Leadership

Three minutes to effective issue management

Find out what old writing trick one project manager employs in issue review meetings to help manage time better and keep team members focused.

Project managers know it's useful to track and manage issues throughout a project. The real concern isn't how to track issues but how to effectively and efficiently review the issues log during a project review meeting.

A key meeting I conduct on all of my projects is an issue, risk, and detailed project schedule review meeting. The purpose of the meeting is to have one formal touch point throughout the week where we can review the current issue status and discuss next steps to resolve any open issues. The meeting is helpful because it allows team members who are not always co-located to connect and provide input on any potential impacts or dependencies.

The meeting is scheduled for 60 minutes, with the first half dedicated to reviewing the issues log. The majority of the team members are co-located in a dedicated conference room with plenty of wall space, power strips, and a projector to display desktops and share the issue log.

The team has everything they need to be productive, so imagine my surprise when the 30 minute agenda item to quickly review 12 issues expanded into a 90 minute discussion. The input the team contributed to the issues log was valuable, although several tangents were created that generated more discussion. An outside observer would say the project manager isn't effectively managing the meeting; however, I'm sure readers can relate to expanding discussions and tangent agenda items that can wreck a planned agenda.

Since that meeting, I implemented a new practical solution that was right in front of me -- a kitchen timer. This is a writing trick that I learned to help keep myself on task and focused; you see how much you can within a 30 minute time limit. These are the new ground rules I use to manage time and the issues list:

  1. The issues list is sorted by Priority and Next Review date, so the project team can focus on the immediate issues impacting the project.
  2. Each issue gets a three-minute time limit for discussion. I suggest using a kitchen timer or a stopwatch to keep track of time.
  3. Team members need to quickly and succinctly communicate a description of the issue, actions in-progress to resolve the issue, and where the team member needs help.
  4. If the team member exceeds the time limit, it's encouraged that an additional conversation take place after the meeting.

This approach has helped reduce the number of tangent discussions and keep the team focused on the specific agenda item. If you don't want to use a kitchen timer, use the stopwatch function on your iPhone or download a stopwatch application for your smartphone.

By clarifying your expectations for the issues review meeting, you will find that you'll quickly cover your agenda items. Also, by sorting the issues list by priority and next review date, you get an immediate list of issues that need resolution rather than reviewing issues that have an impact later on in the project.

A Scrum-based approach using a daily stand up meeting will also help communicate issues throughout the week. Issue management and resolution should occur throughout the week and not just at the formal issue review meeting. If you have more than 10 open issues on your issues list, you should consider shortening the discussion time, prioritizing the list further, or expanding the meeting's duration.

Ding!

It may seem kind of hokey to bring a kitchen timer to a meeting, but it will help keep the discussion on track. I'd rather hear the ding of a kitchen timer or the chime of an iPhone than spend another hour and a half discussing issues. After all, we've got projects to deliver, and there are times when you need a little less talk and a little more action.

If you try this approach in your next meeting, let me know how it goes.

About

Dr. Andrew Makar is an IT program manager and is the author of How To Use Microsoft Project and Project Management Interview Questions Made Easy. For more project management advice visit http://www.tacticalprojectmanagement.com.

8 comments
fcchan
fcchan

Suppose team is simultaneously working on Feature A (5 days), B (4d), C (3d), D(6d) and E(6d). But project review meeting exceeds 60 minutes. To manage, flag A, B and C as candidate for release. Strengthen development standards used to define complete. This inherently manage scope of discussion (at hand) and future discussion on technical debt. Next review meeting to be on D and E (with A, B and C completed). This implement is different from increasing frequency of meetings. It won't be much better if A, B, C, D and E is simultaneously worked yet review meetings become more frequent.

uksp
uksp

... by advocating a time limit at the start and accommodating anyone that needs more time with the traditional "who are the key people here who need to continue on this one after this session?" then note names and follow-up with "I'll set something up for us and issue the outputs from that to all as an additional follow-up to today". Often people want to know it's going to be owned and progressed, the continued discussion on the original call is them striving for that. I wouldn't pull the kitchen timer routine, it advocates an unconsidered end to what might be useful and valid discussion, furthermore it may introduce alternate negativity to one or more people that may hamper the discussions. In team use for 'lighter' subject matters such as brain-storming yes, but not for the serious stuff.

vincent.fong
vincent.fong

There's very little reason for project meetings be it weekly catch-ups, risks review or issues review to extend longer than they should. Train your team members to focus on 3 things only: 1. What's the order of the day - what's achieved 2. What's next on the deck - where is the next focus 3. What's blocking the way - who can remove this blockage.

viveka
viveka

Issues at construction could be due to bad design. quick wins, 80/20 rules etc. if not implemented properly lead to avoidable issues - and these avoidable issues are often top priority! Mechanics of managing meetings need to be established on day 1. otherwise, spend unplanned effort for change management!

sperry532
sperry532

I use a darkroom enlarger timer. It has a large face with a sweep second hand. For added effect, I put a red 25 watt party light in a plug-in light bulb socket (a lamp socket with electrical prongs instead of a cord) and plug it into the top of timer. The light goes out, the speaker shuts up... at least in theory. This set-up seems to encourage the presenters to condense their ideas and proposals. It also works very well with folks who drop into my office saying, "I just need 5 minutes". I set the timer, start it and say "Fine. When the light goes out, you go out." You'd be amazed at how concisely a vendor can pitch a product or service when they're under this metaphorical gun. heh.

hmccalman
hmccalman

Thanks for the confirmation: I've considered this approach to tangents, run-ons, and lengthy discussions in both professional and non-professional meetings I've attended. I've had a difficult time convincing myself to implement the practice, because of the invasiveness of a "DING" in the middle of someone speaking. I appreciate the confirmation that others have thought of (and are using) the same method to gently remind others that there is an agenda to be moved through. Now, I think I'm going to get a sand timer and explain the concept at the beginning of the meeting. I may be a Pollyanna, but I tend to believe that people externally process and go into a "time-less" void when they are exploring their thoughts. (Ie. they don't know how long they're talking...) A sand timer will provide a visual reminder as well. Oh, and I should say this includes moi as well... Note: These are meetings where I facilitate, not dictate, and I have a hard time interrupting people who want to speak at length. (Blame the Southern upbringing for that...)

mike.gordon
mike.gordon

It shoudl help reinforce who is the chair of the meeting and reduce the round table discussions that unproductively digress and eat up time.

lxa374
lxa374

Wow. Putting a kitchen timer on the table during a meeting is a pretty ballzy move. If you are a new person to the company, forget about pulling that stunt.