PM-Foundations – Planning & Conducting Effective Project Meetings

Project meetings can easily become the nemesis of your project success. Some of the things that I overhear when team members talk about project meetings:

“My day is fully consumed by meetings. I have no time to do my real work.”

“That meeting was a waste of time. Not sure what we were trying to accomplish.”

“We talk about the same things in every meeting.”

“The only decision we made today was that we need another meeting.”

Do your project meetings have a regular cadence (timing, content, and attendance)? Do the project meetings have an established purpose and objectives? Do the meetings drive positive project outcomes in terms of information sharing, problem resolution, and tracking and planning of work? Are action items regularly captured, and follow-up actions proactively initiated and tracked? If the answer is “no” to several of these questions, your project meetings may be a source of project churn. Project meetings that create churn ramble on, and provide limited benefit to the project team. In many cases, ineffective project meetings will actually be the source of confusion and misunderstandings on the team. It is a strong indication that your project meetings might be creating churn if you discuss the same issues/problems meeting after meeting, and team members become disengaged in the conversations — or do not show up at all. Communications within the project team, the ability to remove roadblocks, and the tracking and prioritization of project work are all negatively impacted by meeting related project churn.

Comments from my blog on Project Churn: In the workplace, churn represents the counterproductive discussions, emails, and actions that create a “drag” on generating positive business results. In the context of project delivery, churn represents the “negative energy” within the team and the overall project environment that prevents your project from progressing at the planned rate, or successfully completing project milestones. Churn is manifested in a stakeholder’s negative communication, a team member’s non-productive actions, or project delivery processes that are slow or ineffective. At its worst, project churn can paralyze a project team, and overwhelm a project. You will find project churn at the heart of many challenged or failed projects.

How Meetings Impact Your Project

On the surface, project meetings seem pretty harmless. How can getting people together to discuss topics and collaborate have a negative impact on my project? Below are several tangible ways that ineffective project meetings can have a negative impact on project outcomes:

  • Consume Time – Project meetings represent an investment in people’s time. If team members were not attending project meetings, they could be completing project work assigned to them. If project meetings do not contribute positively to project outcomes (e.g., sharing of information, making decisions, resolving issues), then they represent non-productive project overhead. Churn.
  • Do Not Result in Action – Project meetings without a defined purpose and agenda do not drive decisions and actions required to achieve project milestones. In many cases, action items are identified or decisions are made in meetings, however there is no follow-through or accountability established to ensure that the actions are completed or decisions are implemented (and the desired results achieved). Churn.
  • Create Confusion – Ineffective project meetings often generate confusion or misunderstandings within the team. When a project meeting is not facilitated and summarized in an organized manner, team members tend to take away very different perspectives from the meeting. The confusion resulting from the meeting can cause team members to communicate inappropriately, and/or work ineffectively. Churn.

In other words, meetings can consume a significant amount of your team’s time, do not drive productive decisions and/or actions, and in many cases are the source of confusion and chaos on the team.

Start With Why You Have Team Meetings

In my experience, the place to start when creating a foundation for effective project meetings is establishing an understanding of why you need meetings on your team. If the meetings do not contribute to one or more of the reasons for having a meeting, they should be transformed or eliminated. Below are the reasons I generally utilize when establishing project meetings:

  • Project Status Updates – Meetings represent an effective means to establish a common understanding amongst the team of where the project is at, and where the focus of the team needs to be. This includes knowing where the team is against plans, and what corrective actions must be taken to get the team back on track. It also includes establishing or clarifying where dependencies exist within the team, and how these dependencies impact achieving upcoming milestones.
  • Forum for Making Decisions – Decisions are required throughout the project life cycle to keep projects moving in the right direction and at the planned pace. In many situations, the decision requires collaboration of key stakeholders, and either a regularly scheduled meeting or an impromptu meeting is utilized to drive the decision.
  • Review Project Content – As milestones are achieved, it is important to ensure that the product(s) delivered meet the expectations of key stakeholders. Meetings are utilized to review project deliverables, resolve issues associated with deliverables, and gain consensus on the approval of a deliverable.

5 Ways to Improve Your Project Meetings

1. Create a Regular Cadence – It is important to establish a well-defined meeting schedule throughout the project life cycle. The meeting schedule includes core team meetings, steering committee meetings, and deliverable/milestone reviews. The meeting schedule establishes both expectations and constraints in terms of team member involvement and investment in team meetings (including both frequency and length of meetings).

2. Target the Audience – Team member involvement in meetings should be established during the definition of team roles and responsibilities. Identifying the target audiences for scheduled meetings includes forming the core team and steering committee, as well as defining stakeholders involved in reviewing and approving deliverables and/or milestones.

