Now that we’ve covered meeting preparedness as well as setting the pace and tone of our meetings, we’ll discuss handling of meeting dynamics.
I like to refer to the important skill needed here as the ability to dance.
Ability to Dance
No matter how scrupulous we are in preparing for our meeting, unanticipated things (a.k.a., surprises) WILL come up. The first thing I’d suggest is that when surprises do come up, we must NEVER appear like a deer caught in the headlights.
Our ability to handle surprises with finesse is crucial to keeping the meeting on track, people fully engaged in the conversation and ultimately, on the project. Below are several examples a PM will experience in this regard and approaches to handle each.
Starting with the most benign example, we must realize we don’t need to know the answer to every question (even curve ball) thrown at us. There are really only 2 types of questions that will come up. Those that can be answered by you or someone in the room. And, those which require input from parties not present in the meeting or require some level of work, research and/or analysis to answer.
Our ability to promptly ascertain the difference enables us to respond accordingly. This could be asking the subject-matter-expert in the room to weigh-in or simply taking the topic offline with the commitment to facilitate resolution and update the team. That is, it is ok to say: “I [or we] don’t have an answer for that right now, but we will figure it out and get back to you.“
Next, it is common (actually, desirable) for new issues or risks to be brought up during a project meeting. I say desirable because we have the full resources of the team available to consider and potentially respond.
Upon learning of the issue we need to do a quick assessment to ensure it doesn’t completely take over the meeting (unless we determine it is THAT crucial). Questions we can ask ourselves include:
- Is the item MORE important than, or does it have a critical bearing on, what is already on the agenda?
- Is it necessary and/or possible to cover the item AFTER the main agenda, as time permits?
If the answer is “No” to both of these questions then the new issue simply needs to be logged in the project’s Issues and Actions Log. From there we can either schedule a discussion focused solely on the item or handle it in the context of a future project meeting relative to the urgency and timing of when resolution is required.
We must realize that not every issue deserves “immediate” attention. Many simply need to be logged so they are not forgotten and covered when appropriate.
Another common meeting dynamic is when people are at odds with each other on a particular approach to addressing an issue, defining a process or what features to include in the product launch, for example.
In my experience I’ve found that often-times the (what appear to be) opposing parties are in what I call “violent agreement.” That is, they are both saying the same thing but are coming at it from different (often complementary) angles or using different words to describe the same, or similar, idea.
An approach I take here is stating to the team: “I’m the dummy in the room. I’m the furthest from this topic, so you all know better than me. But, it sounds like [person A] is saying thus and such, while [person B] is saying…” I do this using my own words, based on my understanding of the situation (not just parroting back what each person said) in such a way that it becomes obvious we are all talking about the same thing or taking a similar approach…
Even if the above doesn’t “wholly” resolve the issue, I’ve found that it more often than not brings people closer to resolution.
Above-all, it is crucial that we keep the meeting moving, people on their toes and reinforce how we are all part of something important that WILL cross the finish line! To do this we need to:
- Encourage virtual attendees to have their video on, if at all possible.
- Constantly read the (virtual) room and respond: Are people engaged? Is there any form of angst or confusion on display?
- Observe comments, questions (or lack of), tone of voice and body language…
An example, building on the latter point above…
I was leading a project meeting many years ago, when one of my most senior team members responded to my suggestion by saying: “OK, whatever you say – you’re the boss!” When I heard this a BRIGHT RED FLAG went off in my head. Upon inquiring as to why he responded that way, I learned that the direction I was proposing would have taken the project over a cliff. Had I let that comment go, the project would certainly have died a miserable death. In a nutshell, we MUST pay careful attention to the subtle and not-so-subtle comments from our team mates to ensure we aren’t missing something and make immediate course corrections if/when necessary.
Every so often we’ll have an individual on the team who seems to want to make things difficult or attempts to take over the meeting with a lengthy monologue. This could range from negative comments about the project to the overall strategy or the PM’s approach. First, we must listen to what they are saying while NOT taking it personally. To do so, we can ask ourselves if there is anything here we need to pay attention to, follow-up on or log for future reference? This can include confirming with team members the nature and criticality of the topic(s) being brought up. If we deem it is truly hot air, we must handle it like water on a duck’s back: let it simply roll off. On the surface we remain calm and fully composed, while underneath we’re paddling like crazy to navigate the conversation around the participant or unnecessary commentary. If this behavior becomes a common occurrence, resulting in wasted time and energy of the team, we’ll want to confront the person one-on-one after the meeting.
In closing, having the ability to dance is another way of saying that a highly competent PM must be flexible and adaptable in their response to whatever comes up during the course of their meeting, to ensure forward momentum is maintained at all times.
In the next installment, we’ll discuss the all-important follow-through, to ensure the outcome of our meeting is well understood by and communicated to all stakeholders.
In the meantime, if you are looking to improve PM competencies in yourself, or your organization, feel free to reach out so we can discuss how I might help.