Minutes of the meeting: The document
I once had an extremely inappropriate conversation with a hospital CEO who had appointed an IT manager without consulting me. My nose was out of joint because I had spent many weeks researching the human resources component of businesses information technology. My ‘IT Manpower Report’ had been endorsed by the council of chief executives. The conversation ended with:
“So who wrote the job description?”
“You did Robin, it’s page 16 of the IT Manpower Report”
While extricating my footwear from my mouth I began to see that people were listening to me, even those who hadn’t spoken directly to me. It was humbling and a bit scary. I began to look at the documents I produced routinely – like minutes.
These are my rules for meeting documentation:
Keep it simple. Keep it short. Use bullet points and white space to make the document ‘scanable’. Distribute the minutes quickly – within 48 hours of the meeting. Do not send a draft to the boss. Firstly it invites the boss to ‘edit’ the facts according to his/her own agenda which is not appropriate. Secondly it’s time consuming. Instead be diplomatic but honest and solicit ‘additions/corrections’ when you distribute the minutes. Regardless of the response, under no circumstances do you EVER send out a corrected version of the minutes. Instead, record the additions/corrections as the first item of the minutes of the subsequent meeting. The first agenda item is always the endorsement of the previous minutes and the recorded response is either that ‘the minutes of the meeting of <insert date here> were accepted as distributed’ or ‘ the minutes of the meeting of <insert date here> were accepted with the following corrections….’. The minutes of the meeting are a record of history. If you send out an adjusted version then two versions of history exist and in isolation, how do you know that the one you’re looking at is the correct one? If your blunder is so significant that it’s not appropriate to wait until the next meeting then distribute a memo to that effect. That memo can be referenced in the minutes of the next meeting preserving the integrity of the forum’s records. The minutes of each meeting are like links in a chain, each validates the previous and together they represent the history of the forum.
What follows is the template that I use to create an agenda and to take minutes. I use the same document for both agenda and minutes, then some notes:
The first table is just admin stuff:
Meeting Title – If you’re working for a company called ‘George’ which is engaged in a project who’s primary vendor is ‘Acme’ you’ll probably find yourself talking about the ‘Acme’ project quite a bit, however to the people at Acme they’re all ‘Acme’ projects. They’re refer to the project as ‘The George Project’. Give your forum a title which is meaningful in call camps.
Participants & Apologies – I suspect that the term ‘Apologies’ comes from a time long since past where people used to let you know that they were unable to attend the meeting. They would ‘send their apologies’. Unless you want to include another field and call it ‘AWOL’ (a military acronym meaning Absent Without Leave), which I have done on occasion, then ‘apologies’ is simply those who should be there but weren’t; ‘participants’ being those who were there. Sometimes I put little icons/footnotes next to those who were at the end of a video or telephone conference as opposed to those who were physically present. Presumably the list of those involved with the forum is fairly fixed so for each meeting all you need to do is cut and paste between these fields.
Minutes distribution – According to common communication protocol, you identify in your communication, parties who are to receive a copy. Sometimes who else is reading the document is relevant and in this case it can be quite powerful. As a courtesy, send a copy of all meeting minutes to the boss ie the project sponsors. Telling all readers that the boss is reading this too, adds weight to the document, especially if your commitment to a particular action is minuted.
Relevant Documents – In the agenda, this is just to remind participants what to bring to the meeting. In the minutes it is a link giving context to the discussion points.
The second table is record of discussions and outcomes:
In the ‘Agenda Items‘ column, list the carefully worded (outcome oriented) discussion points. Remember that if an open discussion is appropriate, then add a time limit. Eg: ‘Parking allocation discussion (10 minutes)’.
In The Agenda, the ‘Decisions and Actions Arising’ column is blank. It’s some white space where participants can scribble their own notes during the meeting. In the minutes version of the document this is the column that contains the payload, discussion outcomes, ie the decisions made and any actions arising. Remember that for every action arising, record who’s responsible and when it’s going to be done. The minutes are toothless without those details. ‘By the next meeting’ is a common assumption – assumptions being the mother of project evil. Spell it out. Remember also that the minutes don’ need to to be a transcript of the discussion. Just record the outcomes, ie the decisions made and the actions that arise from the discussions.
Project documentation is not like a sales contract. The trick is not what you get in the document or even to get someone to sign it. The trick is getting people to read it and understand it. If in doubt spell it out, “So that everyone is on the same page this is how I’m going to minute this decision… Is that OK?”. If there is going to be controversy, let it be out in the open at the meeting and not when people read the minutes.
Creating ‘Minutes’ from the Agenda. Firstly don’t forget to change the word ‘Agenda’ to ‘Minutes’. In the admin table, you may need to cut and paste between ‘participants’ and ‘apologies’ to reflect who was at the meeting. The rest remains the same.
In the discussion table the ‘Agenda Items’ column should be largely unchanged. Against each one record the resolutions in the form of the decisions made and the action commitments that participants have made during the meeting. When you get good at it, you should be able to type up the minutes before the meeting and get it 90% right. If you think this is a bit rude then review the previous article about managing meeting madness. As much as possible arguments and controversy should be played out before the meeting. The meetings are all about capturing and recording. The real work has to happen between meetings and not at the meetings or you are going to end up with very long and not necessarily productive meetings.
Remember that with your project management hat on, you have very little in the way of actual power or authority. Done well, minuting meetings is quick and easy and the result is often all that stands between nirvana and project hell.