3. Establish the Appropriate Approach & Content – The team should decide on the appropriate approach for conducting each type of project meeting, as well as the scope of the content to be covered in the meeting. Does the meeting represent a facilitated discussion, or a sharing of specific information? Do materials need to be prepared or reviewed in advance of the meeting? Most regularly scheduled project meetings have a “standing” agenda that is tailored for each meeting occurrence based upon the current phase/status of the project.

4. Proactively Manage Meeting Follow-up – The wrap-up of each meeting should include a summary of key decisions and actions. These decisions and actions must be documented (as efficiently as possible), and reviewed in a systematics manner (to ensure that they are completed/implemented). I will generally start each regular team meeting with a review of key actions and decisions from previous meetings.

5. Keep Track of your Meetings – Tracking of project meetings helps teams ensure that they are getting the appropriate payback on the investment. For each type of project meeting, I will track the following information:

  • Attendance (including total hours and cost)
  • Decisions made and actions resolved (including deliverables reviewed/approved)
  • Value derived from the meeting (primarily based upon periodic input from meeting participants)

 

Your comments on this blog are appreciated. What experiences have you had with project meetings? How have you improved the effectiveness of your project meetings?

PM-Foundations – Managing Your Project Issues

To me the most annoying, and sometimes the most disruptive type of project churn is issue related churn. Open issues distract team members from the work at hand, and often slow progress to achieve project milestones. At its worse, more time can be spent talking about issues than project work. If the rate of identifying issues outpaces closing them, the project can be overwhelmed with issues. Projects are paralyzed by project issues when team members cannot complete tasks/deliverables because they are awaiting resolution of project issues.

Significant issue related churn is generally due to the project team not having the appropriate focus or urgency required to close issues. In some situations the team is not empowered to take actions or make decisions required to close issues. In either case, issues that do not close create “baggage” for the team, and eventually create roadblocks or challenges for the project.

Hopefully this blog gets you thinking about how to identify when issues are negatively impacting your project, and what you can do to get them under control. Issues are not a bad thing, as long as you are able to manage them, and not vice versa.

How Do Issues Overwhelm Projects?

Here are some of the common indications that issues may be overwhelming your project, or at minimum impeding progress.

  • Too many – The obvious indication of issue related churn is the number of open issues — especially if there are a significant number marked “high” priority. When there are so many issues that you do not know where to start to get them under control, you probably have too many. When the number of issues becomes significant, you start to see processes like “triage” introduced to identify the ones that “really matter”.
  • They bounce around – Some project teams do not seem to close issues, they just reassign them to someone who needs to have another meeting to discuss the issue. A good way to identify the inability to effectively close issues is to look at the history associated with the issues. When issues are owned by multiple people, and the source of multiple meetings, the team is probably not focusing on the right actions required to close the issue.
  • They keep coming back – One of the most annoying aspects of issue related churn is when closed issues are reopened. This occurs if the either the right people were not involved, or the correct actions were not taken to close the original issue. When this happens multiple times on a project I am not sure if I am more upset with the person that reopens the issues, or the person that did not close it properly in the first place.
  • They appear out of nowhere – Often times an issues is raised that makes you wonder, “I wonder why that was not raised before now?” The earlier a potential problem is identified in the project life cycle, the easier and less costly it is to resolve. Therefore, as issues are identified late in the project, the more disruptive issue resolution becomes. As the project manager, you need to strike a good balance between aggressively managing issue resolution and encouraging team members to identify them. The last thing you want is to have team members keep issues to themselves because they think it will be viewed as a “bad thing” to raise a new issue.

