Episode 186 – Mastering Effective Meetings: Strategies for Project Success

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36 minutes
Home Manage This Podcast Episode 186 – Mastering Effective Meetings: Strategies for Project Success

About This Episode

Rich Maltzman and Jim Stewart

What if an outside consultant observed a meeting you facilitated? What grade would you earn? Project leaders know effective meetings contribute significantly to project success, and our guests are here to help. Rich Maltzman and Jim Stewart say we should apply the same strategic mindset to meetings as we do to our projects. Rich and Jim are the co-authors of the book Great Meetings Build Great Teams: A Guide for Project Leaders and Agilists, and they join us to offer insights to enhance your facilitation skills to conduct successful meetings.

Listen in as Rich and Jim introduce two meeting goblins, Guo the Garrulous Goblin, and Pat the Passive-Aggressive, who can both derail meetings. They offer strategies to manage these individuals, including how to set clear expectations and address disruptive behavior. Our guests talk about meeting planning, recognizing the influence of organizational culture on team meetings, and fostering a positive meeting environment. They offer strategies to implement that can transform unproductive meetings into valuable sessions that drive project success.

Since 2003, Jim has been Principal of JP Stewart Consulting LLC. Jim is a certified PMP® and possesses multiple Agile certifications including IC-Agile coach and Certified Scrum Product Owner. Jim is a long-time member of the Project Management Institute (PMI®) and served for several years on the board of the local chapter. Rich Maltzman is also is a certified PMP® and has been an engineer since 1978 and a project management supervisor since 1988, including a two-year assignment in the Netherlands in which he built a team of PMs overseeing deployments of telecom networks in Europe and the Middle East. He is also focused on consulting and teaching, and has developed curricula and taught at several universities.

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Favorite Quotes from Episode

"If you blow the meeting, you get to make first impressions once.  So the level of planning should be commensurate with the meeting."

Jim Stewart

"if you have a meeting that’s being hijacked, this is the perfect time to show leadership. And that leadership may mean that you have to temporarily, partially, tactfully tell someone that they need to change their behavior. "

Rich Maltzman

The podcast by project managers for project managers. Mastering effective meetings is essential for project managers, as successful meetings contribute significantly to project success. Rich Maltzman and Jim Stewart say we should apply the same strategic mindset to meetings as we do to projects, and they offer insights to enhance your facilitation skills to conduct successful meetings.

Table of Contents

03:07 … Great Meetings Build Great Teams
04:30 … Criteria for a Good Meeting
05:44 … Allow Humor to Influence Meetings
06:46 … Making a Sad Meeting Better
08:32 … Why People are Attending a Meeting
09:55 … Project Manage Meetings
13:27 … A Meeting Planning Mindset
15:12 … Don’t Worry about Being Liked
17:06 … Kevin and Kyle
18:12 … Dealing with Conflict in a Meeting
21:12 … Goa the Garrulous
23:16 … Pat the Passive-Aggressive
25:56 … The Fear of Forage
28:29 … Risk Register
29:45 … Virtual Meeting Success
34:01 … Get in Touch
35:00 … Closing

JIM STEWART: If you blow the meeting, you get to make first impressions once.  So the level of planning should be commensurate with the meeting.

WENDY GROUNDS:  You’re listening to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I’m Wendy Grounds, and with me in the studio are Bill Yates and our sound guy Danny Brewer.  You can catch us wherever you listen to podcasts.  One of the apps that we’ve come across is Podurama.  It’s a free app for podcast lovers, and we are also there.  If you want to listen to us, take a listen on Podurama.  You’ll find a link to them on our transcript.

We love having you join us twice a month to be motivated and inspired by project stories, leadership lessons, and advice from industry experts. One little thing to mention is we got an email from Feedspot, which is a content reader that helps people keep up with their websites.  And they told me that we are one of the Top 30 podcasts for managers on the web.  So we were very excited to hear that.  Shout out to Feedspot.  Thank you for voting for us.

And we have some industry experts joining us today.  We’re very excited to bring you Jim Stewart, as well as a previous guest, Rich Maltzman.  Since 2003, Jim has been the principal of JP Stewart Consulting, and he’s a certified PMP, and he possesses multiple agile certifications.  He is a longtime member of the Project Management Institute and served for several years on the board of the local chapter.  With Rich Maltzman, he also is the co-author of the book “How to Facilitate Productive Project Planning Meetings” and its update, “Great Meetings Build Great Teams:  A Guide for Project Leaders and Agilists.”

