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Author: Tom Ferguson

Make Your Project Meetings Matter

Meeting_in_ProgressI read somewhere recently that some 25 million meetings take place in corporate America every day and that roughly half that time is wasted. Many of these meetings are project related and I am confident that the dismal statistic relating to time wasted is just as applicable in the project context.

Time is usually a scarce resource on projects and it is also one of the fundamental criteria on which the success or otherwise of a project is judged. Projects have lots of meetings so the potential for consuming that most scarce of resources is obvious. However, project meetings are important and the decisions made are the grease on the wheels of progress.

Responsibility for minimising the time wasted on meetings rests with the project manager as it is they who initiate and facilitate the process, in most cases. The two key considerations in a lean meetings process is for the project manager to first of all consider if the meeting is necessary? If it is, the project manager should run meetings that are effective and achieve their objectives.

Should We Meet?

Firstly, consider the objectives of the meeting very carefully. The objectives are the reason why the meeting is pulled together. Meeting’s objectives should be like all project objectives, that is, Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time Bound (SMART). SMART objectives create common ground, expectation, focus and potential for productivity. And like all project objectives, it must be possible to express them in a way that makes it possible to measure the outcomes to verify that success has been achieved.

Once the SMART objectives have been defined, the project manager must ask themselves if the meeting is really necessary. Many meetings should not happen. They start from the premise of “I am going to hold a meeting so I’ve got to decide on the objectives”. Think of the very many standing meetings that happen just because they are in the diaries well in advance. Many of them are aimless, useless and wasteful of our most precious commodity. But they keep on happening.

The project manager should ask the following questions before proceeding with the meeting:

  • Could an alternative communication mechanism do the job? For example, email, teleconference, video conference, groupware, bulletin board, one-to-ones or the Internet?
  • Do I or someone else possess the knowledge to make the decision alone?
  • Can the decision be made by a sub-set of the project team?
  • Is the synergy of team needed in this instance i.e. is substantial creativity and innovation required?
  • Will there be new knowledge created or is it just a rehash of something old?
  • Is the decision of the type that needs to be made collectively by the team?
  • Is the topic complex, requiring explanation, understanding and acceptance by all the project team for implementation?
  • Is brainstorming necessary?
  • Will there be conflict?

If after considering these questions, it is still thought necessary to hold a meeting, the project manager must next decide who needs to attend? Frugality is the order of the day; the more people in the meeting, the less that will be achieved. In the case of meetings, the old tale of too many cooks spoiling the broth is especially true.

As a project manager, you are obliged to run your meetings in a way that gives everyone present, including unnecessary attendees, a chance to be heard. They will all expect their moment of fame. Unnecessary attendees can be a particular challenge as they probably know that they are not required and that their precious time is being wasted. They may even decide to be obstructive or mischievous!

The project manager should therefore ask themselves the following questions before finalising the list of attendees:

  • Do they possess knowledge or expertise necessary to achieve one of the meeting’s objectives?
  • Have they skin in the game i.e. will they be impacted by any decisions?
  • Are they needed because they have the authority to make something happen?
  • Will they become responsible for implementing some aspect of a decision?
  • Do they need to be reassured about some situation?
  • Do they hold strong views that will act as a catalyst for fruitful discussion?
  • Will they learn, grow or be developed by attending?
  • Can they favourably influence other project stakeholders?

The fundamental rule is that if they are not needed, they are not needed! Don’t ask someone just because they have always been asked. Don’t ask someone just because they are funny or are nice to be around. Don’t ask someone because they suck up to you and agree with your every utterance. Don’t ask someone just because you like them. Remember, just don’t ask them!

Running Effective Meetings

At this point, I am reminded about an incident I witnessed on a train some time ago. An elderly lady got on the train with a bag overflowing with the results of a day’s shopping. As there were no seats available, she stood in the aisle, hanging on grimly to a bar. After a few minutes, a kindly gentleman of similar vintage, stood up and asked if she would like to sit down. Chivalry isn’t dead after all, I thought to myself. The lady refused the kind offer. However, the man was determined, took hold of her arm and insisted that she take his seat.

