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Saturday, May 31, 2014

Effective Virtual Meetings

Today's project environments face a unique challenge in holding effective meetings that contain team members physically absent due to geographic limitations spanning multiple timezones. Let us peel the layers of effective meetings.

First, it is critical to understand the cost of meetings. Meetings are one of the easiest means to erode profit margins and consume productive hours ineffectively if  used inaccurately. For instance, putting 8 people in a room for 1 hour for project status meeting would mean 8 hours or 1 productive day of a full time employee is quickly consumed. When the idea of project management evolved in the corporate world a dew decades back, more people were inexperienced working in project environments justifying the need for project meetings. But with the evolution of project management,  removal of hierarchical decision making layers with flatter organizations, sophistication of many tools in today's world question project managers calling for unnecessary meetings. This is an indication of several causes not limited to the project management inefficiency, lack of knowledge dissemination, and communication bottlenecks.

The practices of management by walking around (MBWA) has been known for a long time where key decision managers such as the project manager shouldn't be confining themselves to cubicles or office spaces but walk around to get the updates and remove the impediments faster. The agile approaches take this planning a couple of steps higher where the daily stand up meeting is used to plan for corrective actions for the coach. so, use meetings effectively and call for meetings only with members as required. Don't call for a meeting because you don't know the answer and want to show control by bringing many to the table to get the answers to avoid project derailment.

Second, now that we have addressed quickly to eliminate unnecessary meetings, let us look at distributed team members that lack non-verbal clues.  These meetings further go beyond an actionable agenda with enough time for team members to review any required information to be prepared for the meeting.  Some norms need to exist to understand time and culture boundaries.  People may take the calls from vehicles and home, irregular hours for some participants,  etc. So, muting phones unless talking, ensuring technology clashes such as not using computer microphones creating background echoes, avoiding too many parameters like conference id, password, audio key, etc besides dialing into the bridge making it difficult for people to take the call from moving vehicles, understanding constraints with the number of ports available for group meeting, and differentiating webinar versus group meetings where one person alone can talk versus many can talk at the same time are all some examples of additional meeting etiquettes.

These supplement the known order in which people introduce themselves. For instance,  people can name the next person to talk, share input, or introduce.

Third, in these meetings,  it is equally important to avoid the pretense of multitasking. While it is a good idea to request to repeat or paraphrase questions and is perfectly understandable in a multicultural team membership,  it is not an excuse for not focusing during the meeting.

Fourth, a project manager should really understand the purpose of the meeting.  An agenda is only good if we stick to it. While we don't need to go with the same order of the agenda, it is critical to ensure we don't go on a tangent moving away from the meeting's purpose.

Finally, a meeting without the meeting minutes documenting the decisions made to avoid further meetings or actions identified on who should do what by when question the productivity of such meetings. A project manager in these cases should become a good facilitator, leader,  and coach to keep the meeting in focus, document notes, and coach the team towards effective meetings.

So, meet effectively and only when required. Would you agree?