Research on team development confirms what we have heard from project managers: The first project team meeting is critical to the early functioning of the project team. According to one veteran project manager:
The first team meeting sets the tone for how the team will work together. If it is disorganized, or becomes bogged down with little sense of closure, then this can often become a self-fulfilling prophecy for subsequent group work.
On the other hand, if the team meeting is crisply run, focusing on real issues and concerns in an honest and straightforward manner, members come away excited about being part of the project team.
There are typically three objectives project managers try to achieve during the first team meeting of the project team. The first is to provide an overview of the project, including the scope and objectives, the general schedule, method, and procedures.
The second is to begin to address some of the interpersonal concerns captured in the team development model:
- Who are the other team members?
- How will I fit in?
- Will I be able to work with these people?
The third and most important objective is to begin to model how the team is going to work together to complete the project. The project manager must recognize that first impressions are important; her behavior will be carefully monitored and interpreted by team members. This team meeting should serve as an exemplary role model for subsequent meetings and reflect the leader’s style.
The team meeting itself comes in a variety of shapes and forms. It is not uncommon in major projects for the kick-off team meeting to involve one or two days, often at a remote site away from interruptions. This retreat provides sufficient time for preliminary introduction, to begin to establish ground rules, and to define the structure of the project. One advantage of off-site kick-off team meetings is that they provide ample opportunity for informal interaction among members during breaks, meals, and evening activities; such informal interactions are critical to forming relationships.
However, many organizations do not have the luxury of holding a team meeting at elaborate retreats. In other cases the scope of project and level of involvement of different participants does not warrant such an investment of time. In these cases, the key operating principle should be KISS (keep it simple stupid!). Too often when constrained by time, project managers try to accomplish too much during the first team meeting; in doing so, issues do not get fully resolved, and members come away with an information headache.
The primary goal is to run a productive team meeting, and objectives should be realistic given the time available. If the team meeting is only one hour, then the project manager should simply review the scope of the project, discuss how the team was formed, and provide an opportunity for members to introduce themselves to the team.
Establishing Team Meeting Ground Rules
Whether as part of an elaborate first team meeting or during follow-up meetings, the project manager must quickly begin to establish operational ground rules for how the team will work together. These ground rules involve not only organizational and procedural issues but also normative issues on how the team will interact with each other. Although specific procedures will vary across organizations and projects, some of the major issues that need to be addressed include the following:
Planning Team Meeting Decisions
- How will the project plan be developed?
- What tools will be used to support the project?
- Will a specific project management software package be used? If so, which one?
- Who will enter the planning information?
- What are the specific roles and responsibilities of all the participants?
- Who needs to be informed of decisions? How will they be kept informed?
- What are the relative importance of cost, time, and performance?
- What are the deliverables of the project planning process?
- What format is appropriate for each deliverable?
- Who will approve and sign off at the completion of each deliverable?
- Who receives each deliverable?
Tracking Team Meeting Decisions
- How will progress be assessed?
- At what level of detail will the project be tracked?
- How will team members get data from each other?
- How often will they get this data?
- Who will generate and distribute reports?
- Who needs to be kept informed about project progress, and how will they be informed?
- What content/format is appropriate for each audience?
- Team Meetings
- Where will meetings be located?
- What kind of meetings will be held?
- Who will “run” these meetings?
- How will agendas be produced?
- How will information be recorded?
Managing Change Decisions
- How will changes be instituted?
- Who will have change approval authority?
- How will plan changes be documented and evaluated?
- What department or organizations will the team need to interact with during the project?
- What are the roles and responsibilities of each organization (reviewer, approver, creator, user)?
- How will all involved parties be kept informed of deliverables, schedule dates, expectations, etc.?
- How will the team members communicate among themselves?
- What information will and won’t be exchanged?
Checklists like these are only a guide; items should be added or deleted as needed. Many of these procedures will have already been established by precedent and will only have to be briefly reviewed.
For example, Microsoft Project or Primavera may be the standard software tool for planning and tracking. Likewise, a specific firm is likely to have an established format for reporting status information. How to deal with other issues will have to be determined by the project team.
When appropriate, the project manager should actively solicit input from the project team members and draw upon their experience and preferred work habits. This process also contributes to their buying into the operational decisions. Decisions should be recorded and circulated to all members.
During the course of establishing these operational procedures, the project manager, through word and deed, should begin working with members to establish the norms for team interaction. Below are examples of some of the norms researchers have found associated with high-performance teams.
- Confidentiality is maintained; no information is shared outside the team unless all agree to it.
- It is acceptable to be in trouble, but it is not acceptable to surprise others. Tell others immediately when deadlines or milestones will not be reached.
- There is zero tolerance for bulling a way through a problem or an issue.
- Agree to disagree, but when a decision has been made, regardless of personal feelings, move forward.
- Respect outsiders, and do not flaunt one’s position on the project team.
- Hard work does not get in the way of having fun.
One way of making these norms more tangible is by creating a team charter that goes beyond the scope statement of the project and states in explicit terms the norms and values of the team. This charter should be a collaborative effort on the part of the core team. Project managers can lead by proposing certain tenets, but they need to be open to suggestions from the team. Once there is general agreement to the rules of conduct, each member signs the final document to symbolize commitment to the principles it contains.
Unfortunately, in some cases charters become a meaningless ritual because the charter is signed and filed away, never to be discussed again. To have a lasting effect, the charter has to be a legitimate part of the project monitoring system. Just as the team reviews progress toward project objectives, the team assesses the extent to which members are adhering to the principles in the charter.
Project managers play a major role in establishing team norms through personal example. If they freely admit mistakes and share what they have learned from them, other team members will begin to do the same. At the same time, project managers need to intervene when they believe such norms are being violated. They should talk to offenders privately and clearly state their expectations.
The amazing thing about groups is that once a group is cohesive, with well-established norms, the members will police themselves so that the manager doesn’t have to be the heavy.
For example, one project manager confided that his team had a practice of having a small bean bag present at every meeting. If any one member felt that a colleague was shooting hot air or shading the truth, he or she was obligated to toss the bean bag at the speaker.
Managing Subsequent Project Meetings
The project kick-off team meeting is one of several kinds of meetings required to complete a project. Other meetings include status report meetings, problem-solving meetings, and audit meetings. Issues unique to these meetings will be discussed in subsequent chapters. For now, here are some general guidelines for running effective meetings. They speak directly to the person chairing the team meeting:
- Start team meetings on time regardless of whether everyone is present.
- Prepare and distribute an agenda prior to the team meeting.
- Identify an adjournment time.
- Periodically take time to review how effective previous meetings have been.
- Solicit recommendations and implement changes.
- Assign good record keeping.
- Review the agenda before beginning, and tentatively allocate time for each item.
- Prioritize issues so that adjustments can be made given time constraints.
- Encourage active participation of all members by asking questions instead of making statements.
- Summarize decisions, and review assignments for the next team meeting.
- Prepare and distribute a summary of the team meeting to appropriate people.
- Recognize accomplishments and positive behavior.
Team meetings are often considered an anathema to productivity, but this does not have to be the case. The most common complaint is that meetings last too long.
Establishing an agenda and adjournment time helps participants budget discussion time and provides a basis for expediting the proceedings. Record keeping can be an unwelcome, tedious task. Utilizing laptop computers to record decisions and information in real time can facilitate the communication process. Careful preparation and consistent application of these guidelines can make meetings a vital part of projects.