Gaining Perspective Through Project Assessment Meetings

In rigid agile frameworks such as scrum a sprint review isn’t just a good idea, it’s required.  In this meeting the team reviews the product’s progress and captures feedback used to lock in existing work and develop new work.  It’s a great technique and when scrum can be followed precisely it adds a lot of value to the process.But what about those projects that are conducted using a hybrid methodology?  Not every project is an ideal setting for using agile methodology.  Agile principles still get pulled into the projects, but sometimes the rigidity of agile structure is left behind.One technique I apply is conducting a Project Assessment Meeting.  Now, let’s be clear.  I’m not a fan of meetings that have no purpose.  This isn’t just a nice way to spend time, it’s opportunity for learning.  Project Managers can easily get focused on task management and start missing their perspective on delivering value to the client.The purpose of the Project Assessment Meeting is to create a dialogue that helps restore that perspective.  At appropriate intervals I’ll ask to meet with a client (Product Owner) and discuss in general terms their perspective of the project.  I find it best to ask open-ended questions that encourage them to respond in a story-telling format.

When you tell the story of this project to others what are the highlights?How do you describe the project’s progress?What was the biggest struggle for the team since we last met?

From the responses to these questions I can generally get an understanding of the challenges facing the client and how they see the project.  Because they’re open-ended it requires me to do a lot of active listening helping to create an environment of trust and openness.I use the responses from these questions to ask for more poignant details.  My follow-up questions are designed to seek out successes, obstacles, and bottlenecks.  I look for successes because the PMs that I work with are extremely passionate about delivering a quality product.  They want to hear unbiased feedback that the client has seen that value.Next I look for obstacles.  I believe the that the single largest responsibility of a leader (after make decisions and accept risk) is to remove obstacles.  The world would be a better place if every leader saw their day-to-day as a fight to remove obstacles from the teams they lead.  I’m looking for those obstacles with the project and work with all the stakeholders to develop techniques and practices to remove those obstacles.The final clues I’m looking for involve bottlenecks.  Bottlenecks are natural consequences of a production cycle.  They’re not inherently bad.  They are inherently powerful.  Recognizing and controlling a bottleneck allows the production to focus on increasing their throughput and focus their attention where it matters most.In many cases some of the junior clients we’ve worked with prioritize their backlog based upon features they have a personal investment in.  One way to tell if a client uses this prioritization method is if the priorities shift often during the project.  When the system for determining business value (priority) is based upon interest it can change quickly.  These backlogged features may or may not be items that increase the throughput of their workflow.  In this situation, I’ll take the time to help the client identify their bottlenecks and discuss them with their team as a neutral and natural consequence–not a failure of any particular team member or workstation.  Next I’ll introduce them to the theory of constraints and coach them in applying this theory in their environment.At the end of the conversation I follow-up with an email to our stakeholders thanking them for meeting, documenting what was discussed, and offering encouragement going forward.I don’t like meetings that don’t have a purpose.  The intent behind this meeting is to establish an environment where information is exchanged that helps the project team maintain their perspective on the project’s purpose.  I find that in-person meetings are a highly productive method for helping the project team maintain this perspective.