Make Your Work Make Sense.

A few years ago I was managing a complex enterprise program where we had a status review meeting with our vendor every Wednesday. I inherited these meetings from my predecessor. Weekly reviews are important, so I kept them. We had appropriate representation with myself, the vendor, and the program’s key stakeholders. We had a weekly agenda of all of the outstanding issues that needed discussion, and minutes, which were updated and sent out promptly after each meeting, and again the day before the next meeting. On the surface, everything was the way it’s “supposed to be”.

There was just one problem: Nothing. Ever. Got. Accomplished.

I would show up to these meetings and we would walk through the issues. The response from the vendor was usually a binary “we fixed it” or “we’re still working on it”. The vendor rarely had further information, and so couldn’t really comment on why an issue was still outstanding. To be honest, the guy was made of teflon so if you got mad that an issue had been sitting open for an enormous length of time, he would just nod his head and smile vapidly, kind of like one of those bobble heads some people put on their car dashboards.

If these are your meeting attendees, you have a problem.

If these are your meeting attendees, you have a problem. Image courtesy of manwhoyells on Flickr.

The stakeholders weren’t much help. They’d sit there looking in the direction of whoever was speaking, but they may as well have been mannequins for all the life they showed. These meetings went on for a few months after I arrived. I let them continue that long because it felt like the right thing to do.

One day, I went to the meeting and found myself not listening to a word that was being said. And as soon as I felt myself tuning the room out I realized I had turned into a clone of everyone else present. I also realized that if I didn’t say something this weekly torture was never, ever going to end. I snapped myself out of my reverie, interrupted whoever was speaking and said, “excuse me, sorry to interrupt…am I on glue or are these meetings just the biggest colossal waste of time ever?”

Geez. You’d think I’d stood up on the boardroom table and flashed everyone. “No,” some of them retorted. “We’re supposed to have these meetings.” I’m not sure if it was a good thing or not, but suddenly everyone was a lot more “present” in the room than they had been since I’d been in attendance. Sure they were all hostile, but at least they were there!

However, as soon as I heard the words “supposed to” I recognized the problem. We weren’t “supposed to” be sitting in expensive chairs, drooling on our lapels, tuning out a speaker who wasn’t providing any useful information. We were “supposed to” be running a program! We had been doing something because some vague policy said so. It was blind and completely pointless.

I spoke honestly. “I’ve been sitting here, completely not paying attention. I don’t feel we’re getting anything done in these meetings. Am I seriously the only one who feels this way?”

There was an uncomfortable shift in the room, and I continued. “Look, if we’re going to do this, where’s our detailed status? Where’s our planning? What’s going on that we never have any input for our vendor guy there? Seriously, I could be at my desk having a nap and it would be more productive!”

Okay so my approach may have been a little gruff. But that day we started to change things. For one thing, the vendor started sending someone who could actually answer questions about outstanding issues, and offer up real plans as to what steps needed to be taken to correct them. With that change, the stakeholders had information to offer input to the vendor’s plans. Suddenly work was getting done. After a few weeks of that, the duration of the meetings got shorter and shorter until it was a quick, “do this, do that, don’t do this, you’ll need to talk to so-and-so, wow this was great, see you next week”. It felt a lot better.

Ty Kiisel wrote the other day about work management and the need to jump through hoops. In his article, he asks, “how many of us have lost our way in the morass of process”? I think it’s a great question.

If a process suggests you do something, for the love of God don’t follow it for its own sake. There needs to be a reason for everything we do in the execution of our projects, and that reason can’t be “because a piece of paper said so”. We need to always question the things we do, and ask ourselves “why are we doing this”. If there’s a specific answer that relates to getting specific pieces of work done, then the process is probably appropriate. If we don’t know, or the answer is “because we’re supposed to”, then seriously? We’re wasting precious time.

I’m a professor of project management at the college where I work. My students continually amaze me with their insights, passion and all-around awesomeness. I figure they deserve access to more answers than I can give them by myself. This site is for them.
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