How do I increase Return On Time Invested (ROTI) in meetings as a project manager?

According to Stephen R. Covey, "The key is in not spending time, but in investing it" and when talking about investments we need to think about returns. As project / program managers usually we are loaded with meetings. How do we ensure that we maximize the returns on the invested time in these meetings?

photo of Shipra Singh
Shipra Singh

Project Manager

Posted on Feb 17, 2021

When I was assigned to a project, I quickly realized that my calendar was full of meetings and I was bouncing off from one meeting to the other, without having time to absorb what was just discussed in the previous meeting. This started challenging me to see the bigger picture and how all the tasks and meetings are piecing together. Therefore, I took a step back and analyzed how I am spending my time. As anticipated, I realized I spent a big chunk of time in different meetings which may or may not need me. This got me thinking about how I could optimize my calendar and save some time. Then, I could use this time to zoom out a bit to see the bigger picture, not only for my project but also for other projects & their interdependencies, if any.

As Project / Program Managers, a large part of our day is devoted to Project / Program meetings. Therefore, in this blog I am focusing on time spent in meetings only. In order to optimize my time spent in meetings, I ask myself the following questions and figure if I am using my and everybody else's time wisely.


1. What are we trying to achieve in the meeting?

Yeah, yeah, we all heard about this. This is such a simple yet powerful question. Keeping the end goal in mind helps a lot. To start with, when I am organizing a meeting, I try to identify if the meeting is to make a decision, share information, solve a problem or any other type. This helps me in better preparation for the meeting as follows:

  • Before the meeting: I prefer to share the meeting agenda in advance with the participants so that they not only come prepared but also suggest to add others, if needed, to make the discussion more meaningful and effective. Sometimes, looking at the agenda, the stakeholders can help in estimating the time we need for the meeting, usually when the discussion might need a bit longer than the booked slot. Win-win for us all (and one less meeting probably).

  • During the meeting: Initiate the meeting by sharing the context and expected outcome (brainstorming, problem solving, information sharing/ gathering, decision making, etc.). This helps set the intention of the meeting and brings clarity, from the start, on what we are trying to achieve through the discussion.

  • After the meeting: It becomes a bit challenging to reflect upon if we managed to achieve what we aimed for while swinging between the meetings but whenever possible such reflections always help me soak the discussion in and prepare for next steps.

2. Do we really need to meet or can we exchange the mails instead?

Sometimes a quick verbal discussion is effective and more efficient than exchanging multiple mails, but other times it might actually be more efficient to share the information on mail. This is especially true when I am trying to share some information with a larger group or senior stakeholders and time is of the essence. Remember speed is one of our values at Zalando (Our Founding Mindset).

3. Am I needed in this meeting?

This one is a challenging one as I am still learning about my project, my responsibilities, my team and Zalando ways of working. In Zalando, we have a role expectations document per role. This document serves me as an anchor and helps me stay focused in terms of my responsibilities and tangible deliverables. As a new joiner, most of the meetings added value and helped me understand the project, stakeholders and ways of working but as the time progressed I needed to choose between my work and the meeting I am attending. This is when I take a step back and think about what value I am adding to the meeting or vice versa. If my answer is that it is for my information, then the next set of questions for me are i) do I need to spend so much time getting this information, ii) are any of my project team members joining the meeting, iii) would it be efficient to take the download from my team member. Even though this approach seems like a decision tree but it is not as complex as it might sound here. Another challenge which I (and I am sure many others) face while taking such decisions is that one has to be comfortable with letting the control go while trusting in the team. I think this is a good place to practice 'be your team's biggest fan' OFM! Once my manager in my previous organization told me that if our work plate is full, we have to take some things off our plate to get something new. Well, it is a simple tradeoff, or maybe not :)

4. Am I using other peoples' time well?

  • Understand the decision hygiene: I find it extremely helpful to understand what is the appropriate level for the decision to be made and who the decision makers are. Having the required stakeholders in the room, be it senior leadership, team lead, SME, or anyone else, while the team is taking a decision usually ensures the effective outcome and great use of everyone's time.

  • Sometimes not everyone is needed on the call for the whole meeting. Based on my understanding and after a quick check with the team that the person is not needed for the rest of the meeting, I respectfully give the person the option to drop off if they'd like (and usually people take that option happily).

  • Many times people are roped in at the last minute before the meeting (last minute meeting extensions). So, if time allows, I like to share the context (or encourage my team to onboard the person before the meeting) and bring them up to speed if they are added at the last minute. This helps the person to orient themselves, a bit better, during the discussion and s/he can anticipate the discussion flow and contribute to the discussion rather than figuring the agenda and meeting discussion all by themselves.

5. How can I help in efficient decision making?

We all know, asking questions is one of the key responsibilities of a project manager is to bring in structure to the project. As a centralized function, GPMO team has a breadth of experiences in running different kinds of projects successfully and has documented the best practices, which can be leveraged by individual projects. If I draw parallels with the finance world here, it comes close to arbitrage opportunity for project managers whereby project managers are bringing in systemic efficiencies by learning from one project and applying those learnings to the others. In one of my projects, as we are making a few decisions, I shared an existing template with my team so that they i) do not spend time organising their information but rather focus on the information itself ii) leverage and build on what is tried and tested format rather than reinventing the wheel. This helped my team in saving a lot of time in figuring the structure of the paper and using the saved time to finalize the content.

6. Am I timing my questions well?

We all know, asking questions is one of the ways to learn. Sometimes, these questions can help the project team as they bring new perspectives in the discussion, while other times they may derail the discussion and may not be the most efficient use of everyone else's time. Therefore, I try to take a judgement call if the timing of my question is right. Therefore, I try to bucket my questions as i) is this for my understanding only (make a list and ask later to the right person)? ii) my question can benefit others / discussion (then ask in the meeting)? Second bucket also helps in levelling the field as many times people don't ask questions due to social embarrassment. There may not always be a perfect way to classify questions but keeping the classification in mind definitely helps.

Well, the learning is continuous and so are our efforts. At the end of the day not all meetings go as planned but the larger goals here are to become more efficient in spending our time and be effective project managers.

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