Getting meeting notes right (with a little hocus pocus)
This article is about how to take your project meeting note taking process to the next level using some easy tips and tricks. I will not be addressing meeting basics (showing up early/on time, being prepared, having specific agenda items, managing time, etc.) since most consulting pros already get the basics - I will be focusing more on some particular gaps that I see happen despite the best of intentions. The good news is that the solutions are easily implemented and can dramatically improve efficiency and productivity.
I am going to focus on… proper meeting documentation. If you don't think this is a big deal, please read on so I can try to prove otherwise (and give some helpful options). If you already know what I mean, read on and maybe you will chuckle a bit as you reminisce and learn a thing or two along the way.
Below are some of the observations that I've seen (and have been guilty of at some point or another) during meetings.
▸ No one takes notes… You try to take notes but you are also running the meeting. My favorite is when I go back later and look at my notes and realize that somehow I've only captured either the first half or the second half of my sentences, so it ends up more like a business version of Mad Libs.
▸ Someone appears to take notes (I've seen this one a lot)… Don't assume that since someone is typing they are taking notes. Ever get an email from someone on your team at the end of the meeting and realize they weren't actually taking notes (or even paying attention) during the meeting?
▸ Handwritten notes… Someone whips out their fancy fountain pen, opens up their soft Italian leather journal and captures oodles of information using some incredible penmanship. The catch, of course, is that you and the rest of the team never get to actually read it. Maybe it really is a personal journal… I don't know, I never get to see them.
▸ Key decisions not documented… Some decisions were definitely made in the meeting, but I just can't remember which way it ultimately went. Without detailed notes, I inevitably can't figure out if the ultimate one was the flip or flop decision.
▸ Follow-ups get lost… Unless you have a wonderful memory (some people do), the tasks that were agreed upon during the meeting just fade away since no one wrote them down. Often, these end up as 'oh crap' moments when someone asks about a task a week or two later, assuming you actually were going to be following through.
▸ Where are the notes?… This is a great one - ever had a client ask for detailed notes of meetings several weeks after they occurred? Good luck with this one if you didn't take notes during the meetings. Probably just as much fun as trying to track down all those handwritten journals.
In summary, trying to 'wing it' and skipping the whole note taking process can really get you into a bind. I like to think that as a paid professional, this is part of the job that I am getting paid to do and treat it seriously. In fact, I’ve found that clients really do notice the little things, such as taking notes and paying attention during meetings. Getting started on a new project with new people can always be challenging, but I've never had a client complain about the respect and professionalism that goes along with paying attention and taking notes. This is just one more thing that they will notice that will help foster a positive relationship.
What is the solution (one that doesn't make your life more difficult, of course)?
The good news is that the above issues can be solved fairly easily by a bit of project manager hocus pocus and using the right tools. In fact, I find that using the right approach for meetings actually tends to bring the project team a little closer together and allows the project managers to lighten up on team interrogations after meetings. (That is probably too harsh since I'm sure project managers ask in the nicest possible way.)
OneNote - This is a great tool from Microsoft for capturing meeting notes. It is even available for Mac users and works on mobile devices. I'm sure there are other applications like Evernote that can do similar things, but I'm going to stick with OneNote since it is widely used, tends to have more features than other applications, integrates nicely with Microsoft applications and is considered a consulting standard.
Every project manager has their own style. That said, below are some of my strategies/observations for how to get more out of your meetings.
Be clear on project team expectations
▸ When you kick-off your project, tell your project team that OneNote will be the team standard for taking notes, no exceptions. Ask your Mac users to have it setup/installed if they don't already have it.
▸ Assign a primary note taker at the beginning of the meeting, though the expectation is still that everyone is participating in taking notes. If there are only two people in a meeting, the person not leading the meeting will by default be the primary note taker.
Meeting preparation (takes 30 seconds)
▸ Set a good example and make it easy for the team. The very first thing I do right before a meeting starts is to create a meeting page in OneNote. Below are several common ways to create a meeting page:
1. Right click on a meeting invite and select "Meeting Notes" and click 'Take notes on your own'.
2. Open a meeting invite, click on the 'Meeting Notes' icon on top of the page and click 'Take notes on your own'.
Pick the notebook that you want to save the meeting notes in.
