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Plan a Successful Project Meeting (with Agenda Templates)

concepts Jun 14, 2024

As a project manager, I’m in meetings ALL. THE. TIME. I probably have 15-20 meetings during an average work week.

For the most part, I enjoy meetings—not only because of the reminder that I’m not working alone, but also, I find them very effective in moving my projects forward.

But meetings are not automatically effective. Many meetings are not effective, otherwise I wouldn’t meet so many people who feel meetings are a waste of time. In order to be efficient and useful, a meeting needs to be well-planned and well-led.

So what does a well-planned and well-led project meeting look like?

The Goal

First of all, a good meeting has a clear goal, or possibly a few clear goals. If nobody knows what a meeting is supposed to achieve, that’s a good predictor that it will end up feeling like a waste of time.

Here are some basic goals a meeting might have:

  • Get decisions made when input from multiple people is needed (here’s more info on how to achieve this specific goal)
  • Initiate work on a project by informing the whole team about project goals, requirements, and other project basics (a kickoff meeting)
  • Keep a project moving by allowing project team members to update each other on the status of deliverables progressing in parallel, and speak up about blockers so they can be removed (a project check-in meeting)
  • Keep workloads balanced and work prioritized appropriately by allowing functional team members to tell each other and their supervisor what is on their plates (a functional team check-in meeting)

An individual meeting will have a more specific goal than this: for example, “checking in on progress toward our July 15 deadline, and identifying obstacles we need to remove in order to meet this deadline.” But these are some of the types of goals for which a meeting might be the right tool. If you can’t identify the goal of a meeting, then maybe you need a different tool, or maybe you simply don’t need to meet.

The Prep

Have you identified the goal of your meeting?

The next step is to ask yourself what needs to happen before the meeting, so your meeting can achieve its goal. I usually consider two types of prep work:

Get some decisions made in advance. If the goal of your meeting is to share information about decisions that have already been made, such as key features of project deliverables, do what you need to do to get those decisions made before your meeting. You could do this through smaller pre-meetings or other means of communication with the appropriate people. But if not everyone in a broader meeting gets input on certain decisions, it’s helpful to have those decisions made in advance instead of having a subset of meeting attendees deliberate while everyone else waits and feels left out. Instead, come to the meeting with a united front on these groundwork decisions.

Even if your meeting is about making one set of decisions, you may still need a different set of decisions to be made in advance for the meeting at hand to be effective.

Get data gathered and materials prepared in advance. What materials need to be shared, shown, or explained in the meeting for it to be effective? Does a survey need to be sent so results can be shared? Does a custom report need to be generated, with a person on the data team ready to summarize that report? Does someone need to prepare a slideshow to demonstrate a complex idea? Do you as the project manager need to develop an initial draft of the work breakdown structure (the project tasks to be completed) for the project team to react to and propose improvements?

Make sure you prepare or request these things in advance and give people enough time to work on them. If you first request such materials during the meeting, your meeting will take longer and the information will be shared less effectively, if at all.

The Agenda

With groundwork laid, the last main element of preparation is a meeting agenda: know what main points your conversation will progress through in order to achieve its goal.

In most cases, I find a meeting agenda to be most effective when it is written by the person who facilitates the meeting (see the next section). I hope that is often you, the project manager. But if it’s not, you may want to tell the person leading the meeting what you need out of the meeting and let them decide how to work that into the agenda. When I was first training a project manager on my team and we were leading a few projects together, we each led a few meetings where the other had written the agenda, and those meetings didn’t flow very well. You know your meeting facilitation style, so you’ll do the best job of breaking the meeting down into subtopics that you can personally lead the group through to reach the goal.

That being said, here are the basic parts of a meeting agenda for you to fill in with your details:

[Meeting Date]

Meeting Attendees: [Also note their roles on the project, if not already obvious to everyone invited. If you’re not sure what will be obvious, err on the side of more clarification.]

Purpose of Meeting: [Write out the goal you identified earlier. Avoid terms that won’t be clear to all attendees—for example, tech jargon.]

Discussion Points or Subtopics:

  1. Subtopic 1 [Primary speaker name, if relevant]
  2. Subtopic 2 [Primary speaker name, if relevant]
  3. Subtopic 3 [Primary speaker name, if relevant]

Next Meeting: [If relevant]

I can’t tell you exactly how to break down your conversation into discussion points or subtopics, because that will depend on what goal you’re trying to achieve. But I most often break a meeting down by one of the following:

  • Deliverables
  • Deliverable types
  • Team functions (discuss each team’s contribution one at a time)
  • Decisions needed
  • Unanswered questions
  • Obstacles that need to be removed

If you’re writing an agenda for a kickoff meeting, you could also consider:

  • Project phases
  • Major project milestones

Include enough detail in each point so you as the facilitator remember what to say—but not so much that someone can’t absorb the overall direction of the meeting by skimming the agenda. On my meeting agendas, my points are anywhere between a few words and one sentence.

Also, whenever possible, include your agenda in the digital meeting invitation, so people have a chance to mentally prepare for the conversation. When they’ve seen the invitation, sometimes people will even bring helpful data to the meeting that you didn’t think to ask for.

The format above works well if your agenda is in its own document. But I often just write a meeting agenda directly in a digital meeting invitation, and it looks a bit more informal, like this:

Hi everyone!

Let’s meet to discuss [overall meeting topic] so that [meeting goal/outcome that needs to be achieved].

To do so, we’ll discuss the following:

  1. Subtopic 1 [Primary speaker name, if relevant]
  2. Subtopic 2 [Primary speaker name, if relevant]
  3. Subtopic 3 [Primary speaker name, if relevant]

[For anybody whose role in the meeting is unclear, note what you’re looking for from each of those people in the meeting. Also note if any attendees are optional.]

[Add notes related to options or expectations of virtual or in-person attendance]

Thanks!

For more about how I write a digital meeting invitation for a kickoff specifically, check out this post.

The Facilitator

A well-planned meeting with a goal-oriented agenda will go a long way toward setting your meeting up for success. But your work to actively navigate the group through the agenda toward the goal is also critical. Here’s how to do that well:

Personally frame the meeting’s purpose at the beginning. You know the goal, so state it clearly, and ensure everyone has paid attention and understood before you move on to the meeting’s subtopics.

Use your words to “pass the mic” to the appropriate people to speak on each subtopic. Sometimes one person will cover a whole subtopic. Sometimes one person will begin, but the input of others is needed. Having a primary speaker for each subtopic noted on your agenda can help, but it won’t automatically pull in all the right people at the right moments.

If the right people speak up on their own, great! Give them the chance to do so. But if they don’t, make sure they aren’t overlooked. Kindly interrupt to make sure critical perspectives are represented.

Always be watching progress through the agenda as well as the clock. You know what points need to be covered or decisions need to be made in the time allotted for the meeting. When progress is being made in a timely manner without your input, let the conversation flow. But if a topic is going to long, or if a tangent risks not having time to meet the meeting’s primary goal, kindly interrupt to bring things back on track. You can always set a separate meeting to address an important tangent topic.

Finish the meeting by verbally reviewing decisions and actions/next steps. Hopefully your meeting achieves its goal, but that goal fits into a larger project with larger goals, so connect the dots for everyone and make sure they know what comes next after the meeting so that project progress continues.

That’s it! That’s everything I do to make sure meetings effectively move my projects forward. Clear goals, critical prep work, logical agendas, and active facilitation are the ingredients that will make your meetings a worthwhile use of everyone’s time.

 

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