Read this if you hate project status meetings
by Ross M. Snyder
FRIDAY AFTERNOON: time for yet another project status meeting. As project manager, you are obligated to conduct this weekly exercise in tedium. Without these meetings, your project resources would run amok; the project plan would crumble; objectives would go unmet; risks would be unidentified; budget and schedule would go through the roof; team building would stop; the stock market would crash; and the ensuing economic chaos would lead to global thermonuclear war. Life as we know it would end.
“The shunt-fed hartely oscillator with the digital synchronous phase-splitting interface adapter to the cascading head loss variance controller framus is exceeding its self-regulated output control limits!”
Now that we've established the importance of these meetings, is it really necessary that they be boring, unproductive, and loathed by all those forced to attend? The answer is “yes” and “no.” The weekly status meeting will almost certainly be a bit boring, especially if things are going well. Let's face it, project status is pretty dry stuff, and short of bringing in food and live entertainment, the meeting will, and should, be unexciting. However, the meeting should be focused, productive, useful, and as short as possible—and I would like to emphasize the “short as possible” attribute. Unnecessarily long meetings with many attendees can eat up your admin budget pretty quickly. Sadly, it seems that many projects are burdened with status meetings that are generally not useful … and seem as long as pledge week on PBS. To end this heinous psychological and physical abuse of project resources, change your Project Status Meetings into Project Planning Meetings.
Obviously, making your weekly meeting a Project Planning Meeting involves more than just a name change, but changing the name refocuses the purpose of the meeting on planning, rather than status reporting. The weekly meeting should not be used to report status! The meeting may be used to discuss status, but never to report it. In your weekly meetings, do you go from person to person, with each one saying, “Last week I worked on what I was supposed to work on”? Boring! And a horrendous waste of time. Information about what was worked on and accomplished should be collected and distributed before the project planning meeting. The project manager uses this information to update the project plan and develop a work plan for the following week. Updated project plan information, coming week's work plan, and previous week's accomplishments are then sent to all meeting attendees so they can review them before the planning meeting. Using this approach the project manager has an opportunity to resolve any questions or discrepancies, off-line, one on one, before the meeting, rather than wasting meeting time and possibly embarrassing someone—perhaps him-self—during the meeting. Instead of wasting meeting time with the around-the-table-show-and-tell-routine, you simply ask, “Are there any questions or discussions about what was accomplished last week?” Questions or discussions are likely to be more focused and productive because participants are not hearing the information for the first time.
Ross M. Snyder is a project coordinator for Phoenix Home Life Insurance in Albany, N.Y. He has coordinated projects ranging from Y2K to new product implementations. Prior to PHL, he was a consultant for Deloitte & Touche Consulting Services, Albany, N.Y., where he managed many projects, most for New York State agencies.
Next, discuss assigned work for the forthcoming week. If you have not collected information about what was done the previous week, how can you possibly be prepared to meaningfully discuss planned work? Rather than the project manager planning the work, individuals and team leaders tell the project manager what they plan to work on. However, if you collect information before the meeting, you can update the project plan and distribute a meaningful work plan before the meeting. Again, the project manager has an opportunity to discuss and resolve questions and problems with the work plan before the meeting. Team members will appreciate not being surprised at the meeting with a new work plan, and any ensuing discussions should be more focused and productive.
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The next agenda item is typically a discussion of “Project Issues.” Often at this point, some obscure project team member (we'll call him Chicken Little) stands up, and with an insidious, all-knowing sneer says something like, “The shunt-fed hartely oscillator with the digital synchronous phase splitting interface adapter to the cascading head loss variance controller framus is exceeding its self-regulated output control limits! What are we going to do about this?” This is news to everybody, and the meeting falls into chaos as the repercussions of this catastrophic event are digested. During this protracted discussion, at least half the attendees have little idea what is being talked about and are not involved in the issue resolution. Again, this is inappropriate use of the weekly project planning meeting. Rarely, if ever, should the weekly meeting be used to spring surprises. The issue raised may be valid, and possibly quite important, but the weekly project planning meeting is not the place to announce it. The project should have a communication plan that identifies how issues are raised, communicated, evaluated, and resolved. Chicken Little needs to be counseled on proper project communications. The weekly project planning meeting is an appropriate venue to discuss project issues, of course. Prior to the meeting, an updated “Issue Status” report should be distributed to facilitate this discussion. If the particular issue is not relevant to most meeting attendees, save the discussion for a separate meeting with only the necessary parties.
IF YOU ARE USING weekly meetings to collect information, your project's communication plan is incomplete. By refocusing the meeting on planning and discussion, rather than on reporting, the meeting may still be boring, but it should be more focused, productive and shorter—with the emphasis on shorter.
August 1999 PM Network