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Productive and enjoyable legal project meetings

Most people do not enjoy meetings at work.  We all know the reasons why: they tend to be rather negative (called when ‘things go wrong’) and unproductive.

This perception of meetings can be a real problem for project managers, including legal project managers.  To run projects successfully project managers need to call and run meetings, such as the kick-off meeting outlined in my previous post.

Running a meeting amidst a field of negativity is hard.  To avoid the negativity, some project managers will simply skip the meetings and try to run projects by a series of informal interactions and communications.  This is a mistake.  Even Agile, a very light process methodology which values ‘individuals and interactions over processes and tools’ has meetings at its core (‘stand-up meetings’).

So how can meetings become a forum for collaboration where ideas are generated, problems solved and participants enjoy the experience?


Workshops and Meetings

Generally, a well run workshop is enjoyable and provides a great forum for idea generation and problem solving.  It follows therefore that if you can turn your meetings, or parts of them, into workshops you increase the likelihood of being productive and getting some real work done.

So let’s see how a project kick-off meeting might be turned into a mini-workshop.


Kick Off Meetings and Risk Management

As noted in my last post, the essence of a project kick-off meeting is to make sure the project team is fully aligned with project aims and objectives.  By the end of the meeting team members should know what is expected of them during the project, what obstacles they are likely to face and how these obstacles may be overcome.


Risk Assessment

During a project kick-off meeting is it usual to confirm known risks and ask attendees if they can think of any others.

These conversations are often more awkward than they should be, because many believe (or choose to believe) that risk management ‘is something that the project manager does’ and so need not be discussed much by the team.

This view is short-sighted.  Risk identification and management should be owned by the delivery team.  The role the project manager plays is a facilitator, coach and recorder of project risks.

What does the legal project manager need to do to properly facilitate risk identification and planning as part of a project kick-off meeting?


Plan the meeting in advance

This is embarrassingly obvious.  Even more embarrassing: this is often not done properly.

As noted in my previous post, the meeting organiser should do some pre-meeting research to identify areas to focus on during the meeting itself.  This research should include quick informal 1:1 conversations with meeting attendees before the meeting.

Agenda’s, with timings for each item to be discussed, should be circulated in advance along with any essential background documentation.

You should also consider the room you are going to use and whether it is suited to a workshop style meeting.  If not, then change the room not the shape of the meeting.

Workshops are usually more tactile than standard meetings, so you will need to make sure you have all the materials you are going to need.  These need not be anything fancy or expensive (see below).


Consider carefully who should attend the meeting

Another point mentioned in the previous post is to carefully consider who should attend the meeting.

In theory all delivery team members, internal and external, should attend the project kick-off meeting.  Realistically this will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.  In practice therefore, the aim should be to get all core team members to attend.

Let’s assume the matter you are dealing with is a fairly complex litigation (dispute resolution) matter.  You have invited six people to the project kick-off meeting, your core project team.

The kick-off meeting is now underway…


Risk Identification

When it comes to the risk assessment part of the meeting you can start, as is traditional, by running though risks and their treatment which have already been identified as part of your pre-meeting research.

Now comes the more interesting part.  Instead of just asking people if they can identify any further risks, you make the meeting more interactive.

  1. Hand some yellow post-it notes around and ask all participants to write up to 3 risks each, one risk per post-it note.
  2. After everyone has written down their risks, collect the post-its and quickly sort and group. There will probably be duplicates, so take out the duplicates.  Then group the risks accordingly (these could be grouped by, for example, risks in relation to witnesses of fact, expert witnesses, disclosure and law firm internal issues etc).
  3. Then put the post-its on a wall, together in their groups.
  4. Then suggest a coffee break – with some work thrown in.


Risk Prioritisation

  1. Explain to meeting participants that they have 3 votes each. They can vote for the risks they believe are most likely to occur and have greatest impact on the project (legal matter).
  2. Each participant can place all 3 votes on one risk if they so wish or they can give one vote each to 3 different risks or two votes for one risk and one vote for another.
  3. They make a vote by placing a dot on the relevant post-it on the wall as they are going to / from the coffee machine or kitchen. This is known as dot voting.  Coffee not essential, but it might help.


Risk Management Planning

When the meeting reconvenes, everyone should easily see which risks rank highest in priority because those risks have the most dots on.

Let’s assume that 3 risks are clearly higher priority than others.

Explain to the team that you will keep the lesser priority risks under review and, as a result, may well discuss these lesser risks with the team at a later date.

For now though you want to focus on the top 3 risks and devise appropriate preventative and contingency plans:

  1. Pair the meeting participants up into three pairs of two. (You will have already considered in advance who should pair with who as part of your meeting planning).
  2. Hand them one priority risk each as recorded on the yellow post-it notes.
  3. Now hand them two different coloured post-it note pads (say blue and pink). Blue post-its for recording preventative actions, pink ones for contingency actions.
  4. Ask each pair to briefly discuss their assigned risk and write their suggested preventative and contingency actions on the different coloured post-its.


Risk Management Plans Explained

  1. Ask each pair to the put the post-it notes in order along a horizontal line on the wall in sequence, yellow-blue-pink.
  2. Ask them to explain to their colleagues how they have come up with the suggestions they have. (By the way, asking ‘how’ is usually much more effective than asking ‘why’.  ‘Why’ tends to put people on the defensive as they seek to justify their decision making, whereas ‘how’ encourages people to walk through a process).
  3. Encourage their colleagues to join in with their observations and suggestions about the preventative and contingency actions presented.


Meeting Outcomes

By the end of this exercise you should have identified and ranked quite a few risks and have developed plans to manage some leading risks.

Hopefully the team discussion will have served to educate all team members about the importance of risk planning and made them aware that this is not just ‘something the legal project manager does’.  They need to fully take part in the process too.


Why do all this stuff with post-its?

Research shows that we properly take-in and absorb just a relatively small proportion of the spoken words we hear each day.

However, when these words are communicated in different formats, with the relationships between concepts clearly displayed (hence the coloured post-it notes, dot voting and the horizontal line showing risk, prevention and contingency) we retain much more of the information presented to us.

Also getting people to become more physically active during a meeting (dot voting and placing post-its on walls) helps energise the meeting and encourages productivity and creativity.


Is this really for lawyers?

Some readers may feel that they can’t run meetings like this because it is just not the right thing to do – it does not fit with the culture of their organisation.

My answer to that is if you and your colleagues currently believe that meetings are unproductive then what you are doing now does not work well.  Forget about the wider firm culture and just focus on your meetings – what do you need to do to make them more productive?

You can also take encouragement by the increasing adoption of ‘legal design’ as a means of surfacing and solving legal problems of various kinds.   Using post-its, sketches and other visual communication tools is no longer alien to the legal services industry.


Interested in finding out more?

This is just one example to illustrate how a little bit of pre-meeting planning and in-meeting creativity can help make meetings become more productive – meetings where real work gets done.

During my legal project management training courses I spend some time explaining and showing how to plan and run meetings using a variety of techniques and skills.  If this interests you, you may want to sign-up for a course.

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