Working in project management has always had a heavy emphasis on people. It’s people who make projects successful and it’s people coming together, working collaboratively; sharing experiences; swarming and standing up together that really makes a project tick.
Project meetings; daily stand-ups; a community of practice; lunch and learns – there is a myriad of different ways we come together to progress delivery and continuously learn about how to do that better.
It was with this in mind – and the fact that I love bringing people together, mainly PMO gatherings – that made me listen to a podcast which featured Priya Parker as she spoke about her new book – The Art of Gathering – Create Transformative Meetings, Events and Experiences.
There are some really great insights here that are perfect for thinking differently about the gatherings we have in the project world. Overcoming those dreadful meetings where everyone is invited where no decisions get made whilst people tap away on laptops and mobile phones. This is not a book about quick tips to kerb behaviours, it’s much deeper than that and in this article, I highlight some of the points that really resonated with me.
Why Are We Really Here?
Except to really define the purpose of the meeting probably takes more than you would expect.
The first insight is not confusing purpose with categories. Categories are things like project status meetings; lessons learnt workshops; project board meetings and so on. We get drawn into designing a gathering based on the kind of category it is – and start using a template or set of activities that normally go along with that category of a meeting without really fully understanding what the real purpose is.
Let’s take project status meetings as an example – is the true purpose of these meetings just to update everyone on the status of the project (in which case why bother with a meeting when an information pack can be distributed) or is it a meeting to focus on the potential pitfalls that might be coming our way in the next few weeks or coming months?
Just because we have always had project status reports in a certain format or structure – are they really fit for the real purpose of having them? We can start to think differently – change the structure perhaps – or who we invite to these gatherings if we really understand why we’re doing them.
Meetings should be structured and designed around the desired outcome – this is also a great way to really understand what the true purpose is.
What Needs to Be in There?
When you start to understand the real purpose of your project gatherings – the purpose can be used as a bouncer.
This means you use the purpose of the meeting to decide what goes on in that meeting and what stays out. That can be the activities you choose, the direction it takes, the people who are invited and those that are excluded. “Inviting people is easy, excluding people is hard”.
We’ve all been in project meetings where EVERYONE seems to be invited – there’s representation from different departments; different strands of the team; senior executives and so on. It’s not often that these meetings are productive and seen as a useful place to spent time.
When there is a real purpose to the meeting – you can also exclude with purpose. With our project status meeting example, it’s only the people who really have an input into the potential pitfalls coming at the project over the next few weeks.
Learning to exclude with kindness is a fascinating read – it’s kind for the people who have a valid reason for being there, you’re protecting the people in there and the whole purpose of the gathering in the first place. I loved the phrase, “by closing the door, you create the room” which by creating the right attendee list and excluding others, you’re ready to really get down to business.
There are three questions that Priya advises you can use to exclude well:
- Who not only fits but also helps fulfil the gathering’s purpose?
- Who threatens the purpose?
- Who, despite being irrelevant to the purpose, do you feel obliged to invite?
It is in answering these questions that the true purpose can come to light and the third question which really tests that purpose.
Another extract shows why the third question is important:
It is to shift your perception so that you understand that people who aren’t fulfilling the purpose of your gathering are detracting from it, even if they do nothing to detract from it.
That’s because every single person in that room affects group dynamics – and even though they might not be actively contributing or saying very much at all – the rest of the people in the gathering will feel they should include them in some way – it takes time and attention away from the real purpose of the meeting.
How Many of Us are There?
You can exclude people from meetings based on the size of the meeting you’re running. There are ideal sizes for gatherings depending on what the purpose of the gathering is. It’s not scientific yet sizes of gatherings do ‘shape what you will get out of people’.
A good conversation and it’s between 8 and 12 people. Good for brainstorming meetings or what Priya calls ‘table moments’ where everyone can get around a table comfortably together talking on one topic.
Go smaller if decisions need to be made – 6 or less is a good figure.
