OK, before you think we have gone crazy…we recommend more SHORT, FOCUSED meetings. As project managers and business analysts we often find ourselves with pressing deadlines, frantic team members who are juggling many tasks with little time, and senior stakeholders who place increasingly challenging demands upon us. At the same time, we face unchanging statistics showing that communications issues are at the core of project failures. How do you manage these two imposing situations? Have MORE meetings, but make them count, and do them quickly. Let’s examine why we need these frequent, focused meetings, and how to best conduct them.
The type of meetings we are discussing here are usually no more than 15 minutes; on rare occasion they may take half an hour. Often they are run as daily “stand-up” meetings, in conference rooms with the chairs removed or pushed to the side of the room. This is optional, however, for some the “stand up” aspect of these meetings help keep the attendees focused. These quick meetings are usually first thing in the morning to prepare for the upcoming day, or they are the final thing done at the end of the day, to prepare for activities that will take place early the next business day. So, given this, why are more frequent meetings a useful tool?
Your team needs as much efficient heads down time as is possible.
Rarely do any projects allow team members to operate in a vacuum. Conditions change, problems and unexpected circumstances surface. Communication from the project’s various stakeholders is virtually constant. Team members need to a) know what their mission is on the project and b) have the information they need to get their tasks accomplished in the best way possible. With this constant flow of needed data, the forum to communicate all of this information requires frequency and efficiency. The short, focused, and regularly scheduled meeting can accomplish this. The project manager can also receive information from team members relative to status, risk management and issue information in an efficient fashion as well.
Team members need to know about dependent tasks, and required interactions
In our formal project management training, we spend considerable time (appropriately) on risk management. Classical risk management talks about potential events that may affect the project, the completion of project tasks, or the project mission as a whole. In the fast paced, increasingly technical product development, it is just as important that we treat information about dependent tasks and other potential interactions with other team members, major stakeholders or vendors; like we do for risks. We need to recognise these interactions, plan what we need to do to address them, and be prepared if the interaction event takes place. These interaction events can cause us to have to review data, review status, alter our approach, or in the most significant instances, re-plan how we are accomplishing our tasks. Only through interaction with our peers and leaders, and obtaining timely information from stakeholders can this be accomplished efficiently and effectively. We don’t need extensive ‘interaction management plans’ to do this; however we do need to interact frequently about the potential, so we can be prepared for upcoming project situations.
So, given these meetings are so important, how do we make them effective in both maximising team members’ ‘heads down time’ and preparing them for these potential ‘interaction events?’
Don’t make them mandatory – make them ‘conditional’ and you control and communicate the attendance conditions.
The legitimate complaint that most people have about meetings is that they are a waste of time. They go too long, and they aren’t useful. We get into the habit of inviting the ’standard team set’ to every meeting. When your team is crazy-busy, we need to step to the plate as leaders and make the effort to determine WHO needs to be at our short, focused meetings. So, set the conditions for your team members as to who should attend, communicate those expectations, and share the conditions before every meeting so those that don’t need to be there won’t need to attend. When you first start this technique, fail on the side of conservatism and have people attend. As time progresses, and you get feedback on the usefulness of the meeting, you can fine tune your attendance condition setting. The key to this is simple…if YOU can’t identify the critical piece of information they will take away from the meeting, then they do not need to be there. If YOU need a piece of information from a team member – collect that at the very start of the meeting. Carl Pritchard’s ‘Wall Walk Protocol’ (http://www.pritchardmanagement.com/resources_category.php?user_category_id=1) is a great approach to doing this for larger project teams.
Hold more than one daily meeting – with different attendees
This might not be as efficient for you as the project manager or the lead business analyst, but this isn’t about you. It is about the productivity, effectiveness and efficiency of the team. If you do this well, and your team feels you are conducting effective meetings that are worthwhile and they get the information they need, you will benefit from a) not having to chase people down to get or share information and b) they will work with better data, which will reduce the issues that you will have to deal with. This usually saves you more time than you will spend on setting attendance conditions and holding separate meetings. Holding separate meetings – and doing this well – avoids the biggest time waster in meetings…that of having to listen to someone drone on about something that isn’t meaningful to them. Divide your team into sub-teams of people that work together often, and have separate daily meetings. To maintain ‘a whole team’ consider having the entire team attend one of the daily meetings each week. Set the agenda for that team meeting be things of relevance to the entire team.
Take the meetings seriously, but don’t force yourself and your team to be serious
Efficiency not only comes from getting and giving information effectively and in a manner that is valued by team members. Efficiency also comes from team members that know and understand each other in more than a professional capacity. Take time to recognise birthdays, significant accomplishments, not so significant accomplishments, and times when you acted as a team. Bring cookies or breakfast to the weekly whole team meeting – be human yourself as the leader and encourage your team members to do the same.
Talk about the ‘elephant in the room’
Because the group of people will be small, take advantage of the intimate size. Cut to the chase and bring up topics that might be ‘taboo’ in a larger group situation. The more open and forthright about information you provide, the more the team will feel comfortable doing the same. Information is key to our success and the earlier people open up to share ‘bits of vital information’ the better positioned the project will be for success.