Then a very interesting thing happened. The lady’s response took me by complete surprise. She pulled away from the man quite forcefully and said in a strong clear voice, “I said no thanks, do I look like I need a seat”? And then the knock-out punch, “sure you need it much more than me”. The man sat down nodding his head and looking like he had been hit in the face by a wet fish.

The relevance of the story for project management meetings is clear. Misunderstandings, false assumptions, lack of commitment, force, hurt, and showing off were all part of what was on display and so it is also for many project meetings.

When people ask me about project management, I compare it to an orchestra. Just like the conductor conducts the performance of the orchestra, a project manager conducts the performance of the team. And nowhere is this approach more needed than in project meetings.

The conductor cannot facilitate optimum performance unless all of the pieces, woodwind, brass, percussion and strings etc. are in place and working to the same music sheets. Likewise, the project manager cannot achieve optimum performance in the meeting unless all of the key people are in attendance.

Depending on the piece of music and what music sheet they are on, different sections of the orchestra take the lead and contribute most. And depending on the agenda for the meeting, and the item on the agenda, different team members take the lead and contribute more than others. But generally everyone gets to play a part and sometimes the smallest part can be the most important.

So how does the project manager conduct the orchestra? I have put together my top tips below.

  • Prepare and circulate a structured agenda well in advance. This is akin to the conductor telling the orchestra what music will be played.
  • Keep the meeting as small as possible by inviting only those that are necessary to achieve the agenda. If the wind section is not required for this particular piece of music, don’t have them hanging around cluttering up the room!
  • Set the stage. Reiterate the desired outcomes of the meeting at the start. Clarify any ambiguity and get everyone on the same sheet of music. Lay out the ground rules and tell them how long each item and the whole meeting will take – and stick to the timescales.
  • Ensure a smooth flow through the meeting. Conduct in a light but firm way and stick to the score! Your job is to interpret how the meeting will be played (style, tempo, dynamics, feel, articulation) and to convey this to the team members.
  • Control the meeting by managing both the content and the process. Conduct in a way that ensures that all the team stick to the music and timing and that transitions from one contribution to another and from one agenda item to another, happen in an orderly way.
    • Watch the timing and move things along as per the agenda
    • If an impasse is reached, it may be necessary to move on and assign the issue to another meeting or a sub-meeting off-line
    • Clarify confusing statements
    • Keep to the point
    • Identify common ground and areas of agreement rather than getting too hung up on differences
    • Summarise and organise ideas/decisions
    • Test for consensus as decisions appear to be emerging
    • Maintain order – one voice only
    • Give everyone a chance to participate
    • Indicate appreciation of contributions.
    • Ensure that decisions are clear and ownership is accepted
  • Do not abuse your role of conductor. On their own, the conductor can sway the baton wildly but nothing will be achieved. The players must be heard. And finally, and most important in a project,
    • Ensure a record is kept of decisions made and action items assigned. Record the music, or at least the highlights, and circulate for review.
    • End the meeting as something of a social event. Thank all for their time, participation and contribution. If a meeting is stormy, smooth ruffled feathers and do some maintenance on damaged relationships.

So remember, next time you think you need that meeting, think again before going into auto mode and sending out the invitations. And if you must hold that meeting, make sure it is a harmonious event!

Don’t forget to leave your comments below

Tom Ferguson has over fifteen year’s project management experience across both the public and private sectors. He holds a Masters in Project Management from the University of Limerick, a B.Sc. in Information Technology from Dublin City University and a Diploma in Executive Coaching from the Irish Management Institute (IMI). In addition, he has been certified as a Project Management Professional (PMP) by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and as a Certified Training Professional (CTP) by the Irish Computer Society. Tom runs his own company dedicated to collaborating with organisations to make their projects work. For more information, please visit

© Tom Ferguson 2009

Project Management Mind Games

management-mind-gamesThe Importance of the Psychological Contract

This article outlines the importance of the ‘psychological contract’ to successful project outcomes. Project managers who fail to understand this importance or who breach contracts, may reap the type of attitudes and behaviours that will inevitably lead to poor project performance and even failure.