Rich Maltzman also has his PMP.  He has been an engineer since 1978 and a project management supervisor since 1988, including a two-year assignment in the Netherlands. Rich is also focused on consulting and teaching, and has developed curricula and taught at several universities.  But we’re very excited about their book “Great Meetings Build Great Teams,” and that’s what we’re talking about today.

BILL YATES:  Yes.  This is a key to success for project managers is being able to successfully facilitate effective meetings.  So this is going to be a great conversation.  Plus, just reading through the book, there are so many familiar names and concepts that are there.  They make reference to Andy Crowe and the “Alpha Project Management Study” in his book.  They make reference to Alan Zucker, our instructor, who’s fabulous, and some of the blogs and research that he’s done. 

And they also talk a bit about Wayne Turmel and virtual meetings.  We had him on Episode 64.  Wayne was terrific.  And also Carole Osterweil.  She was on number 90, Episode 90 with us, talking about facing uncertainty.  So lot of familiar folks that are being referenced here, and we look forward to talking about having more effective meetings.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Hi, Rich; and hi, Jim.  Thank you so much for being with us today.  It’s so good to have you both on the podcast.

RICH MALTZMAN:  Glad to be here.

Great Meetings Build Great Teams

WENDY GROUNDS:  So we want to first find out – we’re going to be talking a lot about the book that you wrote, “Great Meetings Build Great Teams.”  Can you tell us the why behind this book?

JIM STEWART:  Sort of my idea in a sense, but not really.  I worked with a guy at Brandeis University, and this gentleman has since retired.  But when I was thinking about writing a book, discussing ideas, says, “You know those meetings you used to run at those pharmaceuticals?”  He says, “I would read a book about that.”  That seems kind of dull, but okay.  So I contacted Rich, who I’d known, and now we have this second revised edition.

And the why is because I guess it’s like asking why you need to be able to lay concrete, or why you need to be able to put a foundation on a house.  It’s fundamental stuff that has to be done.  And Rich and I, I know I can speak for Rich on this, I would think the majority of people running meetings aren’t doing a particularly good job.  And so we’re a bit evangelistical about that, about saying people should run meetings well.  The title of our book is “Great Meetings Build Great Teams.”  So we’re trying to get people to, A, run meetings better; and B, communicate better.

So I think good meetings are meetings of the minds, and well-run meetings build great teams.  And we feel like we have a better mousetrap for that, and we can make that happen.  That’s really the why.

Criteria for a Good Meeting

WENDY GROUNDS:  Can you tell us what your definition of what a good meeting should look like?  What are the necessary criteria for a good meeting?

RICH MALTZMAN:  Yeah, I’m going to take a creative approach here.  Think of it in terms of the ingredients of that meeting.  You need preparation.  You’re going to have a clear purpose, like a recipe, maybe even a picture of that cake or roast, whatever it is that you’re cooking.  You need the right people at the right time.  You need an agenda, a guideline of some kind, maybe a pinch of entertainment or excitement and fun, some means to record all the great ideas and conversation that’s taking place. 

And one of the things that was actually in the title of our last book, facilitation skills.  This is a separate skill from running a project.  You need facilitation skills to make sure that everyone is joining in; and that, as we’ll talk about later, you don’t have people hijacking the meeting.  So those are the ingredients.  And I think if you put those all together with the oven preset at 350, you end up with a pretty good meeting.

JIM STEWART:  And I’d like to add to the end of that, if I can, Wendy, which is that facilitation is at least as much art as science.  There’s even certification in it.  Facilitating is not an easy task, especially if you have 20 people from different cultures in a room with different expectations.

Allow Humor to Influence Meetings

BILL YATES:  The emphasis on facilitation in the book was one of the things that I really appreciated.  Another thing I appreciated in the book was the sense of humor you both have.  Just throughout the book, you guys drop these anecdotes.  You have little quips.  I really appreciate that.  I love it.  And I can see how that would influence more effective meetings, too.

RICH MALTZMAN:  That’s intentional.  Jim is well known for his comments, snarky comments that he sticks in.

JIM STEWART:  Yes.  However, however, you’re actually funnier than me.  Rich and I, when we meet, our meetings when we discuss the book, the first thing we do is rock and roll trivia.  The next thing we do is we clown around a bit.  We just do.  That’s our nature.  We found that we both like that.  And I think we talked about it in the book a little bit, be careful with the humor because it does grease the wheels, but you have to be really careful.  The humor that Rich and I grew up with earlier doesn’t fly.  The humor that makes fun of somebody doesn’t fly.  You have to be very, very careful.  When in doubt, don’t, is my mantra.

