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Meeting Time Keepers

There are whole libraries of advice on how to conduct productive meetings but the most effective trick I've ever encountered didn't come from a book, it came from another project manager, someone I worked for at the time. The tip is quite simple, but elegant if executed properly. Before I give you the tip, let me give you some background information.

At the time I was given the tip by my boss, Andre, I was managing a programme for a mission critical software configuration/order management system for a large telecommunications equipment manufacturer. The software supported software engineers who configured customized software operating systems for telephone "switches". The system not only managed thousands of software and marketing rules for how the software could be configured, it scheduled the production, delivery, and installation of the software. The system handled hundreds of millions of dollars in orders each year and the software application was updated quarterly. The projects which updated the software with new features and bug fixes had to be delivered on time, frequently these updates supported new software features that had to be released on time and failure to release the configuration and ordering system would delay customer delivery.

The result of this was that the Gate meetings that marked the progress of the work were often contentious and rowdy. One individual in particular would tend to stray from the agenda and it was very difficult to recover the meeting. The degree of difficulty was heightened because this individual was the executive sponsor for the projects and both Andre and I worked for him! The meetings would frequently end without coming to a decision - the clock had run down and the meeting ended.

Andre observed my difficulty and offered his services to correct the problem. Andre attended the next Gate meeting and announced that he would be the "time keeper". He took his watch off, set it on the table in front of him and announced that he would be giving a "2 minute warning" when a topic was 2 minutes away from its allotted time (of course, this will only work if you have a set agenda and have scheduled each item on the agenda with a start and stop time). The first contentious agenda item triggered a 2 minute warning, to the consternation of the sponsor. It's a long time ago now and I can't remember events perfectly but I believe there was also a 1 minute warning. The effect of these warnings was to interrupt the speech being delivered. The interruption didn't completely stop the speech, but when it resumed it had a considerably smaller head of steam. When we reached the time limit, Andre broke in at a break in the speech and announced that the time was up for that item. I took my queue and announced that if further discussion was required for the item we would address it in the "parking lot" at the end of the meeting and moved on with the next agenda item.

There was considerable resistance to this at that initial meeting, but acceptance grew as attendees became more used to the idea. Even the sponsor came to accept the "time keeper" concept. Meetings became much more controlled and produced the desired outcome: a gating decision. I have had the opportunity to provide this service to other project managers since those days and find that it almost always is effective in putting control of the meeting agenda back in the project manager's hands.

There is nothing in this trick that wouldn't be suitable to any meeting that has to keep to an agenda and a clock. The reason I put associate it with Gate meetings is that's where I first encountered its use and I still use it to this day.

To be effective, the meeting organizer has to set the meeting up properly. Here are the things that you need to put in place before your time keeper can be effective, or things you should expect if you are the time keeper:

  • The meeting must have an agenda, each item on the agenda must have a start and finish time and an owner or prime.
  • The time allowed for each agenda item must be reasonable. Allow the prime to speak to the agenda item, know the information the prime will communicate and then allow time for questions and answers after the prime is finished. For most gate meetings you can control this yourself by creating templates for the primes to speak to.
  • Provide a "parking lot" to finish unfinished business. It is impossible to accurately forecast where problems lie for every agenda item and when you encounter an issue you need to be prepared to move it to the parking lot and move on.
  • The meeting facilitator should introduce the time keeper and explain their role in the meeting. The time keeper is not the facilitator, they have a very narrow, very specific role and should not be expected to contribute anything beyond this.
  • The facilitator, or project manager, must be prepared to take control of the meeting when the time keeper announces the expiration of time for an agenda item. Capture the item in the parking lot and begin the next agenda item.
  • Using a time keeper in your meetings will tend to focus attention on the agenda you communicated for the meeting and the clock. This will tend to limit debates, speeches, and other behaviours that conflict with the agenda. Now that you have everyone focused on the agenda it is your job to force a decision from the meeting.

The Gate meeting agenda should consist of the deliverables the closing phase was to produce and the resources and plans required to begin the next phase. Each of the deliverables will require a decision (or "check mark"). Has the deliverable been produced? Does it meet the criteria that was planned for it? Are the resources required to begin the next phase in place? Do the primes responsible for delivering resources that don't have to be in place until a later date agree to their delivery dates? Is the plan for the next phase set? The focus is on answering these questions within the allotted time and your time keeper will help you keep your stakeholders focused on these questions and the clock. Once you have answered these questions for each of the agenda items, the decision should be automatic.

One last thought on this tip: there is a proverb (and also a line in a song by Justin Timberlake) that goes "What goes around comes around". The saying is appropriate here. Remember when you ask another project manager or peer to provide this service to you that you will be expected to return the favour. If not to that person, to someone else. You needn't wait until you need the service, you can identify opportunities to provide it yourself to relieve your peers or staff when they are struggling to gain control of their meetings. Offering this service and executing it effectively will have a profound effect on the meeting facilitator, especially when they get control of their meetings back. You will be remembered for this service and your credibility and trust levels will be boosted. It must be 25 years since Andre helped me at my Gate meetings and I can still remember the first occasion to this day!