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Effective meetings: What gives?

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, October 31, 2017

(Editor's note: this post originally appeared on the blog in the CU Project Management networking group. This group is open to credit union staff in the Carolinas who have a registered web site address. Please click here to view and join the group.) 

Written by: Sandon Nachmann, Coastal CU. 

I learned the hard way early on in my career the importance of conducting effective meetings.  Here are 10 rules to help you do it the right way.

1. Pre-publish an agenda
2. Stick to the agenda
3. Start on time
4. End on time
5. Set ground rules
6. Use a parking lot
7. Fix responsibilities
8. Publish minutes
9. Use a facilitator
10. Continuously improve

I stumbled into project management by accident in 2000 before I even knew project management was a thing.  I was at what was considered a “small” credit union on Long Island back in 2000, as we had just reached our $1-billion-dollar mark.  I worked in the IT department and was a PC Technician by title, but was more of a jack of all trades as our small department was exploding to keep up with the growing infrastructure.  About a year into that role I was assigned my first real project which was deploying a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system to the credit union.

We had our first meeting to get things kicked off and it was a mess because I didn’t know about any of the effective meeting rules mentioned above.  There was no agenda, we didn’t start on time, I didn’t fix responsibilities, and believe it or not I didn’t even have an ending time for the meeting.  I’m pretty sure we just talked until we all got bored...  After the meeting I knew it went horrible, the problem was I didn’t know what to do to fix it.  I had no one to turn to for help in the credit union and there weren’t and shining examples for me to learn from.   It took a lot more failed attempts of holding meetings and tons of research of what to do to fix it until I finally started piecing some things together.

I love telling this story because I can only imagine there are a lot of people in the same boat that I was in, and I still experience some of those same pitfalls when I attend other people’s meetings today.  With that, let’s break down each of the 10 rules.

1. Pre-publish an agenda – You need to pre-publish an agenda so people know what the meeting is about and can come prepared.  It is also used to keep the meeting on track.  

What should go into an agenda? 
Heading - The meeting or project name, person conducting meeting, attendees, date
Body -  Start time of each item on the agenda, The item of discussion, Person responsible for the agenda item

2. Stick to the agenda
 – Sticking to the agenda is easy to do and it serves two main purposes.  It keeps everyone focused and it helps you make sure you don’t run out of time during the meeting.  Remember that when we pre-publish and agenda we set approximate times that each item will start.  That’s so if we estimate we’re going to take 10 minutes per item and we realize we’re 20 minutes in and still on item one then it’s time to move on.

3. Start on time – If your meeting is scheduled to start at 10:00 am then start promptly at 10:00 am.  That means that you as the facilitator should be there five minutes early to get setup and be ready to go.

No chit-chat, just get right to it – I’ve been to meeting where the facilitator feels weird getting right to business and will start every meeting with a two-minute ice-breaker of non-work related chit-chat.  That doesn’t make effective use of time and isn’t necessary.

What if “everyone” isn’t there yet? – Our goal is to create effective meetings by starting on time.  Nothing worse than it being 10:04 am and having the facilitator announce, “we’re just going to give it another couple of minutes to see if anyone else shows up”.  Why?  The meeting was scheduled to start at 10:00 am and you should start at 10:00 am.  If you always delay the start of your meetings by 5-7 minutes, then you’re not giving any incentive for people to show up on time.  You’re also not respecting the time of the people who showed up ready to start at 10:00 am.

What if the right person isn’t there yet? – What if you’re waiting for a senior member of the management team to attend the meeting, then what do you do?  Same answer as above, start on time.  Someone who is late to a meeting won’t get mad at you for starting on time.  And the chances are the reason they’re late is because they just came from another meeting that went long.  If by chance, there is an early item on the agenda that needs specific employee involvement then skip ahead on the agenda and get back to it when the person arrives.  

4. End on time – Respect peoples time.  As mentioned above, a lot of time people are late to meetings because their previous meeting went long.  This step is simple but important, “always end on time”.  

Am I allowed to go over the meeting time? - There are exceptions to this rule, and that’s when its mutually agreed on by all participants in the room.  If everyone is free and agrees to stay a few extra minutes to complete the discussions, then that is acceptable.  What isn’t acceptable is to continue discussions past the designated meeting stop time with no mention of the time or that the meeting should have ended.

5. Set ground rules – ground rules establish the expectations for the meeting.  These may consist of reviewing the 10 rules of effective meetings.  For an ongoing project let the participants know that you will always start on time, always end on time, you’ll always pre-publish and agenda, etc.

You can also adjust the ground rules as needed.  I’m sure we’ve all been to meeting where there’s the one guy in the corner who spends the entire time on phone or laptop not listening to a word anyone is saying.  When it comes time for that person to provide some input you have to recap the last five minutes to bring them up to speed.  If something like that becomes an issue, then it’s perfectly acceptable to request that people put down their phones or laptops while in meetings.

6. Use a parking lot – Remember the 2nd rule, stick to the agenda?  A parking lot is used for items that come up that aren’t on the agenda.

How do I use the parking lot? – It can be implemented a few different ways.  You can save 5 minutes at the end of every meeting specifically for parking lot items.  The majority of the time this will be empty which is why you only save 5 minutes.  You can also add it as an agenda item on future meetings.

7. Fix responsibilities – One of the most important concepts of projects or meetings is “Who, Does What, By When?”  What that means is for every agenda item you need to assign Who is responsible, What they are doing, and When you expect to have it completed by.

8. Publish minutes – Minutes are used to capture meeting discussions, decisions, and the Who, Does What, by When.  These should be distributed as soon as possible following the meeting.  For projects with long durations minutes are often times used to reference discussions or decisions that were made early on.

9. Use a facilitator – A facilitator is used to help keep the meeting on track.  They can document the Who, Does What, by When. They can keep track of the time to help make sure you’re sticking to the agenda.  They can copy items to the parking lot if necessary.  Using a facilitator especially during large meetings lets the leader focus on the content, while the facilitator focusses on the process.

10. Continuously improve – This is especially useful during reoccurring project meetings.  For a 9-month project its useful to create a task on the agenda every 3 months to review the process.  How are the meetings working?  Are we starting and stopping on time?  Are we using the parking lot right? Are people getting lost on their phones?

One of the characteristics of a good project manager is creating reliability and consistency.  Following these 10 steps is an easy and extremely visible way for you to achieve that in your credit unions.  Having worked with both poor and great PM’s over the years I can tell you there’s nothing better than working with a PM who knows how to hold an effective meeting.  

Tags:  Best practices  Meetings 

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