Making a Sad Meeting Better

 BILL YATES:  Yeah, in Chapter 2, right from the start you had me because, again, you talk about the musical references and the humor.  The title of the chapter is “Take a Sad Meeting and Make It Better.”  I love that.  What are some indicators of a bad meeting, and then how can we turn this around and improve our meetings?

JIM STEWART:  It’s an interesting question.  First of all, even before you get to the meeting, there’s a grapevine.  People in your company will know who runs the good meetings and the bad ones.  So there’s that.  But if you go to a meeting, and the person running it is non-dynamic – I had that at the place where I was coaching.  It’s a young woman becoming a scrum master, and it was just not uninteresting subject matter.  It just was dull the way she presented it. 

You have to sound like you’re interested yourself.  That’s the first thing.  You have to sound like you’re interested in what you’re talking about.  So that’s number one.

Number two is having the agenda.  If I have no agenda, what are we going to talk about?  Number three is you’re 10 minutes in, and you’re discussing the first item because the owner is allowing Joe, Mary, Bob, whomever to hijack the meeting instead of saying okay, as we say on the agile side, “Elmo! Enough, let’s move on,” in a polite way. 

And if somebody says, “We need to discuss this,” we go to the group and say, “Is this a showstopper?”  Is this, if we go down in the submersible to the Titanic, this thing’s going to implode?  Is it that level?  Or is something going to lead to a separate meeting?  You can make those decisions on the fly.

So I think a bad meeting is when you come out, there’s either no agenda, or there was an agenda, and somebody says, “How did it go?”  We got through the first item.  A good meeting is when you come out and you went through the agenda or as much of it as you could.  You have action items.  The action items have names applied to them, and dates, and follow-up.  And decisions were made.  That’s a good meeting, in my mind.

Why People are Attending a Meeting

WENDY GROUNDS:  So it’s also very important to consider the why. When we want to achieve a productive meeting, we’ve got to understand why people are attending these meetings. So how important is that to consider?

RICH MALTZMAN:  I think it’s very important to consider why.  I’m going to dive a little bit into empathy here.  If they’re attending the meeting because they always have, basically on Tuesday at 10:00 o’clock go to this meeting, or they’re going because they have to go to the meeting, you’re not going to have their buy-in.  You’re not going to have their legitimate interest or their legitimate attention.  You need to somehow make it compelling for them to be there.  And I’m sure Jim is probably thinking “Donuts,” and he should be.

But I think the real key is put yourself in their shoes.  What’s going to make them interested in going to this meeting?  If you were them, what would make you want to be there?  Make attendance flexible time-wise so that they don’t have to sit through an hour and a half of a sales team talking about how great their sales team is when they’re really a technical person and really want to just talk about the new feature that they wanted to do.  So make attendance flexible in terms of having the right people there at the right time.

It’s okay to have people come and go because, guess what, they’re coming and going anyway mentally.  So it’s okay to have them attend the meeting at the times when they should attend; and call them back, if that’s possible.  It’s really about perspective.  And just say, “Okay, if I was Jonathan, if I was Karen, how would I be attracted to come to this meeting? 

Project Manage Meetings

 BILL YATES:  This is also important to, I think back to the research that you guys reference in the book.  On average, when you look at how many meetings we lead each week, it’s 3.6, the reference that you guys had.  So you think, “Okay, almost one meeting a day we’re leading.”  Certainly some people that are listening to this are going, “Oh man, 3.6, I do that before lunch every day.  Are you kidding me?”  But this is so important, to be efficient.  And in Chapter 3 you write that we should apply the same planning mindset to designing our meetings as we do our projects.  What advice do you have on how to project manage our meetings?

JIM STEWART:  Let me address that because I’m sure people understand that we’re not going to project manage every meeting; right?  So I just came off of this agile transformation where I was both an agile coach for the organization and the scrum master.  So my team was three coaches, so we did everything by the scrum book.  We had daily stand-ups, and we had sprint reviews and everything.  We certainly didn’t plan for the daily stand-up.  But even at that level there was a minimum of planning for it where I might send a note via I think it was Teams we were using and say, “We really need to discuss X today.”  There was no agenda for a 15-minute stand-up.

The way we did our stand-ups was 15 minutes, which is the rule book, and the second 15 minutes was for a high priority.  And I might say something like, “Hey, in the second part of the meeting, I would like to discuss this product owner we’re not getting along with or whatever.”  So that’s at the very least, at a very minimum preparation.  The first book Rich and I wrote was built around these big two-day planning meetings that we used to do.  And they were for pharmaceuticals just because, but they could be for IT or any industry.

