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Multi-Tasking in Project Meetings

Meeting TableIn my many years in the technology industry, I’ve spent thousands of hours in meetings, most of them as boring as all get-out. During this time I’ve seen many interesting changes. I’ve seen meeting presentation technology evolve from flip charts and story boards, to overheads, to video projectors, and most recently, to laptops in front of each participant. I’ve seen virtual meetings evolve from a rarity to a common occurence. But, one thing that has persisted in all the years is people not paying attention.The cause is very simple. Our meetings are too long, too frequent, and downright boring. Most of the topics covered affect a small portion of the attendees, and the person who gets the most out of the meetings is the leader. These people get a warm-fuzzy from being able to see their charges listen to what they have to say, week after week. By holding regular meetings, they can tick the communications box on their management checklist, but, the truth is, most meeting attendees are only partly engaged as they read through their Outlook inboxes, chat with a colleague over IM, or day dream about that party last weekend.

Now, before I get to my solutions to this nightmare, I must tell you a story…

Years ago, in a small divison of a very large corporation, I cut my teeth as an electrical engineer. This was when I had my first exposure to project review meetings. I used to marvel at how one of the project managers in attendence, let’s call him Ted, could somehow pay attention while he read through his stack of postal mail. Never fail, at each of our weekly R&D staff meetings Ted would tote in his six-inch thick stack of letters, memos and manilla envelopes, plop it down on the conference table in front of him, and proceed to open and read through them, all while nodding at the presentations and making a comment or two now and again. I was completely impressed until I realized fully what was missing. Ted was a brilliant engineer who could, had he been more engaged, contributed a great deal more to the meeting and the projects being reviewed. The reason Ted didn’t pay better attention was that he was bored silly and had to find a way to occupy his mind. As the years went by, I observed Ted’s stack of paper mail morph into a stack of email hardcopy and then eventually into an open laptop where he dilligently worked through his inbox. Just ponder all the lost value to the company from the boring meetings he attended. Worse still, I also observed others taking his lead and doing similar things to keep their minds from going numb.

I told you this story to make the point that “Meetings, Bloody Meetings”**, must be stopped.

As project managers in charge of scheduling and leading our own meetings, it is our responsibility to maximize the value each individual brings to the company. Here are the things you can do to keep your meetings from becomming an excuse to multi-task for your expensive team:

  • Don’t hold regular staff or project meetings at all. Recurring meetings are the worst offenders because we feel obligated to come up with something to fill the time slot rather than cancel the meeting. Instead, spend the time on focused working sessions to solve project problems. Only invite those individuals who MUST be present to each of these meetings and then cc the rest with minutes and conclusions if they have a peripheral need to know. The best meeting is a ‘when needed’ meeting.
  • If you really must have regular meetings, keep them as short as possible and to the point. If possible, run them as stand-up, 10-minute sessions each morning to review action items for the day. The lack of chairs keeps people from getting comfortable. Also, people are more likely to attend if they know the meeting is short.
  • Use a flip chart or whiteboard to capture issues that come up that are off topic and can be covered at another time when you can bring together the appropriate folks (we call this a parking-lot list).
  • Minimize slide shows, A.K.A., PowerPoint Hell. Spend time to select the critical few slides to share and utilize a dynamic mechanism (e.g., flip-chart or whiteboard) to keep people engaged and contributing.
  • Don’t wait for your next staff meeting to share company announcements or policy changes. Instead, either forward the memos you receive, or better still, summarize them with the key points and action items, and send the full memos as attachments.
  • One last suggestion: As is true with educating children, one-on-ones are the most efficient way to communicate. Where I was ‘raised’ we called this MBWA, or Management by Walking Around. It was practiced by the best leaders, from project managers to the very top of the organization, and was extremely effective.

So, go forth and put a stop to your own ‘bloody’ meetings and crank up the productivity of your team.

** If you’d like to see a hilarious parody of a really bad meeting, checkout “Meetings, Bloody Meetings“, a video staring John Cleese, of Monty Python fame. It’s expensive, but as an educational experience for a large group of meeting leaders, it is well worth the price of admission. It will give everyone a good laugh, but also pause to think about how their meetings have elements of these poorly run time-wasters.


Loyal has more than 25 years of engineering and management experience in high-tech R&D, manufacturing, and information technology. He has worked as a design engineer, project manager, section manager and manufacturing engineering manager and has led teams that included virtual and telecommuting contributors from all over the world. He is an expert in the use of collaborative technologies for virtual teams and has led advanced technology research teams chartered with improving the effectiveness of virtual workers. He is currently building a virtual work support site at http://commutezero.com/. Feel free to visit and contribute to the effort.

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About the Author

Loyal has more than 28 years of project engineering and management experience in R&D, manufacturing, and information technology. He has worked in the high-tech industry as a design engineer, R&D section manager and manufacturing engineering manager, and has led teams that included virtual and telecommuting contributors from all over the world. He is an expert in the use of collaborative technologies for virtual teams and has led advanced technology development efforts to improve the effectiveness of virtual workers. He is founder of calendarism.com and leads a blog site for virtual teams and collaboration tools at commutezero.com. He has a degree in Electronics and Computer Science and lives in California's Silicon Valley. Loyal can be contacted at loyal@commutezero.com
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One Response to “Multi-Tasking in Project Meetings”

  1. Amen! It’s so bad these days, we have meetings to plan our meetings. And we don’t pay attention in those either!

    When I was attending college, everyone on our campus had a standard-issue laptop. I was amazed at how students would keep them open during classes playing some online game or doing email. I’m talking about class sizes of 10-20 students, so it’s in the realm of many meetings.

    At first, I was doing it a little too. As I became conscious of the behavior around me however, it made me realize that doing anything on my laptop besides taking notes was a waste of my time, money, and was rude to my instructor and classmates.

    Since that realization, my behavior changed and I noticed a great deal more benefit from my classes. Becoming fully engaged opened up new lines of inquiry I never would have explored.

    The same is true for meetings. When I’m running a meeting, I find it helpful to walk around. For those in the room with me, they are much less likely to be unfocused on the discussion at hand if I’m standing 2 feet away from them.

    Josh Nankivel
    pmStudent.com
    The Art of Project Management

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