What an elephant is like

African elephant How many hours have you spent in project workshops which have dragged on and on? How many times have you left a project meeting feeling that it wasn't the best use of your valuable time? Too many?

The world of IT has at its heart a huge numbers of projects. These projects are increasing in complexity and scope, with many more stakeholders who are much more diverse than ever before. Projects touch all areas of IT from application development and infrastructure through to support.

Globalisation means we usually have teams dispersed around the world. We no longer implement solutions just in one place, but in many places potentially across several countries at the same time. Over the last few years, outsourcing has taken huge chunks of technical work and design aboard to countries such as India. This brings more challenges: distance, cultural and language differences all becoming more of an issue than before.

So, how are we to make the best of projects in such challenging circumstances? I can offer you tips in a couple of areas that can help you make the most of your project meetings, and affect the success of your projects as a whole. Your project workshops and meetings can be made much more effective in this new IT environment that we find ourselves in today.

1. Keep the whole picture in mind

There's an old eastern story that seems to me to describe a situation we IT people so often find ourselves in. It's all about six blind men and an elephant. Perhaps you have heard it before? Each of the blind men goes up to the elephant and touches only one part of it. One touches the tusk, while another feels the trunk and so on.

Each blind man is convinced that he alone knows what an elephant is like. Of course, a huge argument ensues:

  • 'It's like a spear', says the man who felt the tusk.
  • 'It's like a snake', says the man who felt the trunk.
  • 'It's like a rope', says the man who felt the tail.

And so on.  Everyone is right in part, but they are all wrong about the overall nature of an elephant! In the story, they never work it out.

That story reminds me of quite a few meetings over the years, with strongly voiced views from different corners of the room:

  • Support - 'we want it 100 per cent perfect before we'll take it on'
  • The project development team - 'we want to get on with the next project'
  • The users - 'Is this really what we signed up for?'

When we all fight hard for our corner, we can so easily fall into the blind men's trap - we miss out on the whole picture and the understanding that comes with it. The barriers of overwork, distance, culture and complexity make it much harder to step back and understand than before. However, those same barriers and the huge complexity of 21st century IT make it even more imperative that we do see the 'whole elephant'.

So my first tip for you is to spend time upfront in your projects to understand the big picture. Understand the other people, cultures and perspectives on your project and help others to understand yours. When there is a shared vision of where you are going, it becomes easier.

If there are personality differences, and there usually are, it can be very helpful to run a workshop with an expert to allow everyone to understand differences. We use Myers-Briggs techniques to give all of the attendees the language to be able to talk positively about differences in the future and let people know their colleagues preferred styles of working.

Another tip for the whole elephant is to encourage people to ask silly questions. One way to do this is to design some sort of anonymous input mechanism to your next meeting or discussion. This allows people to say the things that it would be better to know earlier rather than later. For example, a new starter who asks, 'is this really technically feasible?' when everyone else had made the assumption that it is! This question could save organisations millions of pounds!

2. Set up your meeting to succeed

Before a meeting, there are a few key things to get straight. Clarify them to everyone at the start, before diving into project business. This applies to both virtual and face-to-face meetings. In fact, it's even more crucial when people can't see each other and can't pick up on body language.

Why are you having a meeting? What's the point of your meeting? Unless this is clearly understood by all the participants, you are likely to find that there will be as many un-stated purposes as there are people at the meeting.

What are the outcomes - what will change as a result of the meeting or workshop? What goals will be met by the end?

What about the agenda - is it clear what's going to happen when? Of course, if you need to be flexible to stay 'to the point' - that's fine too. Just make sure that everyone knows what’s happening and agrees the changes.

Who is going to do what in your meeting? What roles are required - from time keeper, to facilitator, to recording actions?

How will everyone work together? People's expectations can vary a lot, and meeting styles differ - especially if people are from different organisations or departments. In some places, for example, it is considered quite acceptable for people to have open laptops during meetings, checking emails when they get bored. Elsewhere this is very discourteous. It's worth clarifying these ground rules upfront. How can people raise issues - can they do this anonymously? How will the group take decisions?

All of these will take a short while at the start of your meeting but will save time lots of time later. So, try applying these points to your next meeting from the start.

About the author

Penny Pullan is a professional facilitator and project manager, who runs her own company, Making Projects Work.
www.makingprojectswork.co.uk

December 2007