And those were things like we’d meet people from around the world, or we’d go overseas.  We’d have an agenda.  We’d have the sponsor speak.  And we’d have each function speak.  We’d create a work breakdown structure, a schedule.  We’d have breakout sessions.  That takes a lot of planning.  So you can scale that down.  Maybe said better is bring the appropriate measure of plans you need to this small 10-minute meeting.  You don’t want a bunch of angry people showing up if you have a physical in-person meeting.

Make sure that people know how to find you. I went to a place in the Boston area, and it was a – it almost looked residential.  On one side of the building, every building was 124.  On the other side, every building was 126.  They were just sharing that address.  You want to make sure that people know exactly how to find you.  If they can’t find you, exactly how to reach you.  You’re beveraging them when they come in.  All of that level of planning.  Do your risk management.

Like if you have a big meeting, you want to impress people.  You want them to come away and say, “I want Jim and Rich to manage my projects.  Look at how well they managed this meeting.”  Maybe they won’t say that.  But I’ll tell you this.  If you blow the meeting, you get to make first impressions once.  So the level of planning should be commensurate with the meeting; right?  If you do that, you’re good.

RICH MALTZMAN:  Well, I think that’s very accurate.  I think you have this level of planning that makes sense for a large meeting because a large meeting is, in effect, an event.  And if you were asked as a project manager to manage an event, you would put together a plan.  Somehow when the word “meeting” gets in there, that all goes away, and that’s a meeting.  But a large meeting is an event.

And a small meeting doesn’t need that.  But maybe the meeting equivalent, in this case the event equivalent, is a shopping list.  It doesn’t require a Gantt chart, but it does require a shopping list.  Jim nailed it.  You need the commensurate amount of planning for a meeting.  But remember, a meeting is a project.  Might be very small; and it might be, you know, a two-day sales convention.

A Meeting Planning Mindset

JIM STEWART:  And we’re also trying to get people in the mindset of planning.  Rich and I, again, both teach.  I teach a lot of PMP.  I know you folks do, too.  And I ask people to raise their hands and tell me how much planning they’re allowed.  And they shake their head like there’s just no way.  You know, it’s a ready-fire-aim at a lot of organizations.  I’m trying to get them into a planning mindset.  So if they plan something small, they’ll be better at planning their entire project.  So we want to get into a certain mindset.  Again, the meeting is a building block.  It’s fundamental.

You know, I remember I was working at one financial place where people were on the phone all day, from meeting to meeting to meeting to meeting, back to back.  Not running every single one, but a lot of them.  And one of my problems, as I rant here a little bit, with the agile methodology, it says the scrum master should run the meeting, but theoretically anybody can.  No, they can’t.  Because if you hand it off to somebody who has never run a meeting, they will do a terrible job.

And one of the things I found when I was working this pharmaceutical is the fundamental things.  We taught them agile.  And I’d go to the meetings, they were horrible.  Agile doesn’t address the ability to run meetings.  So I had to tell them things like, “You know why you’re running late?  Because you wait 10 minutes for everybody to show up.  Why don’t you take two minutes to start?”  They say, “Oh yeah, you’re right.”  So these things that we sort of take for granted, you have the agile manifesto.  Everything will work, and people will be able to run meetings.  No, they won’t.  I’m not sure why.  I guess it just takes a certain amount of practice.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, I think it is a mindset.  I love your reference, again, obviously, to Andy Crowe’s book, “The Alpha Project Managers:  What the Top 2% Know That the Others Don’t.”  And the emphasis that he found there, you know, the survey of over 800 project managers, those who really stood out, those top 2%, they did twice as much planning as their peers.

Don’t Worry about Being Liked 

So I’ve got a question.  Facilitation is one of the keys to successful meetings.  One of the tips that you give on facilitation is, “Don’t worry about being liked.”  So I’m trying to run a meeting, and I want everybody to like me.  And you guys are saying, “Don’t worry about being liked.”  Unpack that one a little bit for us.

RICH MALTZMAN:  Sure.  First of all, we’re not saying that you shouldn’t try to be unliked.  We’re not coaching you to be unlikable.  What we’re saying is it’s okay to be liked.  It’s even preferred to be liked.  However, at the same time, if you have a meeting that’s being hijacked, this is the perfect time to show leadership.  And that leadership may mean that you have to temporarily, partially, tactfully tell someone that they need to change their behavior.

