January 01, 2006
Jan Means and Tammy Adams
Project Managers often find themselves in a frenzy trying to get the necessary project documentation created and approved. Documentation such as Project Charters, Rules of Engagement, Business Requirements, Risk Analyses, and other deliverables involve iterative cycles of information gathering, decision making, reviews and approvals by multiple parties in order to finalize each deliverable.
This often results in multiple meetings to address different parts of the deliverable. These meetings are the breeding ground for confusion, redundancy and waste. Decisions get made but not documented or worse, are never communicated to those not at the meeting. Inaccurate information is never corrected. Tasks are repeated by different people, sometimes with differing results. Communication and directional changes occur haphazardly.
Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to reduce the number of meetings this effort requires and still produce the required deliverables? There is – facilitated work sessions. Facilitated work sessions can accelerate creation of project deliverables, contribute to deliverable quality, and ensure early ownership of results.
What is a Facilitated Work Session?
As the Chinese proverb says, “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”
Facilitated work sessions are collaborative group meetings that bring relevant business, technical and support groups together and guide them through a structured process to produce a specific project output or deliverable. These working sessions can range from ½ to 3 days in length, and combine the creativity and mind-power of multiple perspectives. The participants make key project decisions and produce outputs based on mutual understanding and discovery.
Bringing those with a stake in the project together to hear the same thing, understand and build project direction, make decisions and review results will reduce the end-to-end project timeline. The sequential steps necessary to work with multiple people become concurrent, thus accelerating the project.
But that’s not all. When the relevant groups are brought together in work sessions early in the project (when planning, scoping and requirements are defined), the folks who will use the information to design, code, test or build have been involved in the process early enough to understand the intent and head off potential pitfalls later in the project. This increases the quality of the output, reducing downstream rework.
Common Types of Facilitated Work Sessions
Every organization names their project phases and deliverables to fit their culture; however there are standard deliverable that are required by most projects (regardless what they’re called). These standard deliverables are key opportunities for the use of facilitated work sessions.
- Project Charter: Bringing the extended team together to define project scope, establish the project purpose and objectives, and lay the foundation for a common understanding of the plan moving forward.
- Current & Target Environment Definition: Bringing subject matter experts together to understand how work is currently accomplished and define the target environment context and processes.
- Business Requirements: Getting the suppliers, business users and support teams together to define what is required of the organization, process and technology in order to implement the solution.
- Risk Assessment: Working with key stakeholders to identify project, business, process, product/service, and customer risks – defining mitigating actions and contingency plans as appropriate.
- Work-in-Progress Status: Bringing the extended team together at key points in the project to understand the team’s progress on deliverables and interdependencies that were previously hidden.
These work sessions create a shared understanding of the project impacts and risks, and serve as inputs or checkpoints for the next steps in the project lifecycle.
Will Work Sessions Help Me?
Bringing people together (in many cases face-to-face) involves a commitment of time, resources and ultimately cost. So each project should be assessed to determine if the value gained will justify the cost incurred. How do you know if your project would benefit from facilitated work sessions?
We’ve analyzed the projects we have worked on with our clients to determine which ones gained the most value from formal facilitated work sessions. Some common characteristics exist. If your project meets one or more of the following criteria, you will get great value from bringing people together to collaboratively build project deliverables.
- Your project crosses multiple lines of business or multiple departments within the business.
- Your project is tied to a critical timeline that allows little or no slippage.
- Your project is one of the top ten strategic initiatives of the company or division.
- Your project is attempting to accomplish something that is new or resurrecting something that was tried before and was unsuccessful.
- Your project will result in changes that require broad socialization or group consensus.
- Your project requires input of experts who are unavailable to participate full-time (or on a regular basis) with your project team.
- You’re experiencing scope creep or having difficulty getting a clear definition of requirements from the team.
- You’re operating in a geographically-dispersed project environment.
Conversely, if your project scope is small and requirements are relatively uncomplicated in nature, or the project is not following a critical timeline, is less visible from a strategic viewpoint, or is something you’ve done over and over again, and you have a relatively small team who are co-located, then facilitated work sessions may not bring as much benefit to your project.
What About the Facilitator?
Obviously facilitated work sessions require a “facilitator”. This is not just a “show up and we’ll figure it out” type of encounter. The facilitator will must have some specialized skills. At a minimum this person must be able to:
- Allow the team to discuss, discover and decide without taking dictating the result.
- Manage complex group dynamics – difficult people, getting off topic, strong opinions, etc.
- Structure group activities to achieve the desired objectives.
- Set aside their other “hats” and serve as a neutral process guide.
- andle challenges to the process and/or agenda without taking it personally.
- Understand the required deliverables/output and explain it to the team.
Tune in to upcoming newsletters for more articles on this topic…
Summing It Up
Will facilitated work sessions accelerate your project? For large, cross-organizational projects – absolutely. It is especially beneficial when trying to create standard project deliverables like Project Charters, Business Requirements, etc.
Do all projects require this type of formalized collaboration? Not necessarily. Smaller projects will still benefit from the communication and foundation built through work sessions, but a specialized facilitator may not be required.
It is our hope that you use these concepts to 1) justify the need for and cost of larger group working sessions, and 2) determine when facilitated work sessions make the most sense in your project. And always take into consideration the thought expressed by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in her book “The Change Masters”, “Change is disturbing when it is done to us, exhilarating when it is done by us.”
Jan Means and Tammy Adams, “Facilitating the Project Lifecycle: Skills & Tools to Accelerate Progress for Project Managers, Facilitators and Six Sigma Project Teams”. Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 2005.
Rosabeth Moss Kanter, The Change Masters.New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983, page 63.