Where Are We Holding It?
Often in project team meetings, we don’t get a huge amount of options – it’s the meeting room down the corridor, a breakout area near the canteen, a little corner to huddle in.
The venue we hold our meetings in need to be fit for our purpose – the environment we hold our meetings is such an important aspect that it can affect the ‘version of you which shows up at the meeting’. Venues should try to embody the reason why you’re meeting – brainstorming is going to be very different to a tough client negotiation session. Venues can shape the behaviours of the people attending – spaces and places can reinforce underlying assumptions.
Spaces can also force people out of their usual comfort zones and habits – a good idea is to perhaps think about where your next project meeting should not take place and then hold it there.
If you’re looking for different outcomes – wanting to shake things up, get the team doing things differently, thinking differently – this could be the small change needed.
Leading the Gathering
Finally, in this article we focus on the host – perhaps that’s you, a Project Manager leading a team meeting, a PMO Manager leading a Community of Practice meetup or a Programme Manager hosting the kickoff.
This is about taking control of the gathering – finding the balance between letting people fulfil their purpose of being there and keeping the gathering moving along to fulfil the overall purpose.
Here a great example from Ronald Heifetz, a professor at Harvard on leadership, in his first day of a class on Adaptive Leadership. In starting the lecture, Heifetz decided to do nothing, just sit quietly at the front of the auditorium, staring blankly. The students arrive and sit, and become increasingly nervous and restless as this carries on for about 5 minutes. The students are confused and unsettled. Some start to get tetchy, speaking up asking what’s happening, when will it start, others tell them to be quiet and wait – that it’s a test, surely?
Without the lecturer taking the lead, doing what lecturers normally do, the class starts to take over – dealing with each other, not understanding who will start to take charge or stop the arguing that has sprung up. Heifetz, after 5 minutes or so, announced “Welcome to the Adaptive Leadership class” and everyone signs, great relief.
He’s started the lecture by showing what happens when you abdicate responsibility – leadership responsibility. “You don’t eradicate power. You just hand the opportunity to take charge to someone else”. By giving people free rein, just like with these students, you don’t make their lives easier or give them space to do whatever they want to make themselves happier or more productive – it just makes people unsettled and anxious because the social norms have been tested.
With project meetings, you must take control throughout. Not with just kicking off the meeting and then sitting back, expecting conversations to lead to decisions – or actions to be picked up by members. It’s not enough to “set a purpose, direction and ground rules. All these things require enforcement” And if you don’t do this, someone else will and not necessarily in line with your true purpose.
With no enforcement, that’s when it’s likely that meetings become dominated by someone who likes the sound of their own voice – or someone with the most seniority – or political game playing. Priya recommends that hosting gatherings is done with ‘generous authority’. When you’re hosting with generous authority you have three goals – protect your attendees; equalise your attendees (leave your pretences at the door and treat everyone fairly) and finally, connect your attendees to each other.
Thinking Differently About Meetings
The book goes on to focus on areas such as etiquette and pop-up rules; the logistics of meetings and events and how to spice them up; how to get attendees ready for meetings and what not to do when starting your meeting up. It looks at attendees being authentic in meetings, running and closing them down.
Gatherings of all kinds are frequent occurrences throughout our organisations and for those working in project management environments, we know that every meeting we host or attend should have a strong purpose and a clear outcome. Equally, we know that time is precious and that decisions need to be made frequently throughout the day, with many different and diverse people.
Thinking differently about how we use this precious time to get real, productive outcomes can make all the difference – by looking at branches of psychology, sociology and other social sciences we can deepen our understanding of how people meet, collaborate and work – and as a project leader how you can harness that for the benefit of the project and for the delivery organisation.
Looking for something to spark that ‘thinking differently’? Take a look at the Adaptive Strategic Execution Programme, it features topics such as adaptive leadership, design thinking and making sense of complexity.