it’ll just take a minute…!
In the project world, it is important to hold meetings so that problems and challenges can be discussed, and a way forward agreed. It is just as important that these meetings are documented accurately and concisely, and in a timely fashion. Have you ever been to a meeting that was not documented at all, or possibly worse than that, was documented badly?
If meeting outputs are not captured clearly and communicated, it is likely that everyone will come away from the meeting with their own slightly differing interpretations of what happened. It is also quite likely that nothing much will happen as a result of the meeting.
But minute-taking is often seen as a menial and tedious administration duty, and in the project world is often delegated to the most junior PMO person around. And effective minute-taking is harder to do (well) than it looks.
To do it effectively you need:
- Good listening skills (to pick out the conclusions from the preliminary discussion)
- A working knowledge of the subject matter (or at least the terminology, so that you can follow the discussion)
- To be assertive (brave enough to speak up to CxOs, and to chase the meeting chairperson)
- Good writing skills (to concisely and unambiguously summarise discussion)
All this can be a bit daunting if you are a relatively junior person faced with the prospect of documenting your first meeting, consisting of a room full of experienced CxOs. You could try to get some training, but that is hard to find.
So here are some minute-taking tips that I’ve learned, based on the scenario of documenting a semi-formal meeting such as a project or programme board or steering committee.
Before the meeting
1. Find out who will be attending. Look on your organisation’s intranet or LinkedIn to find their picture. Take the pictures and names with you to the meeting
2. Get a copy of the agenda, and the information pack that will be presented (if applicable). Print a copy to take notes on (and a spare one in case one of the attendees is unprepared). Or get a PDF copy to take electronic notes on if you have the appropriate technology
3. Ask the chairperson to start the meeting by getting all the attendees to introduce themselves
4. Agree with the chairperson that s/he will summarise important actions or decisions for the minutes
5. Agree with the chairperson if you will be timekeeping for them, how long each part of the meeting should take, and how to signal if the meeting falls behind schedule
6. Sit either right next to the chairperson, or directly opposite them (right in their eyeline) – so you can easily attract their attention if necessary
1. Arrive early if you can – check the AV is working if you will be running the slideshow
2. If people arrive sporadically, introduce yourself as they arrive, and on a rough sketch of the meeting table note their names where they sit.
3. When the round table introductions happen, add any missing names to the sketch. If you don’t hear a name properly and you’re too embarrassed to ask for a repeat, discreetly use the pictures you printed out to identify them. If that doesn’t help, instead of their name put a simple symbol like a star or a triangle (or male/female symbols ??). Use this to denote what they say, and get their name later. Also do this for any latecomers who don’t introduce themselves.
1. Note the key discussion points on your copy of the meeting papers. Use symbols and abbreviations – e.g. A for action, D for decision, R for Risk, ? for anything you need to ask the chairperson later
2. Write the notes by hand. Unless you are a really good touch-typist, you won’t be fast enough. And if you are a really good touch-typist, the noise of you typing during the meeting will be an unwelcome distraction.
3. For particularly technical or complicated discussions, consider using your phone or other device to record the proceedings. Let people know you are doing this before you start. This recording is just a memory-jogger for later; it should be deleted once the meeting has been written up and the minutes agreed.
4. For any attendees whose names you didn’t catch at the beginning or who arrive late, make a note on the sketch if anyone addresses them by name during the meeting.
5. Decisions usually relate to choices between options, or proposals that are either approved (maybe subject to amendment) or rejected. Record the outcome clearly (“The proposal [to do something] was approved”; “Option C [to do something] was selected”), with a brief description of the rationale if it helps. If you miss the conclusion because you didn’t fully understand the discussion, say something like “For the minutes, please can the meeting confirm that the proposal was agreed?” (or rejected, whichever you think is most likely – you have a 50% chance of getting it right!). If this generates further debate, don’t be afraid to ask the same question again later, using the same words if necessary, or something like “For the minutes, please can someone summarise the decision that was just made?”. At this point usually the chairperson will summarise the decision, or will concede that actually no decision was made and more information or discussion is required (an Action then!)
6. Allocate each action raised to one person (who is actually present – it is bad manners to assign actions to people who aren’t there to accept [or deflect!] them), with a due date. If you need to, ask the meeting “Who is taking this action?” (someone should volunteer or the chairperson will nominate someone), and “When does this need to be done by?”
7. As soon as the meeting has finished, introduce yourself to any latecomers and get their names before they leave.
1. Find out who any unidentified people were using your sketch diagram – ask the chairperson (“Who was the woman with the short hair in the red jacket between Kevin and Angela? I think Kevin called her Kate…?”)
2. Write up the meeting as soon as you can – ideally immediately afterwards. Include the names of those who were there (attendees), and those who were invited but didn’t attend (apologies). See the templates below to help you get started.
3. For almost all project meetings, you don’t need to record that a report was presented, or that an update was given – that is usually in the meeting pack. You don’t need to capture everything that was said, just the outcomes. To my mind there are only two types of outcome from a project meeting – Decisions (between options, or to approve or reject a proposal) and Actions (or updates on open actions: to do something, or raise a risk, etc.). Put each action on a separate line in a table with a headline, description, person (this can be initials if you include them in the attendee list). If you need to capture anything that is not a decision or an action, you can record it as an information note. You can structure the table along the same lines as the agenda to help the attendees find relevant items.
4. Keep the write-up brief and factual. Avoid personal comments or emotive words.
5. If the discussion jumps around or takes place in a different order from what is on the agenda (for example to take account of someone needing to arrive late or leave early), it may make more sense to group items by subject matter rather than in a chronological order as they were discussed in the meeting.
6. As soon as they are written up, pass your “minutes” (decisions and actions) to the chairperson to review, with a request for this to happen as quickly as possible. If there was a lot of very technical content, it might be wise to also get the meeting’s technical specialist to review your outputs for accuracy.
7. As soon as possible (ideally within one business day of the meeting), circulate the outputs to all the meeting invitees and any extra attendees, with a request to inform you within a given time period of any additions or clarifications required.
8. “Sign” your document – “Meeting outcomes documented by…” perhaps with a hyperlink to your LinkedIn profile. If you do a job like this well, it can become invisible. So if you did a good job, why not own it? You never know when that ownership might come in handy…!
So that’s my approach for documenting meetings, learned through experience. Is this approach useful to you?
Take a look at a couple of templates which I’ve used in the past:
Why not leave a comment below – or get in touch directly with me – contact details below – or come along to a PMO Flashmob, I’m often there at London events!
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