Projects are not kindergarten: tips and tricks for project coordination

Peter Burghardt06/27/2019

Project coordination... what is that exactly? And is it really necessary? So, you know those status meetings where the project manager wants to know how far everyone has come with their work, who’s doing what and what comes next? These are usually really long meetings with a ton of people. Pretty soon, you start wondering if these meetings actually hurt productivity more than help it.

I should have become a kindergarten teacher

You assume that project team members are capable of coordinating themselves and making sure that the project is moving along and everyone’s doing what they should be. As a rule of thumb, this is true. Yet projects are becoming more complex and harder for any one person to keep track of. Complex projects generally require more staff, which makes the actual coordination even more difficult. And then oftentimes there are the line activities, which conflict with the project activities. That’s why you need project coordination, and it has to be done effectively and efficiently.

Let’s get one thing clear, though. As a project manager, I cannot and do not want to chase after every person in the project to make sure that he/she is doing the right thing by the right time. If I wanted to do that, I would have become a kindergarten teacher. That probably would’ve been more fun.

Getting it right from the start

You have to see if the project coordination is effective and efficient right from the outset of the project. Based on our experience, the project manager has to make sure - right from the kick-off meeting - that the project culture is designed the way it should be. It should be clear to the staff that working independently and self-reliantly is not just preferable – it's expected. That way, project coordination can be done effectively and with relatively little effort.

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Do we really need project coordination?

If you ask institutions like the IPMA or the PMI, the answer is definitely yes. If you ask the agility world, you’re more likely to get a “yes and no”-answer. Conventional project management is what it sounds like – management. And management means nothing other than telling someone what to do or not to do and when, and then checking the results afterwards. Sounds harsh, but it’s true. That’s why project coordination is necessary.

Agile methods come at this from a different perspective, relying instead on self-organized teams that are not told when to do or not to do something. The team decides on its own. But how does an agile project team coordinate itself? For one thing, they use more intensive communication within the team and institutionalized meetings, e.g. the daily standup in scrum. On the whole, agile projects take less effort to coordinate than conventional projects. The reason for this is that the granulation of the tasks is much finer and thus easier for the team to keep track of.

Efficient and effective project coordination

As already mentioned: how the project coordination will look down the road depends a lot on the project kick-off. But there are still a few tips and tricks that can help you to make your project coordination efficient.

  • Coordination meetings should take place as often as necessary. The more frequent they are, the shorter they can be. In scrum, the daily standup, as the name suggests, takes place every day, but it takes just 10 to 15 minutes. In our projects, the frequency varies depending on the project stage.
  • At any rate, the meetings should be held regularly, so that they take on an institutionalized character. Every meeting has an agenda and special topics have no place there; you can hold separate meetings for dealing with them.
  • In any case, the meetings should be timeboxed. A timebox is a fixed time frame allocated to a given activity. For meetings, this means that the start time and end time are fixed. For example, a daily standup starts every day at 9:00 AM and ends at 9:15 AM. It doesn’t matter if someone is late or if you go over all the topics thoroughly. After 15 minutes, the meeting is over. Sounds draconian, but it’s important when it comes to training self-reliant and self-organized teams. Teams like that are beneficial in non-agile projects, too.
  • If possible, avoid using virtual task boards. Task lists that are accessible from anywhere and can be used for evaluations are tempting, and, to be sure, they also make sense. But offline task boards have one unbeatable advantage – they foster communication. You can set them up before the coordination meeting and then update them right then and there. Or you go to grab a coffee, you happen to find yourself standing in front of the board and coordination just happens on its own. Ideally, the board should be put up in an openly accessible area. And what do you do with geographically dispersed teams? Simple answer: use a notebook with a webcam to broadcast the meeting.

Ask yourself, how many times you’ve been to meetings that went overtime, were unstructured or unmoderated and came to no results. Yet it doesn’t take much to create the conditions for an effective and efficient coordination meeting. With our tips and tricks, you’ll see positive changes fast.

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Peter Burghardt
Project Manager