Now, obviously that can be done in a sidebar conversation offline.  It might need to be done publicly.  Remember that idea of empathy.  This person who’s taken the stage, partially they’ve taken the stage not because of the subject matter, it’s because they like the stage.  Maybe assure them that you appreciate their ideas, remind them of the agenda and the timing, and say, “We can’t have you talk about this here.  However, what we plan based on the energy you’re putting behind this, we think we need to have a follow-up meeting.  We’ll let you have the main” – we won’t say “stage” here because that would be almost sarcastic – “but this is a meeting where you can really feature the issue that you’re bringing up here.”

They are satisfied because they’re thinking, “Ooh, I’ve got a stage coming.”  You’ve shown leadership.  And Jim was right on when he said your behavior and actions at the meeting are indicative, whether you like it or not, to your audience, as to whether you’re a good project manager.  People will transpose your ability to run the meeting to your ability to run the project, like it or not.  I don’t think a lot of project managers get that.

Kevin and Kyle

KEVIN RONEY: Do you ever wonder what makes a top-performing project manager stand out from the rest? There’s a quote from entrepreneur Jim Rohn that says: “The few who do are the envy of the many who only watch.”

KYLE CROWE: If you’d like learn more about  what makes a project manager truly successful, take a look at Andy Crowe’s book: Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know That Everyone Else Does Not, Andy conducted a survey of more than 800 project managers from around the world to discover the traits that make them stand out. This study looked into the character of the world’s most successful project managers.

KEVIN RONEY: Some of the traits he discovered which make top performers stand apart from everybody else relate to: attitude, focus and prioritization, and communication. Communication being the key quality that presents the most striking difference. Alpha project managers are ranked as being nearly twice as responsive as the other 98% of project managers.

KYLE CROWE: If you want to unlock the keys to their success, take a look at Andy’s book or check out the course we offer at Velociteach, Lessons from Top PMs. Meet the Top 2% – the Alphas – hear their advice, and learn some lessons you can apply to your leadership style and projects going forward.

Dealing with Conflict in a Meeting

BILL YATES:  Another facilitation tip that I thought was very valuable is just on conflict.  Because every project’s going to have conflict.  You actually hope you will.  It’s a part of the collaboration, a part of the problem-solving process is I’m going to have one opinion on how to do something.  Rich is going to have a different one.  So conflict is going to emerge.  What are some tips that you can give for when conflict arises in a meeting? 

JIM STEWART:  So what I learned, conflict is inevitable.  We don’t necessarily like it.  It’s just going to be there.  As you know, there are various ways of dealing with conflict.  And generally speaking, you let the people work it out.  And then you only step in at various levels.  You might accommodate them, you might smooth it, you might withdraw from it.  All those classic Kilmann type of things that we know that are possible solutions to that.

So if conflict occurs in a meeting, then I might say, “Hey, folks.  This is not a bad thing.”  We have to understand that when we talk about conflict, this is really important.  We’re not necessarily talking about fisticuffs.  We’re talking about differences of opinion.  And then if it gets a little out of hand, I like the law and order thing.  I watched an episode of “Law and Order,” and the lawyers are talking, and one guy says, “Okay, Rita, let’s just stand back now, take a deep breath.”  He says, “Let’s just take in a deep breath and everybody collect themselves.”  So I might say, not quite like that, but in some respects, “Okay, something’s going on here.  Let’s stop for a minute and take five and let people cool off a little bit.”

That happened to me recently at a virtual call.  I was personally having a problem with a person who was overseas and had just been trained in scrum, but was an expert in a week.  And she thought her job as a scrum master was to move cars.  I said, “Your job is also to coach.”  I couldn’t get through to her.  And it was becoming painful. 

And the woman who was the product owner said, “Let’s stop this meeting.”  I thought that was a good call on her part because it wasn’t going well.  Sometimes you stop the meeting, sometimes you take a break, but it depends on the level of conflict.  The level of conflict, if it’s healthy disagreements, fine, let it go.  If it’s getting more than that, you need to call parties aside and talk to them privately.   

RICH MALTZMAN:  The problem is when it recedes back into disdain and eye-rolling and passive-aggressiveness.  This is the idea of forming, storming, storming, storming, storming, storming, and never getting to even a hope at adjourning because you’re always in that storming stage.

JIM STEWART:  In which case, instead of starting the meeting by saying, “There might be conflict,” we have ground rules on how we’re going to behave with each other, how we’re going to respect each other.  Throw those words out.  “Respect,” “trust.” It’s the issue, not the person.  Now, there may be some personality conflicts.  One hopes that this is a long meeting or a series of meetings, one hopes that you’ve heard from the sponsor or somebody that Joe and Mary don’t necessarily get along.  You can’t solve every problem.  You’re not magicians.  But sometimes people come to me and say, “I work for a mom-and-pop shop.  I work for a husband and wife, and the daughter is my boss.”  Work someplace else.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Good luck with that; right?

