A meeting of minds: how clever conversations underpin great project management

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Meetings may often seem like a waste of time, yet new research suggests that they are essential part of effective project management. The problem is not the meetings, but what people say in them. Get that right; facilitate common understanding between team members, and project success follows.

4 min read

MissonierStéphanie Missonier is a professor of IT Strategy & IS Governance, and Project Management. Her interests focus on project management and understanding the reasons for project failure and trouble.

For many employees meetings are the bane of organizational life. They drain enthusiasm and engagement, waste time, are poorly organized, unproductive, disruptive, and in many cases unnecessary. Yet recent research by three HEC Lausanne academics, casts meetings in a different light. For Stefano Mastrogiacomo, Stéphanie Missonier and Riccardo Bonazzi, meetings are where the conversational glue that binds people together in common purpose and understanding takes place. Without the common ground created and re-established at meetings, projects become almost impossible to manage without major problems emerging.

Just when everyone seems to be on the same page the project manager discovers some people are reading from a different script entirely.

As most managers will confirm, projects rarely run smoothly. Whether it’s a major infrastructure contract or a small department initiative, just when everyone seems to be on the same page the project manager discovers some people are reading from a different script entirely. Such unwelcome discoveries are called coordination surprises, the researchers explain. It’s this lack of shared understanding that can easily derail projects.

Mastrogiacomo and his colleagues have a solution. It involves meetings, conversation, and adapting some psycholinguistic concepts to the world of project management. Effective coordination among stakeholders is vital to the success of any project and this largely depends on “what everyone knows everyone else knows”. To maintain a sufficient level of “who knows who knows what” is a challenging task when people collaborate on activities involving significant uncertainty, extreme time constraints, and where capabilities and culture are not necessarily shared.

The ground that projects are founded on moves. Project information constantly evolves under the pressures of changing requirements, shifting roles, the need to integrate new constraints or participants, or the emergence of new risks.

This is where the ideas of Herbert Clark, a psycholinguist and professor of psychology at Stanford University in the US can help. For Clark, meaning and understanding emerge from conversation as a collaborative and interactive process between the participants.

To assure effective coordination, people need to create and maintain a sufficient level of common ground.

Likewise, projects are a series of joint activities where effective coordination of participants is vital to performance. To assure effective coordination, and thus avoid coordination problems, people need to create and maintain a sufficient level of common ground – the set of knowledge, beliefs, and suppositions people believe they share, i.e. “what everyone knows everyone else knows”. Problems arise when team members discover common ground breakdowns; for example, when A believes that B has the appropriate information but it’s not the case. Cracks in the common ground quickly become fault lines, leading to misunderstanding and eventually poor project performance.

Finding common ground

Much of the interaction underpinning common ground occurs in project conversations. So the authors created a tool to help detect and fix issues likely to impede coordination and undermine common ground during project meetings.

They started with four requirements of joint purpose identified by Clark – identification, ability, willingness, and mutual belief – and mapped them onto a set of four variables that allow project managers to assess the state of the common ground shared by project participants. Joint objectives are what the participants intend to achieve together. Joint resources are the resources needed and available to meet objectives. Joint risks are obstacles that could prevent participants from playing their part. Joint commitments are what participants expect each other to do. Clark’s requirement of mutual belief became the setting in which project managers must manage the four variables – project conversations.

4-488x1024Coopilot is also available as an app. » Learn more

The result is a practical tool for project managers called Coopilot (for COOrdination PILOT) in the form of two cards. One card describes the four variables. The project manager uses the other card as a prompt in meetings to detect and, if necessary, repair common ground on a particular variable. Are joint objectives clear or unclear for everyone? Are joint commitments between team members implicit or explicit? Is there a shared view of the level of resources available or unavailable and the risks involved?

If a lack of common ground becomes apparent to the project manager, the card contains questions for each variable they can use as a catalyst to find common ground.

The cards were tested in three project situations: a strategic project in an international aid organization; a data warehousing project in a Swiss insurance company; and a strategic project in a wristwatch manufacturer. The project managers involved were well acquainted with the concept of coordination surprise, whether an unexpected change in project scope, or fluctuating levels of commitment from project stakeholders.

Coopilot made a big difference. During the four month evaluation period, none of the project managers encountered a major coordination surprise, and they all agreed that Coopilot helped them to discover and manage potential common ground breakdowns. The benefits of using Coopilot included: being able to identify which variable was a problem and knowing how to respond; increased motivation and better clarity among team members; and improved productivity during and between meetings. All the project managers asked if they could continue with Coopilot, even requesting extra copies of the cards to give to team members, and other teams and departments.

As for meetings; Coopilot allowed the project managers to see meetings in a new light. It wasn’t the meetings that were at fault. The problem was what people were saying during these meetings. Get that right, projects stay on track, and the value of meetings becomes obvious.


Read the original research paper: Talk Before It’s Too Late: Reconsidering The Role Of Conversation In Information Systems project management, Stefano Mastrogiacomo, Stéphanie Missonier and Riccardo Bonazzi, Faculty of Business and Economics of the University of Lausanne (HEC Lausanne).


Featured image from the book The Lords of Management by Stefano Mastrogiacomo and Pierre Sindelar