Guide to PROPER meetings (or better yet, working sessions!)

Some days I feel like my real job title should be “professional meeting attendee” – I shuffle between meetings for a majority of the day and come away with more action items and new emails than I have time to actually process.  While I cannot necessarily solve the need to be in multiple meetings or working sessions back-to-back on a day, I have a proposal to make those meetings I do attend even better: PROPER Working Sessions.

A PROPER Working Session has several key ingredients, all of which I believe are required to make the most effective use of time scheduled with a group.  For my purposes, these recommendations should apply to any scheduled block of time that has more than two (2) people and that lasts for greater than thirty (30) minutes.  I use the term working session instead of meeting, because I believe it emphasizes accomplishment instead of simply conversation.

Before you schedule something, follow this handy workflow from Harvard Business Review to see if you really need a “meeting” in the first place.

HBR should I hold a meeting workflow

PROPER stands for Purpose, Roles / resources, Outcomes, Plan, Executive summary, and Review / prep items.

  • Purpose: Every meeting is generally scheduled with a purpose in mind. However, making that purpose explicit and clear sets expectations and better prepares attendees. If the purpose is counter to what attendees expected, that can be discovered and rectified prior to everyone gathering in a room and discovering they all had different ideas and possibly competing agendas for their time together.
  • Roles and (people) resources: You’ve established the purpose, now you must decide which resources will attend and most importantly why? Clearly stating the role of each attendee for the working session helps those invited understand what they are responsible for providing in the room (or over the phone) and eliminates attendees who don’t need to be there. Make it clear whose attendance is optional as they don’t have a specific role to play.  In addition, if you are getting together more then five (5) people, designate someone (maybe a PM or other PROPER meeting champion) as the facilitator to keep everything running smoothly and according to the plan.
  • Outcomes: Effective working sessions produce actual work, or outcomes. These outcomes can be as simple as meeting minutes with documented action items and decisions, or as specific as a detailed and updated specification or requirements document that will drive other work.  I do not want to live in a world where a working session can take place and nothing physical (or virtual) is produced.
  • Plan (agenda): Now that you’ve clearly stated the purpose, roles and anticipated outcomes, a detailed plan or agenda is your game plan for working together to accomplish it all.  The plan also helps you understand if this will be a 30-minute decision session, or a 90-minute deep-dive. A good plan lays out the activities in the right order, and assigns people in their specific meeting roles to help facilitate their relevant activity.
  • Executive summary: If you are like me, you’ve left a meeting with an opinion about what just happened, and then find yourself in a conversation with another attendee a week later who has a completely different perspective and understanding about decisions or next steps. This can be avoided, or at the very least mitigated, by having an executive summary sent out after the meeting.  Something as simple as the highlights of the meeting, any decisions and next steps can suffice, or it can be as comprehensive as Jira tickets being created, meeting minutes being posted on SharePoint and linking to finalized or draft documents from the meeting.  If there is a difference of opinion, that can come out before the next gathering and can potentially be an agenda item to cover (or eliminate with an offline conversation).
  • Review and prep items: At minimum, working sessions should have an agenda that is sent out in advance so that everyone is clear about what will and will not be covered. In some cases, additional materials such as specifications, documents or action items and decisions should be sent out prior to the meeting with the expectation that attendees will review them ahead of time and send in their specific feedback or questions. This creates an effective working session where those in attendance can make forward progress instead of rehashing previous work.

By combining all the parts of a PROPER working session, everyone involved directly or indirectly can benefit from the greater effectiveness of time scheduled together.

These changes to meeting or working session culture do not happen overnight.  The first step that you can take today is to ensure all of the calendar invites you send are PROPER. You can encourage others to do the same by tentatively accepting invites from other teams or people, and then asking directly for the missing pieces (or better yet suggesting based on your understanding).  This helps propagate the culture and shows that you are invested and plan to play an active role in the success of that meeting or working session.

This is just the beginning for PROPER meetings or working sessions.  Please comment if you have any suggested improvements or tips that have made your time in meeting rooms more effective and efficient.