Each week, project management veteran Tom Mochal provides valuable advice about how to plan and manage projects. Tom first describes a common problem scenario, based on real-life situations. He then offers a solution, using practical project management practices and techniques.

The dilemma
I had a meeting with Donna, who is trying to implement a marketing information database for the sales and marketing division. Donna is halfway into a six-month project but is having difficulty keeping her weekly status meeting on track.

“I know we need to have a meeting with our clients every week,” Donna said. “But there are times when I have to remind myself of the value. It’s been really hard to keep the meeting on track. Even though we meet for two hours, we still have a hard time covering the agenda.”

I was surprised. “A two-hour status meeting? What does your agenda look like?”

“We start with a general update on the project and the work plan,” Donna explained. “Then we discuss the status of action items from the previous meeting. We cover the status of outstanding issues and scope-change requests. On a monthly basis, we also take an updated look at our risk-management plan. We also allow anyone to add items to the agenda that need to be discussed.”

“The agenda sounds good,” I said. “Where do you think the meeting is breaking down?”

She thought for a minute. “I think the team tries to do too much problem solving during the meeting. We end up spending all our time hashing and rehashing many of the same items from week to week. We also tend to get sidetracked, and it seems like we can never finish the meeting on time. Some members of the team think we need to lengthen the meetings to two and a half or three hours.”

“I have a better idea,” I said. “To get your meeting more focused and to better utilize everyone’s time, don’t add more time—reduce it instead. I recommend you cut the meeting back from two hours to one.”

Mentor advice
Status meetings are essential to ensure that the project team and the client maintain healthy and open communication and to ensure everyone’s expectations are in sync. Because many of the project decision makers are there, these meetings may seem like a good time to resolve open issues and action items. But when meeting attendees attempt to cover too much in one session, they end up diluting the focus and intent of the meeting. The result can be not only unproductive meetings but can also lead to a less functional work environment outside the meeting.

The solution is simple: Cut down the meeting time, which will encourage attendees to sharpen their focus and use meeting time wisely.

In Donna’s case, she should cut her meeting time in half, which will force her to better prepare for the meeting. Donna should send out an agenda to attendees before the meeting so that participants will know exactly what will be discussed. Trimming meeting time also motivates participants to discuss each issue rapidly and resolve it quickly. If that’s not possible, Donna should table further discussion and decision making and resolve the issue in another forum.

Donna must also be firm about preventing the discussion from getting sidetracked. Again, these may be valuable conversations, but they are not appropriate for the status meeting. Those issues need to be identified and resolved outside of the status meeting.

Project management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching the IS division on project management and life cycle skills. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America, and has developed a project management methodology called TenStep.

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