A Guide to Project Meetings & How to Get the Best Out of Them

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Meetings. Project management is full of them. We meet for so many reasons because project teams need to collaborate.

In this guide to project meetings you’ll learn:

  • The 5 types of meeting (including one I hope you never have)
  • How to get the best out of each type
  • How to run better meetings
  • Links to other resources on brilliant tips for effective meetings and more.

There’s also a video on how to lead inclusive meetings.

Working together to get things done often means spending time in the same room (physically or as a part of a virtual meeting) talking about tasks, making plans and taking action.

It’s in everyone’s interest to make the different types of project meetings as effective as possible.

In Collaboration Explained: Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders, Jean Tabaka defines 5 types of project meetings:

  1. Status meetings
  2. Planning meetings
  3. Working sessions
  4. Retrospection meeting (post-implementation review)
  5. The meeting that shouldn’t have happened.

Given how important meetings are to projects (even if we hate them), it’s worth understanding how to get the best out of them.

Tip for PMI exam takers: You can be examined on meetings management techniques! You’ll need to be confident that you know meeting best practices before you go into your exam.

1. Status meetings

Status meetings are the opportunity to reflect and report on what is going on.

Agile teams have the daily standup. In fact, you don’t need to be an agile team to have a daily update meeting.

How to get the best out of a status meeting:

  • Don’t repeat things in the meeting that you could have said on an email.
  • Expect people to do the pre-reading if you provide written status updates.
  • If they don’t/won’t, dedicate the first 10 minutes of the meeting for reading updates.

2. Planning meetings

A planning meeting takes a bit of facilitation. I prepare more for these kinds of sessions than I would a ‘normal’ status meeting.

The kick off meeting is a good example of this. It’s an opportunity to set the tone for the project and make sure expectations are clear.

How to get the best out of a planning meeting:

  • Have a clear agenda
  • Split people into groups to plan with each other
  • Get an external facilitator or be prepared to actively facilitate yourself
  • Avoid defaulting to HIPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) by not having the HIPP in the room.

Implement some strategies for when there is no time to have meetings if you are struggling to get everyone in the same room.

Graphic with the various types of project meetings

3. Working sessions

This type of meeting is where you meet with one or more people for the purpose of carrying out a task. Peer programming is a good example of this.

You could be co-creating a document, working on a prototype, drafting a speech. Anything that needs multiple brains working on it could be done in a working session.

Meetings where the main purpose is to train someone in how to do something also fall into this category.

How to get the best out of a working session:

  • Make sure the ‘workers’ are matched to the tasks at hand. There is nothing more frustrating than watching someone slowly update a spreadsheet when you have better Excel skills than them
  • The exception to that is where the working session is for coaching/peer support and someone is there to learn. Obviously that’s different
  • Have clear goals for the session and timebox the meeting
  • When people say there is no time for a meeting, call it something else.

4. Retrospective meeting

Tabaka calls these ‘retrospection meeting’ and you might know them as post-implementation reviews or look back meetings.

The purpose is to reflect on what worked, what didn’t and what you will do differently next time. It’s an opportunity for everyone to present their thoughts and opinions.

If this sounds a bit too ‘agile’ for your team, then take a look at why an agile approach to meetings is worth investigating. You’ll be better for it.

How to get the best out of a retrospective meeting:

  • Have an agenda
  • Don’t let it turn into a blame session or a giant rant
  • Take actions and make sure something good is going to come out of your time in the meeting by way of doing things differently moving forward.

There are easy ways to improve meeting minutes that will reduce the overhead of having to document what was discussed.

5. The meeting that shouldn’t have happened

The amount of money wasted in unproductive meetings is astounding.

The meeting that shouldn’t have happened is ironically the most relevant to project management. We should be all about making great use of everyone’s time, accurate resource planning and weeding out pointless, time-consuming activities.

But that’s not how real-life works. Unfortunately, there are plenty of meetings I attend that don’t move my understanding or work forward at all.

