In June of 2016, Donald Trump Junior had a meeting with Natalia Veselnitskaya. I think everyone agrees on that point. The lack of clarity on the meeting’s objective and attendees as well as the events that led up to it serve as an excellent case study for project managers. Now if you are interested in maintaining plausible deniability ambiguity is a wonderful thing. For project managers, however, nebulous communication is the enemy of a well-run project. Let me explain…
Donald Trump Junior’s troubles began with an email. Leading up to the meeting a long email thread was sent to the invitees. Many later confessed that they simply did not read the email, even though important information was in that thread. They joined the meeting primarily because of who invited them. The distribution of long rambling emails is a common problem. Someone sends off a message that generates an avalanche of responses and counter-responses. The recipient must extract from this landslide the important ideas randomly distributed throughout the thread.
To avoid this issue, I follow two simple rules of thumb. Rule one, my third email is a phone call. Rather than going back and forth in a series of email, I speak with the person directly. Whether that means picking up the phone or walking over to their desk, it is far simpler to have a direct conversation than bouncing emails back and forth. Now I realize with offshore teams and other geographically disperse groups this isn’t always that simple a solution, however, it is important to cut the thread and communicate as directly as possible. It is also important to follow up the conversation with an email confirming your understanding of what had been said.
The second rule is to change the email when the subject changes. I have seen more than one email thread that started discussing one subject only to change topics halfway through the thread. In such situations, start a new email with a new subject line. The subject line should be short encapsulating the essence of the email. If necessary, reference the other email noting that this is a related subject.
Donald Trump Junior’s second problem was his meeting invite. Now in all fairness to the president’s son, I did not get a copy of the invite. So, I am speculating, but I am fairly confident that the invite did not contain some important information. A meeting invite should include the following items;
- Meeting Time & Date – While this may appear obvious, make sure you include the date and full time, including time zone.
- Location – Meeting location can be a physical location, a conference number, or both.
- Subject Line – The subject line of the meeting should be short enough to be easily scanned by the reader while providing enough information for them to understand the basic purpose of the meeting.
- Objective – What does this meeting hope to achieve? Note that this is more than simply stating why you are meeting, but defines the desired result of the meeting.
- Agenda – What is the order in which you expect to discuss which topics.
- Required Preparation – Notify participants if there is anything that they need to prepare in advance of the meeting.
- Personal Introduction – In meetings where not all the participants may know you, especially when dealing with an outside organization, introduce yourself. Include such information as your name, your company name, as well as any organizations you may be representing in the meeting.
- Participant List – This helps define the relative importance of the meeting. Recipients of the invite also see if there is anyone who is missing that should be included.
Now consider some of the things that we have heard in the news over the past few weeks. If they had used this format everyone attending would have known the exact reason for the meeting. There would have been a clear understanding of the discussion topics. Who was representing whom would also have been made clear.
The final problem encountered in this situation was that there were no minutes taken, or at least distributed to the participants. During the meeting, designate who is responsible for taking the minutes. Shortly after the meeting, the minutes should be distributed to all the participants. Rather than a play by play narrative of the meeting’s discussion, the minutes of the meeting should roughly parallel the meeting invite, containing the following:
- Meeting Time & Date – When was the meeting.
- Location – Where was the meeting.
- Subject Line – This is the same subject line as on the meeting invite.
- Action Items – This documents what tasks resulted from this meeting. Action items should include who raised the item, to whom is the item assigned, and the required completion date. These should also be recorded in the RAID log. (See RAID Logs)
- Decisions – This documents any decisions agreed upon by the group. At times, it is advisable to also record any dissenting opinions or rejected alternatives as well as why they were rejected. All decisions should be recorded in the RAID log. (See RAID Logs)
- Participant List – This provides a record of who attended the meeting.
Donald Trump Junior’s now infamous 2016 meeting has created a few headaches for him and the current administration. Think of how many questions could have easily been answered if he had followed these simple steps. Now, some may cynically say that this lack of documentation was intentional. I haven’t the knowledge to say with any confidence whether it was or wasn’t, neither is it my intent to become embroiled in political discussions. However, I have seen this lack of documentation far too many times and far too many projects. Unfortunately, this is just how most people do things.
As project managers, we should learn from Donald Trump Junior’s problems. We should strive to communicate clearly to members of our team as well as providing an auditable record of those communications. To quote the old adage; don’t let this happen to you.