6 Tips to Managing Your Project Issues

  1. Capture – My first tip is pretty obvious. Make sure that as issues are identified they are captured. This means that processes and tools must be established early on in the project to enable identification and tracking of issues. In addition, it is important as the project manager to create an environment where people feel “safe” to raise an issue. Having said that, I do encourage the team to be thinking about ways to address the issue at the time they raise it. The old adage “if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem” definitely describes some team members.
  2. Accountability – In my opinion the most important element of effectively managing issues is establishing a single person that truly feels accountable for resolving the issue. Issues are best assigned to people that have something “at stake” in the outcome of resolving the issue. The issues should either have an impact on the component of the project they are responsible for, or have an impact on the component of the product they are responsible for.
  3. Action – When team members are providing updates on issues, the focus should be on what actions have been identified to close the issue. I do not necessarily consider “we have a meeting set up to discuss this issue” to be a very effective next step. The more appropriate action items are focused on what decisions need to be made, analysis performed, or requirements defined to determine how to move forward and resolve the issue.
  4. Measure – As is the case in most project management processes, it is important to have the appropriate metrics in place to manage issues. To establish a high degree of focus and sense of urgency, I prefer to measure and communicate high priority issues in the form of absolute numbers. Metrics like net change and average age are best managed through trend analysis. In addition, it is important to keep track of the overall impact of issues on the project. This metric can be tracked within the change control process.
  5. Close – Ensure that the issue management process includes a step to validate that the issue is actually closed. This step can be as simple as a quick review of the recently closed issues in your core team meetings. It is important that team members agree that the appropriate actions have been taken to permanently solve the problem.
  6. Timeout – If an issue, a group of issues, or the issues in aggregate are truly overwhelming your project it is sometimes appropriate to bite the bullet and call a timeout. This happens when issues are causing the project to miss significant milestones, and corrective actions are not in place to formalize the impact and get the project “back on track”. During the timeout, focused effort should be placed on resolving the high impact issues, reducing the overall number of issues, formalizing the impact of the issues, and rebaselining the plan. I also recommend a quick lessons learned process to identify the source of the problems, and adjustments required to prevent the project team returning to the same place during a future phase of the project.

PM-Foundations on Project Churn

I often discuss with my colleagues that I have witnessed so much churn over the years that I could write the “Book of Churn”. Okay, so this is just a blog post, but I feel obligated to share my knowledge on the topic of churn. In the workplace, churn represents the counterproductive discussions, emails, and actions that create a “drag” on generating positive business results. In the context of project delivery, churn represents the “negative energy” within the team and the overall project environment that prevents your project from progressing at the planned rate, or successfully completing project milestones. Churn is manifested in a stakeholder’s negative communication, a team member’s non-productive actions, or project delivery processes that are slow or ineffective. At its worst, project churn can paralyze a project team, and overwhelm a project. You will find project churn at the heart of many challenged or failed projects.

The phrase, “one step forward, and two steps back” is a perfect visual for the impact of churn on your project. To help you put project churn in the right perspective, here are a few “real life” examples:

“The meeting after the meeting” – After a rather uneventful core team meeting, you see a group of team members talking outside the conference room. As you walk by you overhear, “I am not sure why we say we are on-schedule. The current design is going to take us at least 3 weeks longer than the plan reflects”. Shouldn’t that have been something we talked about in the core team meeting? Churn.

“The grenade” – The Steering Committee generated good discussion about the current plans and upcoming milestones. The team agreed that the right corrective actions are in place to successfully roll-out the new web site within two weeks of the original baseline milestone date. At the end of the meeting, when you ask “are there any other comments or concerns?”, the VP of Sales (who rarely attends the Steering Committee) raises his hand and says, “The way this system is being rolled out is going to be highly disruptive to field associates.” Shouldn’t this risk have been raised a little earlier in the project? Churn.

“I am waiting” – When you visit one of your developers to discuss why he is two weeks late starting a particular task. He says, “The integration work packages must be completed before I can start my development effort.” When you point out that the integration work packages are not reflected as a dependency in the schedule for his work, he says, “We are not using the project schedule to determine what we are working on. The project schedule is for the project manager, not the development team.” The project schedule is only for the benefit of the project manager? Churn.

“I think this is still an issue” – There is an open issue that is delaying the start of User Acceptance Testing. Every day it is not resolved has a direct impact on the “go live” date. When it seems that all of the decisions have been made and actions taken to close the issue, one team member speaks up in the core team meeting, “I think this is still an issue. I think we need more analysis and input.” Don’t you share my sense of urgency to resolve this issue? Churn.

Many times project churn shows up in very subtle and somewhat innocent ways on the project, but the cumulative impact of project churn can be devastating to project results. Below I describe 6 types of churn that I have witnessed on projects, and some of the impacts of this churn.

6 Types of Project Churn

1. Ineffective Meetings – Do your project meetings have a regular cadence (timing, content, and attendance)? Do the project meetings have an established purpose and objectives? Do the meetings drive positive project outcomes in terms of information sharing, problem resolution, and tracking and planning of work? Are action items regularly captured, and follow-up actions proactively initiated and tracked? If the answer is “no” to several of these questions, your project meetings may be a source of project churn. Project meetings that create churn ramble on, and provide limited benefit to the project team. In many cases, ineffective project meetings will actually be the source of confusion and misunderstandings on the team. It is a strong indication that your project meetings might be creating churn if you discuss the same issues/problems meeting after meeting, and team members become disengaged in the conversations — or do not show up at all. Another sign of meeting related project churn is if your meetings result in more meetings – “we will need another meeting to resolve this issue.” Communications within the project team, the ability to remove roadblocks, and the tracking and prioritization of project work are all negatively impacted by meeting related project churn.