JIM STEWART:  I can’t help you.  Yeah, we are not magicians in that.  Just personality conflicts, that’s probably outside the scope of what we’re trained to be able to do.

Goa the Garrulous

WENDY GROUNDS:  This takes us perfectly into the personalities you describe when you talk about the goblins again.  We had fun meeting some of the goblins in our last podcast with you, Rich.  And there were just two more that, I mean, there were many more, but there were two that I wanted to ask you about.  And these are people that can sometimes hijack your meeting.  There are certain personalities, and they bring something that you have to learn how to control in your meeting.  So we have one goblin that you’ve mentioned, Goa the goblin.  And can you just tell us a bit more about this very talkative goblin and how we can deal with that?

RICH MALTZMAN:  Some people, like to hear the sound of their own voice.  So Goa is excessively talkative.  You’re covering 10 items in your meeting.  And on item number three, which should have been allocated two and a half to three minutes, he himself has talked for already seven or eight minutes.  That already indicates that maybe you should have put a cap on that.  So he rambles.  How do you get them to stop talking?

Well, some of the things you can do actually I learned from my daughter.  One of them was, especially if they’re talking to someone else in the meeting and not publicly, you just walk over to them.  Just your physical presence of being near them.  She teaches middle-school English, and she says it’s amazing.  You just use what she calls “macro body language.”  Just saunter over to that area, and they stop talking.

But really, Goa is someone who’s talking on and on publicly.  So again, it’s just a matter of saying, almost like we talked about before, I’m glad you have this energy.  There’s another forum for this.  Remind everyone of the agenda.  In fact, maybe put that up on the screen.  You can do wonders with what’s going on visually behind you.  So put the agenda back up on the screen, get a big red annotation marker, and circle where we’re at.  Stop the meeting.  Say, “I think it’s time for a break.”  That’s one way to do this.  Just actually stop the meeting.  And then have a one-on-one with that person and say, “Look, you have a lot to say.  You’re very expressive.  We love this energy, but we’ve really got to stay on the agenda.”  Don’t do that publicly because then you’re building up this animosity with the person.

Pat the Passive-Aggressive

WENDY GROUNDS:  The other one that you talked about is the person who has some passive-aggressive tendencies.  So you mentioned Pat, the passive-aggressive goblin.  Can you give us some ideas of what to do with someone like Pat?

RICH MALTZMAN:  So Pat the passive-aggressive goblin can do a lot of damage to your meeting because his or her, we intentionally – this is a “Saturday Night Live” reference.  We picked the name Pat, if you remember that sketch.  Pat is conveying that attitude, crossed arms, rolling eyes, tsk-tsk sound.  They can do a lot of damage.  Everyone around her/him is seeing that reaction, and it’s a little contagious. 

So that’s something that’s best done in the following way.  You should let them know you’re sensing this.  Right?  They’re rolling their eyes.  They’re communicating.

So you should say, you know, “I get that you seem a little frustrated.”  Again, this would be offline with that person.  And say, you know, “I want to hear what you have to say.  All I can see is your eyes rolling.  And all I can tell is that there’s something bothering you.  What is it?”  And that requires extroverted behavior. 

So if you’re a technical project manager, someone who accidentally became a project manager from a software developer or scientist, like happens to many of us, you may not have those extroverted conversational traits.  But build them because you’re going to need them.  And especially with lots of Pats in the room, rolling their eyes, you do want some way to convey to them that this is not helping, and that you actually want to help them express themselves other than just eyes rolling.

JIM STEWART:  Can I add two quick things to what Rich said?  One was on the people who, it’s very often they know that they do these things, and they don’t always get called on it.  They need to be called. 

Number two, the passive-aggressive.  Let me take it outside the meeting. A project I did a number of years ago to roll out a virtual private network, there was a software manager, probably about my age at the time.  We got along pretty well, but he was the manager of the software.  He’s got to give me a schedule to put into my schedule, and he never would.  One day we were going to meet at 2:00 o’clock in his office.  And I get to his office at 2:00 o’clock Thursday, and it’s closed and he’s gone home for the day.  My next stop was to our mutual boss.  And he never forgave me for that, but the project was more important at that point in time.

So there comes a time in all these things where you’ve done everything you can, and the only thing left to do is to escalate.  If it’s three levels above your pay grade, go to your sponsor, go to your boss, go to their boss.  Again, they’re not going to like you, but you’ll be able to get things done.  That guy was sore at me; but she went to him and said, “I need that schedule.”  We rolled the thing out on time, and we won an award for it.  And he was part of that ultimately; right?  Don’t let people’s bad habits, behavior, derail you.

