You've had it. You've been leaving voicemails and emails for your
customer about decisions you need made that are holding up your
delivery of her project. You've even tried to catch her in the hall
to no avail. Today, you are copied on an email from this customer
to her executive sponsor explaining that the project is slipping
because you are behind on your deliverable.
What would you do? Think quickly about the first three actions you
would take. Here are some common actions:
- Call her or email her immediately leaving a strong, angry
message making it clear that you have been waiting for her and that
she is the reason the project is late.
- Ask her to tell her executive sponsor the truth--that you do
not have what you need to proceed.
- Send her a copy of every email you have sent to her, and cc:
the executive sponsor.
- Go immediately to your boss, and ask for help defusing the
- Go to lunch with your friends and bemoan the fact that you have
such an insane client.
- Look for a new job.
Before talking about the best solution, let's look at some facts
about the situation:
- You are under pressure and your customer is under pressure. In
a stressed state, people don't always think clearly, understand
each other, or say what they mean.
- Your piece of the project cannot be successful without your
customer. She cannot be successful without your help. The company
can't be successful if the project falls apart.
Now let's look at the same situation from a couple of different
- It is possible that she thinks your requests for decisions are
diabolical tactics to distract her from your inability to deliver
your project outcomes. This may have happened to her before.
- What else could you have done with the project when it became
clear that you were not getting what you needed? Were there interim
milestones that could have been worked on? Were there other people
who could have helped with the requirements?
- Most importantly, what could you have done (and do now) to make
your customer look good AND meet your project goals successfully?
In the heat of the moment, it is pretty hard to get your thoughts
around how to make that crazy person look good. But there are
strong, logical reasons that require just that.
Let's look at it from an ROI perspective. There are two high-level
OPTION 1: The conflict escalates, and both of you spend more and
more time trying to catch the other one screwing up, while making
negligible progress on the project. Your conflict adds 30 percent
overhead to the already late project. The project is delayed and
over budget. Clearly this approach, though normal, is insane.
OPTION 2: You find a way to provide her with a "safe bridge to
retreat over" and help create a collaborative way to get the
project back on track. This collaborative approach brings you the
visibility you need to show you are a team player, and that she is
as well. Not only is the project more successful, but you have
built an ally for future projects as well.
There is no place where the collaborative approach's benefits show
up more clearly than in project meetings. Think about your typical
day at work. Think about how much time you spend in meetings each
day. Assume you go to one one-hour meeting a day, which takes up
roughly 12 percent of your work day. That means that 12 percent of
labor dollars in companies is spent in meetings.
The news is still full of stories about companies continuing to cut
headcount to hit the numbers. Labor is a giant number on a balance
sheet and the obvious target when tough economic choices are
required. What if that number could be reduced by more effective
meetings instead of cutting headcount? Reduced labor costs would
occur by learning a better way
- Choosing meetings more wisely, including eliminating meetings
that should really be one-on-one sessions or email reviews.
- Reducing the redundant and frustrating habit of revisiting the
same issues over and over again at multiple meetings.
- Getting the right people to the meetings completely prepared
instead of spending time catching people up.
- Increasing each participant's ability to not just listen but
- Increasing each participant's ability to collaborate toward a
common business goal.
There are multiple businesses in town whose staff comes to work
each day and mindlessly go to the meetings that appear on their
Outlook calendars. Other people have put these meetings on their
calendars, and often, they don't even know why they were invited.
They shuffle off to the meeting, and then shuffle off to the next
meeting listed in their Blackberry. They are unprepared and
If you think this pattern sounds like a workplace performance gap,
you are right. When was the last time you really invested in good
meeting behaviors and tracked the improvement? What if you treated
meeting competency the way you treat Sarbanes-Oxley compliance?
You can't just eliminate meetings. One post project review I
facilitated for a very large project revealed that good meetings
were the number one activity that improved the project's success.
Not surprisingly, the bad meetings were what most screwed up the
In The Inner Game of Work, Tim Galway takes the same
theories he uses to teach people golf and tennis, and refocuses
them on work. His strategy is simple: to slow down meetings and
self-talk so that people really hear each other. He asks his
clients to notice how much time transpires between speakers at a
meeting. The more silence, the more effective the meeting.
If people are constantly cutting each other off or jumping into the
conversation when the first speaker is barely done, they haven't
had time to think through what was said or to come up with an
appropriate response. Chances are they have been rehearsing what
they were going to say inside their heads instead of listening.
This behavior causes redundancy from circular conversations.
On an individual level, you can maximize your personal investment
in project meetings by:
- Blocking 30 minutes between each meeting to prepare/summarize.
- Know what you want the outcome to be when you call a meeting
and who can really help you get that outcome.
- Leave every meeting with a list of actions, owners, and due
- Notice your self-talk--catch yourself rehearsing what you are
going to say and keep returning your focus to the speaker. If
necessary, quickly note what you want to say so you can get back to
- Before you ask a question, check your motives. Are you speaking
so people will notice you, or to trip up the speaker, or do you
have an authentic question?
- Be clear with others about what you need from them. Do you need
them to be aware, or do you need them to state an opinion?
When tired, stressed, or rushed people work on projects, it becomes
too easy to ramble and digress in a meeting or drop quickly into
conflict. But companies do not have time or money to waste.
Remember that insanity in project responsiveness, whether in
meetings or in delivery of work, is a given in today's business
climate. Instead of fighting it, consider looking for new ways to
2006 ASTD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.