3. Open a new page in your OneNote section and select the Meeting Details dropdown.
▸ Note: you should have a separate notebook for each project. At Rightpoint, these are auto-generated when new projects are setup by our friendly admin folks.
▸ Recommendation: create a section called "Meetings" to save your meeting note pages for all of your client facing project meetings. You might also want to create a separate section just for internal meetings. It is not particularly helpful if everyone puts their notes off in their own corner of OneNote and no one knows about it so be sure to tell everyone that this is the place for meeting notes.
▸ Send everyone on your team who is in the meeting a link to the meeting page. Right click on the page title (usually on the right side of OneNote) and select 'Copy Link to Page'. Then paste the link into a Lync window and send it off to your merry band of note takers. This clearly reminds your team that you expect them to be paying attention, taking notes and tells them exactly where to put their notes (pretty nifty).
During the meeting
▸ Put a date at the front of the page title. This will become useful later, as I will point out. Note: pages in bold mean you haven't read them!
▸ Set up sections for 'Decisions' and 'Action Items' at the top of the page.
▸ Try to keep your notes in a single column within the page. When more than one person is typing notes onto the same page, there is a chance of a conflict if you are typing too close to each other at the same time. Having everyone use a separate column or a section farther away on the page will help you avoid conflicts. You can always go back later and consolidate columns if you really want to.
▸ Highlight key notes. Every now and then something particularly useful to someone on my team who is absent from the meeting will come up and I don't want to forget to share it with them. Just highlight the text in your favorite color, making it easier to find later.
End of meeting
▸ Recap Decisions and Action items as part of the meeting closeout. Pretty easy since they are at the top of the page.
▸ Refresh the meeting participants. Who joined late? Who was on the phone? This is a good time to ask your fellow note takers who the important mystery person sitting in the corner was. If you used the steps above to create the meeting page, then you already have the meeting participants listed in the top left of the page - just expand the Participants list and check-off the boxes if someone attended. This is also pretty nice when the spelling of someone's name is tricky.
▸ Take pictures of white boards, etc. and add them as subpages. This also works well with screen shots. Putting them on a subpage reduces clutter on the note page.
▸ Review your notes for anything you highlighted - grab these and send them off to the relevant project team member (or even better, just send them a link to the meeting page).
▸ Add relevant emails sent during the meeting as subpages. To do this, go into Outlook, right click on the email and select OneNote. Then add to the same section your meeting notes are in. Then move to right under the meeting page, highlight the page and select 'Make Subpage'. Notice that the email header information is copied over along with the content and any attachments.
Later in the week
▸ It's weekly status reporting time - what were all those meetings and calls again?…
Just go to OneNote and look at your list of chronologically ordered pages.
▸ What were the key decisions that occurred during the last week?…
Just go to OneNote and review the top of each of your meeting pages.
▸ Which action items were completed? Which are still open?…
Just go to OneNote and review the top of each of your meeting pages.
A few weeks later
The client asks for notes from all the meetings from a month ago. Easy - just right click on your Meeting section tab and select Export, and choose MS Word.
Other cool things you can do
▸ Type in someone's name in the Search window in OneNote (top right) and you can see all the meetings they were in (This is why you want to use the meeting invites to create the pages since it includes names!)
▸ Use tags - there are a bunch of useful default tags though you can also create your own. I tend to use the To Do tag the most but there are also tags for issues, questions, definitions, etc.
▸ Mark pages as Read or Unread (in bold type) using ’control-Q’. This is a useful way to remind yourself if you need to go back and review notes.
▸ Find all recently updated pages - use the History - Recent Edit function. This is great since OneNote can get really busy (a good thing).
By setting team expectations on note taking, planning for meetings using OneNote and setting up a consistent structure for note taking, you can improve the quality of your meetings and streamline later activities.
Key Points to Remember
▸ Get in the habit of using OneNote for all meetings.
▸ Proactively ask your team to use OneNote - make it extra easy by sending them a link so that everyone is on the same page (literally).
▸ Make sure at least one person is assigned to take notes for each meeting.
▸ Be diligent about capturing decisions and action items in meetings and you can easily leverage them for weekly statuses.
Thanks for reading. Hope this helps!