The Fear of Forage

BILL YATES:  Sometimes we’re in a meeting, and we have this sense of there’s treasure in the brain of that person sitting over there, but I just can’t get him or her to speak up.  You guys offer some advice on that, and I’d like for you to talk a bit about that.  In particular, if you don’t mind, talk about this concept of the fear of forage.  That was unique to me.

RICH MALTZMAN:  So actually there’s a goblin, Rosie the Reticent, one of our goblins.  And when it comes to the fear of forage, this is something we got from Karen Hurt and her partner, (David Dye) and we want to acknowledge the work that they did in helping us with that chapter.  I also love this stuff, and it’s very pertinent.  We can talk about the Titan, right, the submersible, where people were a little shy about speaking up about safety issues.  He was so driven.  I’ve got to give him credit for being innovative and so forth.  But, you know, sometimes Rosie the Reticent needs to be heard and needs to speak up.

So the fear of forage is actually a form of devil’s advocacy.  It’s kind of a communal devil’s advocacy.  For those who don’t know, devil’s advocacy is the idea that you can speak up anonymously and say, “This isn’t Rich speaking, but I think we may want to do another year’s worth of testing on this carbon fiber.”  Because if it was Rich speaking, guess what?  Out the door.  And there’s a hundred examples about this – Boeing 737 Max 8, O‑rings on the Challenger.

So to your point, the fear of forage is a real simple technique.  You get a bunch of either virtual or physical 3×5-inch cards, two cards, and you have people write an H and an F on the top.  And then on the H cards, they’re writing their hopes.  On the F cards, they’re writing their fears.  You do this anonymously, and you collect them and read them collectively.  Now the entire group knows the entire group’s hopes and fears.

So this time Rosie doesn’t have to raise her hand.  She can be as reticent as she wants.  Probably a pretty good writer.  Most introverts are.  She’ll write down F, F, F, F, not in terms of grades or any other bad word, but she’s writing F in terms of all of her fears.  And you’ve got them. 

And that treasure you were talking about, Bill, that treasure might be literally a life-saver, or it might be profit-making under the hopes; right?  Like we could go into this market, and she would never raise her hand and say, “I think this will sell really well amongst people who tell dad jokes.”  But if she doesn’t say that, that coffee mug never gets made; right?  So that’s the fear of forage.  It should be called the “hope and fear of forage.”  But, you know, it’s not my thing, so I can’t say it.

Risk Register

BILL YATES:  When I was reading through that, I thought it was such a great technique.  I hadn’t even thought about the application to a risk register, too.  It’s like, as you’re having those conversations, why not have the risk register open and record some of these because they’d fit right in.

RICH MALTZMAN:  I’m going to take a slight diversion here.  We talk a lot about cultures, and Jim added a lot of value here in terms of the national culture, organizational culture.  I lived in Holland for two years.  And one of the things about Dutch culture is that they’re very direct, and they’re very good at shouting out all the negative things that could happen to your project.  This could happen, this could happen, that could happen.  And so they don’t even need a fear of forage.  You just say, okay, we’re doing risk identification.  And the hands go right up because they just love to talk about all the things that could go wrong.

As an American, I was taken aback.  I would sit in the meetings and go, I don’t want to be on this project.  This is terrible.  And then they would flip and say, “Okay, but this could happen, this could happen, let’s go get some beers.”  And I’m like, how do you do that? 

Because they realized in the risk identification stage you need to be negative.  You need to be the naysayer.  And they were particularly good at that.  And I just try to take that back to my students.  But to your point, this fear forage can be done at any time.  Risk register, population, perfect time to do it.

Virtual Meeting Success

WENDY GROUNDS:  One important aspect, especially today in the way we work, is virtual meetings.  Many of our meetings are virtual.  We’re even doing our podcast right now virtually.  What are some things that the leader needs to know and do beforehand to make sure that that virtual meeting is a success?

JIM STEWART:  I believe that we’re beyond, for most people, the, oh, it looks like the Brady Bunch thing.  Everybody gets it now.  Everybody’s on Zoom.

But I think the more you know about your team that you’re meeting with, the better.  But you’re not going to get a psychological read-up on every person.  You could look at the different cultures that are coming on and figure out how they behave in certain ways.  But I think when you’re having a virtual meeting, especially if it’s your first one, let’s say, let’s say a distributed team, taking your question a little further.

