Common Sense

This Meeting Could Have Been an E-mail: How to Succeed in Managing Your Project

Issue: July/August 2022

Authors: Erin Muckey, MD MBA, Akiva Dym, MD, and Anthony Rosania, MD MHA

We’ve all been there. We’ve all had one of “those” meetings. They come in several flavors: The ‘this meeting could have been an email’ meeting. The ‘Groundhog Day’ meeting. The ‘flight of ideas,’ but in reality, a ‘no next steps’ meeting…

On the other hand, we have all experienced a project that never fully launches because organizing over email is also full of roadblocks. Most of us would agree that there is a value in the collaboration, idea generation, and organizational management that comes from gathering stakeholders together in real time. But how do we capitalize on that benefit while effectively managing a project with a diverse group of very busy stakeholders who all have other competing interests for their time? To put it in other words, how do we consistently achieve this ambitious goal and ultimately develop a “unicorn” of meetings?

Meeting organization and structure.  
The first step in any successful meeting begins upfront, with the design of the meeting itself. The goal is to pull off that white buffalo of meetings: one that is both high-yield and highly efficient. One of the keys to unlocking such meetings begins prior to the day of the meeting. Consider ahead of time what the desired goals of the meeting are and setting an outlined agenda to help you ensure a productive and focused meeting. Ideally, distribute the agenda to all participants the day before. This allows for the development of a shared mental model before the meeting even begins. If the topic is expected to be sensitive or controversial, it may be helpful to consider a ‘pre-meeting’ with some of the project’s key stakeholders to ensure that everyone is on the same page for the upcoming discussion.

The next step is to focus on the management and flow of the meeting itself. Set clear expectations at the beginning of every meeting about the goals of the meeting and what you and your team hope to accomplish at the end of it. This allows everyone to begin the meeting with the same end goal in mind. The agenda will be very helpful with this part, as it will serve as a clear roadmap for the goals of each meeting. Remember that sometimes less is more. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to accomplish too much with each meeting. Often, a clear, focused agenda can lead to deeper discussion and more productive outcomes. It can also be helpful to level set early with the team on what the scope of the meeting is and what the scope of the meeting is not. This will help reduce tangential or unproductive discussions which may not align with the current meeting’s focus.

Even the best planned meetings can at times have a mind of their own and take on a new direction. Sometimes, these tangents may be productive, other times they are not and detract from the original intent of the meeting. In particular, meetings related to process improvement can derail into a session with attendees voicing complaints or concerns about the current state. It is critical to have a plan to guide the meeting back on track with a thoughtful and diplomatic approach. Reminding the team of the focused agenda and offering to table the other concerns for an upcoming meeting, can help bring the focus back to the original goals.

Maintaining Momentum
Once you’ve had your perfect meeting, it is now important to capitalize on that momentum and avoid the dreaded ‘Groundhog Day’ phenomenon—where you return to the follow-up meeting and feel like you are repeating the exact same thing as before, with nothing having changed or been accomplished.  Without a concerted effort to promote and maintain momentum, even the best of projects with good intentions can stall or fail. Before each meeting ends, develop action items for the group. It can be helpful to identify these tasks in real time during the meeting itself so that there is a sense of responsibility and accountability to the group. In particular, assign tasks to specific individuals or small groups, and set a target goal date for each next step.

Develop your individual style for organizing the outcomes and planned follow-ups from the meeting. One such option is to maintain a spreadsheet with a row for each agenda item. There can be a column for the individual(s) assigned, goal date for next steps, and current status. After each meeting, send out the action items with a very clear subject line so that you can refer to (and reforward) this e-mail to ensure accountability in advance of future meetings.

Prioritizing goals is also critical in order to maintain momentum. Focusing on too many initiatives at once can often dilute and distract from the main goal. Assign lower priority items to a formal ‘parking lot’ which can be re-visited at a later time or future meeting. By formally outlining this list, you can continue to acknowledge good ideas without distracting from the high priority goals or the project’s next steps.

Lastly, it is important to remember that projects are generally more successful with delegation. However, part of this is also understanding that not everyone who is assigned a task will complete it the way you would have. Part of empowering others includes avoiding micromanaging each individual step in the process.

Feedback and Messaging
Understanding the response to a new initiative is key in targeting messaging and anticipating roadblocks. Be intentional about getting buy in—especially from the person completing the action items. As a project progresses, elicit individual feedback from those not directly involved to anticipate the general response and get a temperature check on progress and overall direction of the workstream. Lastly, as you are nearing the end of your project, develop the plan for communicating the change or efforts. This process should be multimodal and iterative. Make sure to celebrate wins and delegate success/kudos to key contributors, this will reinforce team ownership, and set the stage for future projects with similar participants who will now see you as an effective, team-focused leader who is worth supporting.

If all these steps seem like extra work, it’s because they are. However, it is a much more effective use of the entire teams’ time, and will yield more effective results. Overall, the keys to effective project management include prioritization, communication, and accountability. While this is something we all expect from our teams, it is important as a leader ourselves to reflect these principles and walk the walk to build a genuine culture.

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