what should be done. Remember, mismatched expectations results in disputes that disrupts the meeting, so do everyone a favor by clicking on the button below to share !!
Ever want to ask a Senior everything about his/her experience? Here's your chance to talk to a senior in person. On 19Jan at the highly-touted Future Academy, you will be brought around by a senior. Registration is free! Check it out now to ask questions and engage in discussion!