As well as a written work contract, project team members will have also defined a psychological contract that will influence how they contribute to a project. The psychological contract consists of a set of mutual expectations that team members and project managers have about satisfying a set of mutual needs. It is part of the mind games of project management.

Team members will typically expect:

  • Safe working conditions
  • Fairness and respect
  • Equal work distribution
  • Clarity of role and responsibilities
  • Clarity in work assignments
  • Opportunities to develop
  • Participation in project decisions
  • Adequate rewards
  • Recognition for achievements

The project manager will typically expect:

  • Adherence to policies and procedures
  • Commitment, innovation, creativity
  • Team player
  • Maintenance of the organisation’s reputation
  • Trust, honesty and integrity

In a nutshell, it is a game of give and take – you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours! The psychological contract can have more influence over behaviour than any written contract or positional power or authority that the project manager or anyone else can bring to bear. Project managers typically find themselves in the position of managing people who do not formally report to them, so the psychological contract is especially important for project management.

Violations of psychological contracts can have significant implications for your projects as team members who feel that their contracts have been broken may react in a negative way.

The last thing a project manager wants is for team members to adapt the attitude of “If you’re going to treat me like that, then I’m just going to do as little as I can get away with.” This may be accompanied by feelings of anger and betrayal. Expect this to result in reduced loyalty, effort, communication, innovation, productivity and commitment. These are the lifeblood of successful projects so the potential impact is obvious.

Project managers realise the significance of the psychological contract and must make every effort to honour them. Flexibility is one element of the psychological contract which is a key issue these days. Take hours of work for example. The project manager could have discussions such as, “you should be here between these core hours. I understand the need for flexibility so if you have to start late or finish early because of family or other commitments that is OK. However, I expect you to keep me informed and that you will make up the hours some other time. And there will be occasions during the project when we may have to work extra hours and it will be much more difficult to be flexible”.

The integrity of psychological contracts will no doubt be tested, especially when the pressure really comes on. To keep the psychological contract, the project manager must behave as they have promised even under the most pressurised conditions. The pillars of maintenance are honest, open communications and integrity. This type of environment allows the inevitable disagreements and conflicts that occur in projects to be dealt with constructively and in a way that prevents team members from perceiving a breach of the contract.

The benefits of building and maintaining good psychological contracts are immeasurable for both project managers and project team members. Team members who feel appreciated by the project will give of their best and will go the extra mile in times of crisis. The project manager can maintain a happy project accompanied by the attitudes and behaviours that are key to unleashing the innovation, creativity, productivity and commitment necessary for successful project delivery.

Don’t forget to leave your comments below

Tom Ferguson has over fifteen years project management experience across both the public and private sectors. He holds a Masters in Project Management from the University of Limerick, a B.Sc. in Information Technology from Dublin City University and a Diploma in Executive Coaching from the Irish Management Institute (IMI). In addition, he has been certified as a Project Management Professional (PMP) by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and as a Certified Training Professional (CTP) by the Irish Computer Society.

Tom runs his own company dedicated to collaborating with organisations to make their projects work. For more information, please visit

Forget About Project Feedback; Try Feedforward!

Project management is a tough job. Where else would you be expected to manage something that is temporary, has not been done before, is loosely defined, is constantly changing, is laden with complexity risk and unrealistic expectations and is set within fixed constraints including resources, budget, time, process, organisation and culture?

Projects depend very much on the team and teamwork. One of the fundamental roles of the project manager is to provide feedback to team members on their performance. Feedback is supposed to show someone the impact of their behaviour with a view to helping them improve performance in the future.

Many of us do not know how to do feedback properly. This is not surprising as we tend to get very little practice. It is very common for feedback to be given rarely or for it to be part of an annual performance review process. Feedback is often therefore, too little, too late. And many of us avoid giving feedback altogether as we see it as a potential source of conflict. The problem is that poorly delivered feedback can alienate team members and stop them functioning effectively. And the malaise can spread quickly through the team.

