We’ve all been at them. Those meetings where every minute feels like an hour and you struggle to listen to someone drone on about deadlines and deliverables, while trying to resist the urge to doodle.

Now imagine that you’ve travelled across a continent and left your family and work at home to attend such a meeting. You’re going to be away for at least a couple of days and you know that when you get back, you’ll have to catch up on all the work you missed. Although the meeting is taking place in Paris, you know from the past experience that you won’t even get the chance to see the Eiffel Tower. Instead, you’ll spend the two days stuck in a conference room, drinking litres of coffee, listening to dull presentations, and trying to resist the temptation to start subtly doing some work on your laptop. And in the evening, when the only thing you want to do is to tune out, you will be obliged to socialise at a dinner with people you don’t know very well. You’ll get back home feeling drained and with a long list of things to do, but somehow still unsure – or at least uninspired – about the project and its direction.

Not very motivating, is it?

So what can be done to organise a meeting that will inspire team members and get them excited about the project?

I’m not suggesting that meetings should be all-singing, all-dancing entertainment productions. The fact is, they are a valuable opportunity to get a lot done and it can be tempting to pack agendas chock-full of status reports, planning exercises, and impact measurement. After all, it’s not your job to entertain people. It’s your job to deliver this project. Right?

Kind of.

While getting work done is important, too many project managers treat project meetings only as occasions to report and plan. Meetings are far more important than that. They can promote clarification of team processes, trust building, shared interpretative context, and high identification with the team.

So, while it’s not your responsibility to ensure everyone has fun all the time, it is your responsibility to organise and run a meeting in such a way that, when the team members get back home, they’ll feel motivated and empowered, not drained!

When, where and how to organise a meeting

  • If possible, organise the meeting in an inexpensive but comfortable and pleasant location. You may be able to book a place on the outskirts of your city, with lots of space and natural landscapes. People love to visit authentic and not overly touristy places and often value the simpler hospitality of a countryside hotel more than a four-star city hotel. One of my favourite places for project meetings is the Killary Adventure Hostel in the heart of the Connemara mountains, on the West coast of Ireland. Imagine no civilisation around! Just beautiful nature. It has such a peaceful effect on those who visit.

  • Pick midweek days for meetings so team members won’t have to travel on Saturday or Sunday. Most people are not paid when they travel during weekends and usually prefer to spend this time with their family and friends.

  • Help the team members to book flights. Send them instructions on how to get to the meeting place. You may also organise a Skype meeting to go through the agenda and to answer their questions in advance.

  • Invite your boss or director to the meeting to welcome the project team. It will make a good impression and will show that the project is important to your organisation.

  • During free time (e.g. in the afternoon or after the meeting), organise a cultural visit or sightseeing trip. You do not have to hire a professional guide. It will be equally good if you bring people on a short trip, show them around your region, and share some knowledge about your culture and language.

  • During meeting breaks, serve fresh fruit and juices in addition to coffee, biscuits, and pastries. We all tend to drink too much coffee at meetings. It is sometimes refreshing to drink some juice instead and have some grapes.

  • Plan many short breaks during the meetings. It will help the team to stay focused.

  • Get people moving! You can rent bicycles to move around the city or do some energetic icebreaker activities. Physical activities are a great team-building tool! People feel good when they exercise. It also helps bring the team together. During the meetings and courses that I organise, I like to engage people in challenging activities, such as climbing or archery. Such activities release tension and are fantastic for team building!

  • Together with the team, establish ground rules, such as “we do not use mobile phones or write emails during meetings”. Such rules improve meeting quality.

Meeting agenda

By now you have some ideas about how to organise an empowering meeting. But how exactly should you structure an agenda so it won’t be composed only of status reports?

  • Make sure that the team understands the bigger picture: what are the outcomes of the project? Where do you want to be with your team when the project is over? One of the most important tasks during project meetings is to ensure that every team member understands the milestones and objectives. At M-Powered, we teach people how to use a timeline. It’s a simple but powerful tool that helps team members to visualise tasks and milestones.

  • Clarify roles in the project. Plan time slots in the agenda to discuss what each team member has to do. You really want people to be clear what their tasks are.

  • Keep reporting to a minimum. You can be pretty sure that if you schedule a day-long reporting session, people won’t be able to stay focused and engaged. A better solution is to have quick, roundtable reporting sessions, followed by discussion based on a project timeline and whether deadlines and milestones are being met.

  • Be decisive. Make decisions and set actions. There is no point in discussing an issue if the team won’t make a decision about what action is required, when it should be completed, and who is responsible.

  • Keep minutes. Write them during the meeting, not a couple of days later when you have already forgotten half of what was decided and who is responsible for which tasks.

  • Facilitate skilfully. I know, it’s easier said than done. Facilitation is a complex task. A good facilitator can engage team members, give them space, but at the same time carefully steer and control a meeting.

  • Oh, and one last piece of advice: be yourself and enjoy the time you are spending with your team!

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