Managing Your Meetings

meetingAny project manager in the industry is going to spend a fair amount of their time both attending and organizing meetings. They are a quintessential component of any project manager’s day-to-day duties and will likely consume a large portion of their time.

Yet despite the staple nature of meetings, often times, project managers can be surprisingly inefficient when it comes to how they set up, structure, manage and control their own meetings. This can become a very problematic issue, resulting in lost productivity and frustration for meeting attendees who may be required to attend follow-up meetings due to the manner and way the original meeting was handled.

With that being said, what are some policies and best practices that a project manager can and should employ to facilitate the best possible meetings for their given projects?

Come Prepared

This may seem like a no-brainer, yet it is quite surprising how many times a project manager will step into a meeting with little to no inkling of having things prepared up front. This can be as simple as ensuring that teleconference passwords are correct, the meeting room is functional in the form of having projection and display capabilities or that the WebEx, Live Meeting or Cisco Telepresence information was sent in advance. The more time that is spent having to wade through technical gaffes in meeting setup, the more time is wasted. Additionally, it sets a bad tone at the offset and gives the impression of unprofessionalism.

Have An Agenda

Somewhat of a carry-forward from being prepared, having an outline of what will be discussed in the meeting should be itemized up front. This will help encapsulate the meeting in an effective way and also give a better impression of how to manage time. In many cases, project managers can be too aloof in how they approach a meeting, many times underestimating how much time is available and how many discussion topics to cover. This can lead to situations where time essentially runs out because too much was spent on certain discussion topics at the expense of others. In many cases, certain discussions can be ‘shelved’ for the time being pending a follow-up meeting to ensure that all main topics are covered in ernest during the existing meeting.

Have Meeting Outcomes Itemized

This will be part of the agenda to a degree, but it is important to ensure that the meeting itself has some tangible outcomes that it yields. Otherwise, it is essentially not achieving anything. Meetings need to have some end result, whether it be simple status updates, architecture and design discussions, or general project related task overviews. Whatever the case, the meeting should be in place to achieve some goal and that goal should be understood up front, even if it is only the project manager that understands the outcome.

Keep Control of Your Meeting

Herding cats is a concept most are familiar with. And this concept is exemplified in spaces when it comes to controlling your meetings. As we all know in life, not all of us are created equal. Some are quiet while others are more boisterous. Some are reserved and others are opinionated. Whatever the case, it is important to recognize that in a meeting setting, you will have all these personality types often contained in one area, or connecting virtually. And if one is not careful about how things are being handled, a meeting can easily start to go off on tangents with the more dominant personality types driving the conversations in directions they want it to go.

As the project manager, the meeting is yours and it is up to you that it not only stays on topic, but that everyone is allowed to provide the necessary input. Having the agenda and a specific set of time constraints built into it can help tremendously in focusing the energy of the meeting on the tasks at hand. But you will also need to take steps to ensure things do not go too far off course. For issues that cannot be resolved easily in the meeting, shelve those for discussion later.

Start and Finish the Meeting On Time

A great way to ensure the future effectiveness of your meetings is to be diligent about time management. If you as the meeting organizer are complacent about when a meeting starts and how it ends, that will reflect on how people operate when attending your meetings. Someone who has a reputation as being prompt with start times, being focused to stay on course and being diligent about ending at the appropriate time will give attendees confidence that subsequent meetings will be dealt with just as efficiently.

Publish Action Items and Follow-up Immediately After the Meeting

This is probably one of the most overlooked yet extremely important aspects of meeting management. Generally speaking, when people leave a meeting, the ideas and discussion points are at the front of their minds. That goes equally for the meeting organizer, the project manager in this case. To ensure that momentum remains amongst the meeting attendees, it is important that all issues that were raised and all action items are itemized and published as soon as possible once the meeting has concluded. That will give meeting attendees the opportunity to review your meeting notes and provide any additional feedback while things are fresh in their minds. Waiting to publish meeting minutes and actions can degrade the quality of the notes as well as give too much of a gap for meeting attendees between meetings, thereby reducing the likelihood of staying ‘fresh’.

Do Not Hold a Meeting Just for the Sake of Holding the Meeting

In many cases, meetings become a recurring phenomenon. Especially for projects that have a long lifetime. However, there are times when a meeting is actually un-necessary and holding the meeting for no other reason than it appears in your Outlook calendar can actually detract away from  project momentum. Recurring meetings are fine in and of themselves but if you are struggling to find agenda topics or follow-up items for your meeting, than in all likelihood, the meeting is probably not required. By being smart about when to hold meetings and when to cancel them, your meeting attendees will actually be able to be more productive with regards to contributing to the overall project. It will also give the impression that you are not a creature of habit and are instead being pragmatic about how and when discussions need to occur in regards to the project.

