Friday, 6 August 2010

Meet me in St Louis

We had a team meeting the other day, and it got me to thinking about some of the project meetings we have had in the past.

A lot of people don't like team / project meetings - all too often, you can see them drifting into their own little worlds, trying to hide their yawns, doodling on pads, apparantly fascinated by their socks, desperate to be anywhere but where they are. But meetings are important - you have to keep people informed, get them to agree on what is going to happen and make sure that what is planned doesn't cause too much disruption or interfere in other peoples planned work.

For that reason, I like to have shorter meetings, with a clear agenda - preferably one that has been sent out before hand, so that everyone can prepare. (There is nothing worse than someone going to a meeting and suddenly being asked about something, and they have to speak off the cuff - too often, they forget important points.) There should always be notes taken and someone should type these up and circulate them so that everyone has access to a record of the details.

I also like to see clear action points at the end of meetings - with responsibilities and timetables or deadlines agreed. I also have no issue if someone fails to meet a deadline - we all have other work to do, sometimes this has to take precedence. But a meeting without an agenda or an agreed plan of action at the end, is just a talking shop, with no benefit to the business.

When the consultants organised the first launch meeting, they did actually have an agenda - but it wasn't circulated before hand, they just had it as part of a PowerPoint presentation which they referred to during the meeting. Unfortunately, the points listed were pretty brief - mostly just the names of the key stages within the process to be followed. They talked a lot about the stages, but again, mostly in fairly bland details.

The meeting dragged on for over 5 hours, not including the 40 minute break in the middle or the two coffee breaks. I still have my notes from the meeting and in the corner I have written "they could have covered all this in under an hour". I believe that I may have shown the note to one of my colleagues during the meeting.

For me tho', the biggest issue was that at the end of the meeting, no-one had a clear idea of what anyone was supposed to do, when the work was to be done by, what the next steps were or pretty much anything else. I remember a few days later, I spoke to a manager from the production area and asked about a particular issue related to assembling data on the products list - he replied that he thought that was for those of us in IT to do. When I pointed out that it was necessary to make sure the information was correct, and that only his people could do that, he was astonished - he had no idea of what I was talking about. I also had similar discussions with virtually every other department head, all of whom had been at the same meeting!

I did actually speak to the project leader from the consultants about making sure that information from meetings was properly circulated - his response was that it was our project and therefore it was our responsibility to manage all of these details. I can agree on things such as notes, action lists, and circulating details etc. but they were the ones actually planning and running the meetings, and therefore putting the agenda together. I felt that as we were paying for their experience in the project, it would not have been unreasonable to expect them to provide details of agendas and when their people would have been on site, and what they were there to do - but clearly, he didn't agree with this.

As it happens, shortly after that first meeting, I organised a structure for the notes to be taken and posted on an intranet site as a resource for people to refer to. I also tried to get a regular action list agreed, altho' that proved a bit problematic, particularly if I wasn't at the particular meeting. Many of the presentations were supplied by the consultants and were also posted, but I don't think anyone actually bothered to refer to these as they contained so little of any benefit. I also setup a snag list and that very quickly became a very lengthy file.

Looking back on it now, I think that if we had been able to get a bit more disciplined from the start over the way that meetings were planned and organised, and there had been a more structured approach to getting notes, actions lists etc out after meetings, this would have made sure that we stayed a bit more on track. Certainly I feel that there was an amount of time wasted due to lack of adequate control.

It would be unfair to blame all of this on the consultants - partly it has to come down to company culture and the individuals concerned. But I think that the consultants could have given some better guidance - they are supposed to have seen many projects, so should know the importance of getting organised and making sure that everyone knows and understand what is required.

If you start off in a particular manner, people generally continue in that way - unfortunately, if you don't get the right type of disciplined structure in at the beginning, people will just do their own thing, and instead of everyone working together, you get a more haphazard approach. As it happens, we overcame that, primarily by sheer hard work on the part of everyone on the team. But I think that it could have been made much more effective from the beginning and getting the organisation of meetings correct is a first step to a better project.