Effective Meetings

14 04 2009

Based on the basic principle of taking ownership for being the change you want to see in the world.

Mary Gildersleve, PMP Detroit MI

marygildersleve1You’ve met these people: the infamous “meeting caller” and the subsequent “meeting victim.” And perhaps, like me, you’ve been guilty of being both.  It’s sometimes hard to see the forest for the trees – we have good intentions! – yet I consistently find overbooked calendars and umpteen excuses for why a particular thing, like work effort, deliverable, priority, etc., isn’t done yet.  The typical statement sounds something like, “I have too many meetings and no time to get my work done!”   Sound familiar?  The next time you hear that, you’ll know you’ve discovered yet another meeting victim. But who’s really to blame here?  At first glance, it appears to be the person responsible for adding meeting upon meeting to everyone’s calendar, a.k.a., the meeting caller.  This raises the next question:  Who are these meeting callers and why are they doing this?

Call me an optimist, but on large cross-functional programs (where meeting victimization commonly exists), I find overwhelming evidence that people are basically well-intended and the problem is usually independent of our general working norms.  While managers (project managers, micromanagers, development managers, etc.) seem to be more visibly culpable in terms of the physical act of sending out a meeting notice, certainly some underlying cause (communication failure, skill level, organizational culture, etc.) drives this behavior.  Without a lengthy assessment of each organization, in what ways can we quickly improve our circumstances and promote direct communication and therefore fewer meetings?


It seems logical as a first step to increase awareness of how meetings add value (or don’t), in a non-exhaustive list:

Three valid reasons to meet:

  • Brainstorming: Leveraging multiple perspectives to solve a problem, focus on quantity over quality of ideas, etc.
  • Kicking off a project: Introducing teams, getting multiple people on the same page, addressing questions associated with beginning a project, etc.
  • Hierarchical report-outs: Steering committee meetings, escalated issue resolution, shared view and conversation of status, etc.

Three reasons not to meet:

  • A question needs answering: Seems simple, right?  Think of how many times you’ve seen four or five people pulled together for what could have been a one-to-one hallway conversation.
  • It’s too complex for e-mail: A phone call can yield remarkable results for those complex or lengthy subjects that can be difficult to communicate in writing.  Summing up key points after the conversation doesn’t hurt.
  • Empowerment issues: If you find it’s necessary to frequently include your manager in meetings, perhaps a conversation is needed around the empowerment and authority of your role.

Knowing not every situation calls for a meeting, how can we prevent ourselves from becoming repeat meeting victims and engage in more direct, and ultimately less time-consuming, communication?  Maybe it starts with a three-step process:

  • Decline the meeting notice: It gets easier after the first time, I promise! This is different than ignoring or disregarding it, because you’ll connect with the meeting caller directly to see how you can accomplish the desired outcome without the formality of a meeting.  It’s helpful to reference a specific reason for declining such as:

– An agenda with clear purpose and outcomes is missing
– The intended outcome can be achieved with a subset of people
– It’s fiscally responsible to minimize unnecessary time spent in meetings

  • Compliment the right behaviors: It’s been suggested that people do more of the things they receive compliments for and are more likely to support a world they help create.  Even if you’re dealing with several meeting callers in your environment, remember that you can affect change faster by working with these basic principles.  The principles really are universal, and apply to encouraging positive change via changing our reactions as meeting victims to the meeting notices.
  • Proactively support direct communication: Try hard not to be the person who doesn’t answer the phone when called.  Being accessible will encourage meeting callers to consider one-to-one communication as a viable alternative.  There are unintended benefits with direct communication as well; think of all the information you’ll be privy to that participants may be reluctant to bring up in a meeting!

I’m interested in hearing how others have solved this problem in perhaps more creative ways of either reducing the number of meetings you organize and/or reducing the number of meetings you attend.  If you have tips and tricks, please share them!

Beware the RIGID PMO

9 03 2009

John Ferry, Jacksonville FL

johnferryProject Management as a discipline has been around for quite a while. One of things that made me successful as a project manager was being able to apply the many tools and techniques that I have learned to the different projects that I have managed. As part of our project management training, we all learn that all projects are different, and that they each demand different efforts to make them successful. Those of us who have been doing this for a while have seen corporate America and the rest of the world begin to embrace project management because of the order that it can bring to the chaos. Successful projects don’t just happen by chance. They are successful because they are planned that way.

Recently, I have found that many corporate PMO’s are establishing rigid project management processes and methodologies in their quest for repeatable processes. (CMM Level certifications are an example of this.) They are attempting to “standardize” (another name for dictate and regulate) how project managers are to manage their projects. They dictate which documents must be created, what steps must be followed, and what audits are to take place, etc. Like most effective tools, the corporate culture tries to dictate how and when they should be used in an organization.

The problem with this approach is it forces project managers to use tools that have little or no value for the project they are being used on. I have discovered over the years,straightjacket1 that one methodology (or process) doesn’t fit all projects. That as a PM you have to be flexible and use the right method, documents, and tools for the project. Some PMO methodologies are so overbearing, that small simple projects become wasteful and time consuming. They perform wasted exercises and create unnecessary documentation, all to satisfy some internal audit criteria. My analogy… “like driving a nail with a sledgehammer.”, it just doesn’t make sense. A good “mature” PMO recognizes that projects come in all sizes and varying complexities, and that it’s appropriate to tailor methodologies and processes to fit the project. That doesn’t mean you toss the whole methodology out the window, but you use the “parts” of it that make sense. The rigid PMO’s inflict unnecessary hardship on their teams, create waste, and squash creativity and talent.

Given the state of the current economy, businesses today can’t afford this kind of waste. They have to operate “lean”. This means that the rigid inflexible PMO methodologies that create a “boatload” of documentation to satisfy some maturity model or internal audit criteria need to be revaluated, and it’s time to do the work (and only the work) that makes sense.

Project and Portfolio Management

3 03 2009

Today’s tough economic environment is bringing new challenges. And an absolute focus on performance. Investment decisions should be made with a complete understanding of the impact to cash flow, profitability, velocity, growth, and customer intimacy in your IT organization. Project and Portfolio Management can address these concerns Project and Portfolio Management addresses these concerns by adopting a combination of processes based on COBIT 4.1 and VAL IT management frameworks to ask the right questions.

In portfolio management we really want to know:

  • Are we doing the right things?
  • Are we realizing the benefits?

The answers will help guide us to approve the right mix of work to optimize contributions to strategic objectives while providing value, at affordable cost with an acceptable level of risk. And, focus our attention to the projects generating the most significant improvements in the five (and only five) essentials in business that matter: cash flow, profitability, velocity, growth, and customer intimacy.

We use project management when we really want to know:

  • Are we doing them the right way?
  • Are we getting them done well?

How effective and disciplined are my delivery and project management processes? Are we finding ways to continually boost the productivity of our project management teams? Does our organization have the capability to evaluate our initiatives in a systematic and objective manner?

Asking the right questions here is critical to success. Poor project and portfolio management practices can prevent even the best organization from performing in an optimal manner. Most of the real problems begin with execution in project management where the work is planned and managed. Since this is where most of the project activity originates and is recorded, it is a critical to measuring progress to plan and evaluating performance accurately. Without an effective and disciplined project management function unplanned work begins to overtake planned activity (see my prior post on Demand Management). Because intent is not communicated clearly to stakeholders and resources committed, a significant amount of risk can be introduced into every initiative undertaken. The results are inevitable and lead to:

  • Incomplete project definition leading to ongoing project extensions
  • Unclear work assignments, goals, objectives, and deliverables.
  • Non-value added essential work and unplanned activity ratios rise as more and more meetings and status reporting is required to communicate intent and progress.
  • Scope creep or frequently changing delivery targets
  • Budget overruns occur to meet the unplanned activity not accounted for
  • Missed deadlines on scheduled deliverables or slippage in cycle delivery occurs
  • Unusable new product or feature is created – expensive, costly rework is required
  • Failure to deliver on some elements of the project scope – focus is lost
  • Customer confidence and value is destroyed faster than it can be created

Now that we have met the enemy, what can be done? I plan to address some straight forward ways to improve fundamental blocking and tackling in project management practices in the coming weeks. Effective Portfolio management is built on this foundation, without getting this right you will only be left guessing at best when it comes time to make the right call.


16 02 2009

Mary Gildersleve, PMP Detroit MI

marygildersleveWe all know just how important it is professionally to be authentic in our position, to establish trust with our customers, peers and team members, and to deliver measurable results to the organization.  The sum of these characteristics (and others) is credibility, which may be the single greatest factor to professional success.

PMO’s, like individual project managers, must establish credibility if they expect to be successful in their role.  Let’s look at possible reasons why PMO’s today may not possess the credibility they need to be successful:

Is the PMO formally recognized?

In the same way it would be tough to manage a project without being named the Project Manager, it’s equally tough for a PMO to be effective if it hasn’t been officially recognized through a formal charter.  This tends to be an oversight, where it’s assumed that simply mentioning the PMO in a meeting or doling out a “PMO Manager” title suddenly results in the existence of an effective PMO… nothing could be farther from the truth.  Lucky for us, there are widely available resources detailing the specifics of what goodies should be included in a PMO charter.  At a minimum it provides guidance for the recognized scope and specifies authority through your corporate sponsor (yes, one is needed) to accomplish that scope.   

Is the PMO demonstrating integrity and value add?

Integrity and value add have a lot to do with how the PMO is perceived, so we must ask ourselves in what ways do our customers and team members commonly interact with us and “see what we’re made of”?  There are a number of opportunities, chief among them is applying a project management framework which is typically developed and adopted by the PMO as a “play book” of sorts.  The play book exists to add discipline to the various projects and can be very effective so long as we’re careful to avoid the “check-the-box blindly syndrome”.  Meaning, the play book should be regarded as a continuous improvement package and balanced between applying the necessary discipline and recognizing there may be a better way to achieve the desired results.  There’s no substitute for sound judgment in the field, and no quicker way to destroy value then to blindly value principles over results.  We’re essentially doing more harm than good, not exactly the definition of integrity.

Does the PMO have enough capability to get the job done?

Even under the most interesting circumstances, you’d probably not ask a plumber to build an airplane nor would you ask a mechanical engineer to perform brain surgery, yet enterprise level PMO’s tend to fall into this type of thinking (albeit somewhat less obvious).  It’s the notion of one size fits all that causes us to believe all PMO projects, people, tools and technologies are created equal and can be referenced and planned for as set entities.  Hardly.  The capability of the PMO must be such that it can flex and creatively meet the needs of complex, non cookie cutter projects.  Otherwise, a play book might be all you really need, right?  This model requires thought leaders (often perceived as “overhead” when blanketed in the PMO) and the ability to manage project variables through flexible technology solutions. Without having significant resource and technology capability, credibility is not achievable.    

Is the PMO delivering measurable results?

PMO’s are notorious for measuring and reporting on project status, which is not a one for one equivalent to measuring and reporting on the PMO status.  Depending on the scope of the PMO, there may be a number of tangible perspectives to measure and evaluate on a regular basis.  Is the PMO responsible for mentoring and training project managers within the organization?  You’re likely tracking training candidates and demonstrating results on a progressive skills matrix.  Is it responsible for increasing the overall PM maturity within the organization?  You’re likely tracking against a maturity level for a defined maturity model, such as OPM3.   I’m interested in hearing of additional experiences other professionals have had in regards to measuring your PMO and what worked best as an approach.  We’ve probably all experienced instances in where the PMO is not measured as contributing little to building credibility necessary for long term success.


15 02 2009

Welcome to the program office. Will try to keep this as entertaining as possible and encourage all to contribute and share their personal and professional experiences here. This eclectic collection of posts will in many ways reflect the wide variety of issues will all encounter in our daily professional lives. We will try to ensure posts to this blog reflect generally accepted time proven best practice principals that have demonstrated value.  Of course, some of the posts collected may very well include indictments of current “bonehead” thinking (our opinion) and critical examination of current project management fads.  Believe me, over my career just when I think I have seen all, the unexpected happens. The good, the bad, and the really ugly.  And this is the point. If can learn from each other and can laugh at ourselves from time to time each of us will have grown a little and made our lives a little richer and more rewarding.

Many hardworking and well meaning professionals have contributed to our understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Topics found in this blog represent our sincere desire to share the years of experience collected in corporate IT, commercial software development, and executive management to solve similar challenges for others. Thank you for your interest, hope this will meet your expectations and you will become a regular reader and contributor.