Meetings that shouldn’t have happened include anything that is better discussed in a different format e.g. one-to-one phone call.

Meetings that repeat stuff you already know, or that are large groups of people coming together to update one person (project manager, I’m looking at you) are also an inefficient use of the team’s time overall.

Yes, you need opportunities for everyone to share their progress and roadblocks, but the creeping death of updating someone ‘important’ typically means others in the room zone out and don’t listen anyway.

You can probably think back over your own experience and come up with some examples of meetings that shouldn’t have happened. 

Here are some other examples of situations that would make a meeting not worth having.

  • The wrong people are in the room
  • The key people don’t show up
  • There is no agenda and the conversation meanders
  • There is no purpose to having the meeting or the goal isn’t clear so the session feels like a waste of time
  • The chair is ineffective at keeping the meeting moving at pace and the conversation is derailed
  • The meeting expands to fill the time available
  • Nothing new is covered in the meeting.

If you can’t seem to stop this kind of meeting happening, check out the 4 sins of meetings and see if you can implement strategies to avoid them.

In my projects, most meetings fall into the first two categories, although sitting down with someone to plan is also ‘work’ in my opinion.

How to make meetings interesting

Collaboration Explained book cover

Tabaka has some interesting ideas to add to your meetings once the team is “ready for some diversity.”

She suggests starting status meetings with a song to see who can guess the title and artist, or for each team member to bring in a joke. Her idea of creating a team theme is quite interesting but I can’t see it working in the UK – not in the industries I’ve worked in, anyway.

Giving everyone names of fish and having ‘Molly Flukehausen’ give a status update would go down like a lead balloon over here, which just goes to show how culturally-specific team building exercises can be.

I have my own preferred team building activities that work for virtual teams as well as in-person teams, like a scavenger hunt.

Meetings might feel like a waste of time but…

For a long time, I thought our departmental team meetings were a waste of time. Six of us would sit in a meeting room, and do the creeping death of reporting on what we had done that month.

Given that we all sat near each other, socialized, ate lunch and spoke to each other during the day, none of what was discussed in that meeting was ‘news’.

It didn’t feel like my boss was doing anything to make the meeting relevant to everyone.

It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t what we were saying that was important in that context: it was the fact we had bothered to get together formally at all. It helped the quieter members of the team understand the wider picture; it allowed those under pressure an informal opportunity in a safe environment to vent steam about how things were going.

As we didn’t work on the same projects, this was the only time we officially had in our diaries to be together as a team. In a way, the fact that I felt the meetings weren’t helpful to me personally was a sign of how well the team was working together.

How to make meetings more effective

In order to avoid feeling the way I felt, Tabaka suggests that each team member:

Must clearly see a benefit for being in the meeting versus remaining at her desk. Leaving the meeting, each participant must carry something back to her desk … that directly impacts her work. Without this clear ‘bridge’, participants see no need to be in a meeting or to actively listen and participate.

Sometimes the bridge is a list of actions, a sense of direction or the output from a post-implementation review. Sometimes, the sense of belonging to a supportive team is enough.

Another way to make meetings feel more productive is to learn how to run effective virtual meetings.

You can do any type of project meeting online, so it’s helpful to build skills as a virtual facilitator as it’s definitely something you are going to be expected to do in your career. 

Templates for meetings

The only thing that helps me get through some meetings is the fact I’ve got a bunch of templates that make meeting admin much easier.

You can grab the bundle of meeting templates here.

It includes an ebook, agenda template, checklists for before and after the meeting and lots of helpful notes on how to chair effectively and capture information in minutes.

Meetings template bundle

If you’re not into doing a lot of typing yourself, then meeting transcription software could be an option to save yourself a lot of time. You can read my review of the top meeting transcription tools to see if they would work for you.

Action steps and further reading

Pin for later reading:

A guide to project meetings and how to get the best out of them