Technical Projects:

Eating the Elephant One Bite at a Time, pt. I

By Elizabeth English


Published July 9, 2015


No Jitter / SCTC Perspectives




Getting smart about how you use your meeting time can have a real impact on efficiency and the success of technical projects.


We've all been held captive in meetings that should have lasted 30 minutes but instead dragged on for several hours while technical issues were hashed out in excruciating detail between two team members. You've also likely been in a meeting where one person sidetracks progress by launching onto a soapbox of issues relevant only to his or her department. Perhaps you've attended meetings for which team members have not adequately prepared status updates, thus hijacking and diverting the meeting into a black hole while the rest of attendees are reduced to observing work that should have been completed outside of the meeting.


With technical projects, team members from multiple divisions and disciplines are typically brought together into one meeting designated for reviewing project status, addressing larger issues, and communicating plans.

A common question among project managers has long been, "How do you eat an elephant?" Well, the answer is one bite at a time. When embarking on complex technical projects, this proverb can be seen as analogous to the concept of breaking up projects into smaller, more digestible pieces. One element of this is to establish meeting efficiency by putting into play the concept of having two different types of meetings: status and working meetings. These two types should take place separately, and each type should have distinct purposes.


Keeping Status Meetings on Point

Status meetings involve most or all project team members and are earmarked for exchanging information that all project teams need. To keep status meetings productive:

  • