03 August 2009

Dealing With a Project Team That is Carrying Out Too Many Interviews

In a recent post I outlined eight signs that are leading indicators for a project that can be expected not to reach its goals and targets in a timely manner. This post will highlight how best to deal with the third of these signs, a project team is spending a lot of time carrying out "interviews".

Why is this a problem? This does not have to be a problem, as there are projects that require collecting information from a wide range of people (internal and external) in the form of interviews. However, I have often seen this becoming a problem, because it often is a symptom of a team that is avoiding getting to the conclusion phase of the project. An example of this is a project I carried out for a large utility, where a project team had missed numerous deadlines, and always with the reason that they needed to carry out more interviews. After talking to the team members, it was clear that they were very uncomfortable with the overall goals of the project and the recommendations that they need to deliver (i.e. improving the effectiveness of a process and being able to do things with less people and costs). In addition, the team had to choose where to situate certain activities. This put the team in a very difficult political situation, and it was unable to "bite the bullet" and make the required choice that would, by definition, make some people unhappy.
If this type of situation is left unchecked, it is almost guaranteed that the project team will not make its milestones and key deadlines. In fact, the most likely reason that you as a project sponsor are reading this blog-post is that the a team carrying out a crucial project has already missed deadlines. In addition, the chance that the project team will come up with meaningful conclusions and recommendations is also fairly small as fear related to this is what is driving the excessive interviews.
What can you do if you believe that one of your teams is using this tactic to avoid moving towards meaningful conclusions? The first action you need to take is to check the original project-plan to sanity-check whether the number of interviews being carried out makes sense. If you are still uncomfortable, you then need to talk to the team about why they are doing all the interviews. In this process you should force the team to show you the goal of each meeting/interview that has been carried out and those that are still in the planning phase.
If you at this stage still have doubts about the validity of the interviews, you will need to revisit the background and goals of the project and reinforce the requirement to the team to come up with strong, focused, and structured conclusions and recommendations. You will also need to explain to the team that meeting agreed deadlines is a key part of the commitment that they have made to the overall project. You will also probably need to give the team a "level of comfort" that they will never be able to collect 100% of the data and information that they theoretically would like to have, and that you (and the rest of the stakeholders) trust them to do well with the time and resources that they have.
Finally, it is likely that you will need to help the team to develop a structured plan for carrying out the interviews and other data-gathering activities that you have agreed are required within the available time. It will need to be a judgment call from your side whether it is possible and/or required to give the team more time to carry out these activities. The final recommendation to you as the sponsor is to closely follow-up on the team as they move forward, as it is unlikely that their wish to avoid unpleasant conclusions and recommendations has disappeared.

Using the process described above, I was able to help/force the team at the utility company to develop overall conclusions and meet the final agreed deadlines. Follow the links if you are interested in more information on project planning or project management training.

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