Part of the problem is the ‘back’ in feedback. Feedback tends to focus on past events. As such, it can be a limited and static affair. In projects, we cannot afford to be limited or static or to focus on the past. While we might hope to learn from the past, it’s history and can’t be changed. So given these difficulties, why not try a little Feedforward?

Feedforward is a term coined by Marshal Goldsmith in his article “Try Feedforward Instead of Feedback”. Feedforward has a helping perspective and focuses on the future. It is thus particularly suitable for a project environment for the following reasons:

  • The focus must always be on the future and the next deadline.
  • We can’t afford to lose anyone – everyone must be kept on board.
  • Often we are stuck with the resources that we have and we must make the most of them.
  • Team morale can be delicately balanced and poorly delivered feedback can be a tipping point.
  • We must be resilient. Project teams must have a high bounceability quotient. The alienation caused by poorly delivered feedback can impact on a team’s ability to bounce back.

There are many good reasons to try a little Feedforward with your project teams including:

  1. It comes from a much more positive perspective i.e. we are all in this together so let’s help each other out. This changes the whole dynamic of the relationship.
  2. It is not judgemental.
  3. The negative connotations of past failures are banished. There is no such thing as failure just Feedforward.
  4. It is much easier to deliver. People are less defensive when discussing future performance. Feedforward is taken less personally and provokes less resistance.
  5. It is faster. Dwelling on past events can consume a lot of time. It can be much quicker to suggest a few well thought out ideas for the future.
  6. The past is history, today is the present and tomorrow is an adventure. We can only change our behaviours from today onwards. What’s the point on focussing on past failures? Isn’t it much better to focus on the future we desire?
  7. Feedforward is much more aligned with coaching and is therefore better at building the kind of relationships needed to develop the team towards maximum performance.
  8. Most people actually like to be helped to improve their performance as this will ultimately make them more successful in their careers.
  9. Communication, the soul of successful projects, will be greatly enhanced.
  10. Why invest time and energy in something that we all hate?

Consider the following example from an IT project.

A team member called Tom was responsible for installing and configuring a new server. During the install, Tom forgot to install the anti-virus software. As a result, the server became infected with multiple viruses and ground to a halt. The problems were difficult to diagnose and fix and the project lost two full days from the schedule due to the testing phase being interrupted.

What is the project manager Bob, to do with Tom? The feedback approach will delve into what happened, the consequences and the impact on the schedule. The negatives are restated and emphasised. Let me ask you this question? In situations like this, who usually knows most about the facts of what happened and the consequences? Of course, its Tom and Tom will more than likely deeply regret his error and most definitely will not make that mistake again. So it can be reasonably stated that this approach is useless.

Now let’s try Feedforward. The Feedforward approach will focus on the future. Remember, there is no such thing as failure, just Feedforward. Bob might say something like the following to Tom. “I remember when I was a techie, I used to compile a checklist of tasks when installing servers. There are so many things to be considered, that it is very easy to forget about something. Actually, it would be great for this project and future projects if we had a standard checklist for all installs”.

This is a completely different approach. Tom will more than likely see this as a great idea that he will take on board. He will probably also see this as an opportunity to do something that will help him and others now and in the future. The whole situation has been turned around and has become an opportunity for Tom to develop, grow and shine! And just look at the positive results for relationships. Tom’s and Bob’s relationship can only be stronger. When the news spreads around the wider team, it will most likely strengthen more relationships and the regard the team have for Bob.

Altogether a much better outcome, wouldn’t you think?

Don’t forget to leave your comments below

Tom Ferguson has over fifteen year’s project management experience across both the public and private sectors. He holds a Masters in Project Management from the University of Limerick, a B.Sc. in Information Technology from Dublin City University and a Diploma in Executive Coaching from the Irish Management Institute (IMI). In addition, he has been certified as a Project Management Professional (PMP) by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and as a Certified Training Professional (CTP) by the Irish Computer Society. Tom runs his own company dedicated to collaborating with organisations to make their projects work. For more information, please visit

© Copyright Tom Ferguson 2009