Rich and I love icebreakers.  Any kind of icebreaker, whether it’s physical in place or online, or one nice icebreaker is you divide people up into little breakout rooms, and they learn about each other, and they come back and tell you, “I just met Mary, and she plays the sousaphone,” and et cetera.  There also needs to be a cognizance on your part of the discomfort level that some people may feel.  When I first started doing virtual, I didn’t want to come on camera.  I just didn’t.  Now I’m on it, and I don’t care anymore.

But there are people who very much don’t want to come on camera, and they hate virtual meetings.  Don’t make people come on camera if they don’t want to, whether they’re having a bad hair day or they just don’t want to.  Let them do that.    Be aware of things like Zoom fatigue.  People get tired from that.  You don’t get the full array of body language and everything.  Maybe keep your first meeting short so they’ll get used to the idea. 

And allow people even, and I’m going a little bit outside the question, to not meet sometimes.  I’ve been in no company that could have every meeting that the scrum guy calls for.  Sometimes a meeting would be, at 4:00 o’clock, everybody go onto Slack and give us your update.  That’s a meeting of sorts.  It saves that information, that time.

And the last thing I want to say is learn the tools.  We have a story in there from one of our friends.  So somebody got lost in cyberspace.  Like they were lost in the breakout room.  So make sure you know how to use breakout rooms.  Make sure you know the technology you’re using.  There’s a variety of great tools.  If you’re going to use them, learn them.  It’s not going to be the same ever as in person.  It can’t be.  We’re not robots.  But you can make it a lot better.

RICH MALTZMAN:  I would say, and I think we mentioned this, and I hope I’m not repeating, but project manager personality is I’ve got to do everything.  But when it comes to a virtual meeting, why not have someone in charge of watching the chat?  I’ve found in teaching that some of the least participative students – and it’s a meeting, right, it’s a classroom meeting –  are very active on chat.  That chat thread is going on and on, and you’re trying to run the meeting and watch chat, and you’re going to mess up.  So have a technical or a chat deputy overseeing these kinds of things.  That’s different than a regular meeting.

And I think Wayne Turmel mentioned in his book “The Long-Distance Leader” that a virtual meeting is still a meeting, and all of the other same things still apply in terms of goblins and so forth.  So it’s really important to note that it’s still a meeting and all those things apply.  But then other things start to apply, like are we using GoToMeeting, Teams, Zoom, or StreamYard?  And what about time zones?  If the meeting’s in Boston at 10:00 o’clock on Wednesday at 1050 Commonwealth Ave., that’s very clear.

But when it’s a virtual meeting, 10:00 o’clock Boston time is some half-hour time in India because they’re on a 30-minute differential.  And are we using Zoom or Teams?  How many meetings have you been in where, “Oh, I thought we were on Zoom.”  “No, we’re on Teams.”  Both links are in the invite.  So there’s all kinds of extra room for problems.  And the recording, that’s something that doesn’t take place in a physical meeting, but does take place in a virtual meeting.  So we talk about the legal aspects of this.  In most countries you have to let the people know that they’re being recorded.

The advantage of the recording, we actually mention AI in our book.  We talk about the meeting note-taking capabilities that are assumed to be pretty prolific, action item recording and so forth.  Yes, there’s dangers, of course.  We could talk for another whole hour and a half on AI.  But from a meeting perspective, there are tools already out there that will do meeting tracking for you.

Get in Touch

WENDY GROUNDS:  You guys have been great.  You’ve given us so much good advice, and it was really fun chatting to you.  Before we end off, how can our listeners reach out to you, if they’ve got questions, or if they want to get your book, where’s the best place they can go?

RICH MALTZMAN:  It’s just www.dadjokes.com.  No.  So we have a website.  It’s projectmeetings.us.  But I would also encourage everyone, I think Jim and I both are active networkers on LinkedIn.  Connect with us.  We’re generally responsive, and we like to talk to people about this.

JIM STEWART:  Yeah, and the book you can find at Amazon or your better booksellers, and probably even some of your lousy ones.  But definitely at Amazon.

BILL YATES:  “Great Meetings Build Great Teams.”  Well, thank you guys both for this great advice to project managers because this is, this is a foundation of project management, running an effective meeting, and there’s always room for improvement.  So thank you for this contribution.

JIM STEWART:  You’re welcome.

RICH MALTZMAN:  Thank you.


WENDY GROUNDS:  And That’s it for us here on Manage This.  Thank you so much for joining us.  You can visit us at Velociteach.com, where you can subscribe to this podcast and see a complete transcript of the show.  You’ve also earned your free PDUs by listening to this podcast. To claim them go to Velociteach.com, choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs, and click through the steps.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.


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