2. Uncontrolled Change – I have been exposed to plenty of projects where team members state, “This project would be doing okay if it was not for all of the changes.” When you ask the team members what they mean by that statement, they often struggle to provide specifics about the changes that have impacted the project. Whether this is a factual statement, or just the perception of the team member, the fact that people talk about change that has not been managed through a change control process results in project churn. This type of churn can be highly disruptive on a project team because it can create contentious discussions between stakeholders when there is a disagreement between what represents change vs. elaboration or clarification. The key to reducing the impact of change related project churn is to establish the appropriate change control processes, and transform observations and perceptions of change into fact based change control related discussions and decisions.

3. Not Working to the Plan – The example above of the developer who says he is not performing project work based upon the priorities and timing established in the project schedule happens more than we would like to admit. This schedule related churn can start when the work is broken down and organized in the WBS in a manner that is not meaningful or logical to the team members that will be performing the work. The schedule that is generated out of this process may not reflect the right level of detail, durations, work effort, or sequencing, and therefore it creates churn because team members do not believe it reflects the “true” plan. Other projects start execution with a strong schedule that is well understood by the team. As project work is elaborated, or schedule related changes occur, the schedule is not appropriately updated, and the schedule starts to diverge from reality — and chaos ensues. The bottom line is if the schedule is not planned and progressed in a manner that is consistent with the way actual work is completed, you will be constantly battling schedule related churn. The analogy I like best that represents this type of churn is “pushing a rope uphill”.

4. Issues That Do Not Close – One of the easiest ways to monitor churn is to track how effectively the project team identifies and closes issues. Significant issue related churn is generally due to the project team not having the appropriate focus or urgency required to close issues. In some situations the team is not empowered to take actions or make decisions required to close issues. In either case, issues that do not close create “baggage” for the team, and eventually create roadblocks or challenges for the project. Issue related project churn also includes issues that are re-opened. This means the appropriate actions or decisions were not completed to correctly close the issue. I have seen many examples of issues that caused huge impacts (delays, rework, or defects) because they were left to linger and create issue related churn throughout the project life cycle.

5. Inappropriately Sized Processes – Project delivery processes are intended to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the project team. However, often times project delivery processes are not appropriately established based upon the size and complexity of the project. If the processes are too “heavy”, teams get bogged down with the constraints associated with the processes. These “heavy” processes are often confusing to team members, and cause churn to figure out how to complete routine project delivery tasks. If the processes are too “light”, there can be too much deviation in the way project delivery activities are executed (some processes are invented on the fly). In these cases, the processes drive churn because the team is busy cleaning up the fallout from team members performing project delivery processes in an ad hoc manner. Process related churn is a perfect example of “one step forward, and two steps back” – either it is way harder to get things done than it needs to be (too heavy), or there are wildly different outcomes depending on the person performing the process (too light).

6. Disconnected Stakeholders – One of the most disturbing types of project churn is stakeholder related churn. This churn occurs when individuals or groups of individuals become disconnected from the project goals and activities, either due to lack of engagement or difference of opinions. Sources of stakeholder related churn can include core team members, the project sponsors & steering committee, and other stakeholders that directly impact or influence project outcomes. Sources of churn outside of these groups generally can be rationalized as irrelevant to the project. There is expected to be some churn when project teams are forming and storming, but at some point the “noise” should dissipate and the teams begin working well together to accomplish common goals. In some circumstances, negative energy from stakeholder related churn will work itself out, but in most cases it requires focused “intervention” to understand the core issues and establish the next steps required to smooth out the team dynamics.

What Should I Do?

Some project managers take on the persona of a “victim” and accept or escalate project churn. The reality is that as a member of the project team, the project manager is in some way part of the project churn. The project manager is in the best position to directly impact, or significantly influence, the level of project churn. Project churn can be directly impacted by adjusting project delivery process (e.g., change control, issues management), updating the project schedule in a manner that is more meaningful to team members, or enhancing project meetings and other team communications. Project managers can influence project churn by utilizing their soft skills to lead cohesive and productive project teams. The project manager’s soft skills are also leveraged to build and manage strong relationships with key stakeholders.

I obviously have a lot of opinions and perspective on the topic of project churn. I view managing project churn as a rewarding challenge, and not a burden or problem. I sincerely believe that turning negative energy (churn) into positive project outcomes is one of the most satisfying elements of being a project manager.