When I first heard the expression “Death by Meeting”, I thought it was the latest Stephen King novel, but after being the project manager of a project where I was expected to be involved in 20 meetings per week, dying seemed like a welcome alternative.  You can avoid this slow, painful death by creating a project structure that focuses efforts and communications and reduces meetings.

In addition to the typical project management issues associated with the multitude of tasks required for large projects, there is a significant challenge in creating an efficient, effective project structure that drives the project effort to the correct worker-bee level and enables good project status communications, but streamlines the number of meetings required to achieve these goals.  One approach that has worked for me is the use of Project Workgroups.

Most large projects consist of numerous tasks that can usually be grouped together in some manner.  These groupings may be by departmental function (Finance, IT, Purchasing, etc.) by activity (sales, development, implementation, training, etc.), by deliverable (software release, management reporting, etc.), or perhaps some other logical division.  Regardless of the grouping, there will be common goals and activities that will enable creation of workgroups reflecting these goals.

Once you have determined some logical workgroups, the next step is to define a project team structure.  At the top of the structure is the Steering Committee.  This is the group that is made up of senior management who are the key stakeholders for the project.  The role of this group is to provide high-level direction, provide resources (monetary and personnel), and resolve major roadblocks to the success of the project.  Steering Committees may oversee multiple concurrent projects, and will meet on a monthly or quarterly basis.

At this level, the Steering Committee members want to know where the project stands in terms of schedule, budget, and final deliverables.  A fantastic tool for providing the Steering Committee this information is via a project dashboard.  This dashboard should consist of a few key measurements with a status of each, using easy-to-read indicators like traffic lights or gauges.  Here is an example:

This dashboard eliminates the need for developing voluminous detailed reports, and provides for exception level discussions.  Only items that are yellow or red require explanation, so meetings are focused and their lengths are minimized.

The next level down from the Steering Committee is the Project Management Team, sometimes referred to as the Project Core Team.  This team consists of key middle-management personnel representative of the primary functional areas affected by the project.  The Core team should meet weekly or bi-weekly and is responsible for the direct management of the project activities.  The RAID (Risks, Action Items, Issues, Decisions) document I referenced in my previous blog is the perfect communications tool for the Core Team.  It provides a clear, concise mechanism for letting the team members see the critical items that require their attention.

The next level of the project organization below the Project Core Team contains the working groups for the project.  The makeup of the workgroups will vary by project; however, this is the level where the daily tasks of the project are managed.  This is the level that can bring you closest to a near-death experience since the number of teams and meetings is highest here.

Analyze your project and its deliverables to determine the best method for defining the workgroups.  An excellent place to start is with the desired deliverables since it is difficult to split a single deliverable across workgroups.  Another factor to consider is inter-departmental dependencies.  Departments that closely interact with each other and/or are dependent upon each other can be combined on a workgroup to leverage that interdependency.

Meetings at this level of the project team need to be at least weekly.  As above, the RAID document can be used to focus and track activities of the group, and facilitate communications to the project manager and the Project Core Team.  If the tracking and reporting mechanism is standardized, then the project manager does not have to participate in all of these meetings.  Focus the workgroups on the RAID documents and they will drive the agendas and reports so that meeting death takes a holiday!

In summary, to avoid the prospect of having the next project you manage being the planning of your own funeral after a painful “death by meeting” experience, try using the techniques described in this article.  By constructing a project team structure as described, you can keep all the affected parties updated, involved, and focused in a manner that streamlines communications, maximizes resources, and minimizes wasteful meetings.  The use of standardized task tracking and reporting tools will enable you as project manager to have visibility of all the project workgroups’ activities, and provide you the tools necessary to drive the project home successfully.


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