11 tips for writing site meeting minutes
By Ballast Point director Mat Wilk
When I first started working as a junior project manager more than 20 years ago, writing site meeting minutes was one task I always dreaded. It is common practice in the undertaking of construction projects for site meetings to be held between project managers, architects, consultants and tradespeople, and for the discussions and future actions to be recorded. But it seemed like a thankless and largely pointless exercise. In my experience, the task became further complicated when the project architect volunteered or insisted on preparing the minutes. The architects I worked with (Hugo Harpley – I’m looking at you) produced the most amazing, voluminous and comprehensive collections of aide-memoire I’ve ever seen, so comprehensive it took a full fortnight to compose. In fact, the minutes were often completed just in time for the next site meeting – where the minutes of the last meeting were reviewed – letting participants know what they were supposed to have completed by now, and hadn’t.
But taking meeting minutes is a necessary evil. It may be that 99 per cent of the time the minutes are prepared and filed, never to be consulted again. But it is that 1 per cent of the time, when things don’t quite go according to plan, that you will go back to meeting minutes and be thankful you have them.
When I started Ballast Point, I binned the conventional system and started again. These are my tips for writing effective meeting minutes.
1. Don’t waste time crafting and polishing meeting minutes
Agree on the meeting notes and actions during the meeting, then publish the minutes as a draft at the conclusion of the meeting, or shortly after. This allows actions to be known and undertaken in a time effective manner after the meeting.
2. Keep it as a working document
Publish the minutes in Google sheets or similar, and encourage participants to add their own notes. Distributing meeting minutes is important as it gives stakeholders an opportunity to raise anything they may consider has been missed.
3. Stop the meeting and to clarify a point if you need to
This is an excellent technique for focusing the participants on who and what will happen next – sometimes the discussion can go on and on with no conclusion in sight. Asking: “What should I write in the notes?” refocuses the group.
4. Don’t worry about typos or grammar
The meeting participants will happily forgive mistakes if it means receiving the minutes quicker. Send a revised version later if needed.
5. Don’t stress about risk mitigation
But – the argument goes – minutes are a form of risk mitigation. If you don’t record every detail accurately, then won’t you leave yourself exposed? Well in my two decades in the business how many times have meeting minutes helped resolve a disagreement with a client, architect or contractor? A big fat zero! Nothing, not once, not even remotely close. We’re much better off having inclusive minutes that treat each person as a member of a team and are readily available. This is the best form of risk mitigation because having a cohesive team is fundamental to project success and this, in turn, helps prevent future disagreements. Record the key aspects of discussions and actions to be taken (and by whom) accurately, but don’t sweat about minor details. Your minutes will be there if something goes wrong and there is the contractual regime to fall back on.
6. Name the person charged with an action rather than writing “builder” or “client”
The minutes should clearly identify who the key person is that will ensure this item is addressed. If it’s me, it should say “Mat”. That way I can scan the notes quickly for items I need to get onto
7. Use a person’s first name, not initials
Write full names at the top of the minutes where you list the meeting attendees, then write the first name next to each item that has to be actioned. If there are two attendees with the same first name, add the initial of the surname for them, such as David C. I’ve rarely been in a situation where there has been more than one David, Mat or Hugo in a meeting or project team
8. Less is more
Use as few words as possible – a clear and concise set of minutes is far more useful than pages of text which record every word that was said. Ideally, meeting minutes should fit on one page. Distil the minutes into a clear list of key decisions, agreements and action items using dot points rather than paragraphs.
9. Include clear deadlines
Dates by which items need to be actioned are incredibly important to keeping the project on track. Stakeholders can quickly refer to their allocated actions and know their deadlines. If they are missed, then the attendees can all see this in the next meeting. There’s no need to raise it.
10. Remove completed items
Any notes that do not point to a person executing a clear future action are superfluous and a distraction – they should be removed.
11. Include important recurring items
There are some useful recurring items that you don’t typically see on minutes. These include key project objectives, the predicted completion date and a budget update. Project objectives may form part of an initial client brief but are often forgotten. What are the things by which we measure success on this project? Is it meeting a hard budget? Is it return on investment? Is it a completion date? The predicted completion date should be written clearly at the top of the page. This is usually the first question a client will have on their mind. And the budget update should consider how we are tracking and how this meeting’s discussion has impacted the budget.