Conclusions

Meetings are a general necessity when it comes to effective project management. Being smart about how you organize, handle and follow-up on your meetings is a major contributor to the success of the project as a whole. Understanding that meetings are meant to yield a specific outcome and are supposed to contribute to overall project success will give you incentive to be as diligent as possible in creating and structuring the best possible meetings that you can to achieve the desired outcomes you need moving forward.

The PERT Analysis – Part 2

In the previous post, we began a formal discussion on PERT analysis and how it is used as a project estimation and flow technique. (Note: if you have not read the previous post, please access it at the following link: The PERT Analysis – Part 1)

As a brief refresher, the idea behind a PERT analysis is twofold:

1) It gives an overview of the various constituent pieces that are part of a given program and shows (graphically) how they relate to one another.

2) The PERT also yields the ‘critical path‘ of the program, which is a mathematical summation of the various paths in the PERT diagram which eventually provides the path with the longest duration. Which in turn becomes the critical path.

One of the main formulas utilized when calculating various completion estimates for tasks that are part of the overall program is the following:

TE = (O + 4M + P) ÷ 6

The variables listed in the formula are as follows:

TE – Time Estimate

O – Optimistic Time

M – Most Likely Time

P – Pessimistic Time

Think of this as an ‘over/under’ technique, whereby the individuals working on the tasks provide three timeline estimates denoting their most optimistic, pessimistic and likely timeframes for the task. Those estimates are then plugged into the above formula to come up with the time estimate for the task. Note that the usage of this formula is not mandatory for PERT and that single estimates can also be leveraged. The most important consideration is that each task (activity) have some estimate associated with it.

To add further granularity to the overall PERT schedule, various estimates on earliest and latest start or finish times for each activity can be calculated. Note that each activity can have all of these estimates associated with it. In order to determine Early Start, Early Finish, Late Start and Late Finish for each activity, one must examine each node and ascertain the values relating to the predecessor nodes. So for example, if the activity between Node 1 and Node 2 is deemed to be 2 weeks, then the Early Start for Node 2 is 2 weeks from the given date. (Assuming Node 1 is the start node)  Leveraging these calculations for each node can give both optimistic and pessimistic timescales to each activity as well as take into account potential slippage events from predecessor activities.

Some additional definitions worth mentioning relating to PERT are as follows:

Slack (or Float)

This is the amount of time that a project or task can be delayed without causing slippage to subsequent tasks and overall project completion. Note that if a task is on the critical path, it cannot have a float associated with it since any delay to activities in the critical path will delay dependent activities further downstream. Positive slack denotes the project being ahead of schedule, negative slack indicates the project is behind schedule while zero slack indicates it is on schedule.

Fast Tracking

This is a technique whereby the most critical activities are performed in parallel. This is a concept that the project manager must engineer up front and should not be attempted once well into the project. The idea is that if critical activities are performed in parallel as opposed to sequentially, the likelihood of one activity causing slippage to subsequent activities is reduced. Note that care must be taken when deriving this solution. Dependencies will exist for various tasks and performing them in sequence may be the only viable option. (Eg. needing to build the foundation of a house before working on its frame) But if performed correctly, fast tracking can streamline a project and give more lead time to any issues that may arise without having to potentially delay subsequent tasks.

Crashing the Critical Path

In cases where the critical path cannot be effectively re-engineered for more parallel development, the project manager may instead decide to add more resources to items in the critical thereby reducing the amount of time for each one. This technique is referred to as ‘crashing the critical path’ and can be leveraged in cases where it is advantageous to utilize resources early in the project cycle to ensure completion of critical activities. (This is also referred to as ‘front loading’ in some cases) Note that this technique is often best performed when new resources have been added to a project, although it can also be achieved through effective re-distribution of existing resources.

SUMMARY

The PERT analysis can be an effective means by which to provide a good overview and timeline for a given project or program. As alluded to in the previous post, PERT can have some drawbacks if the chart has so many tasks and dependencies that it becomes unwieldy. In those cases, segmentation of the PERT into more cohesive pieces can assist. It may be possible to create a ‘master PERT’ that serves as a full program overview while smaller PERTs will denote the main portions of the primary PERT.

For further information on PERT and critical path analysis, please consult the following Wikipedia article for additional detail:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pert

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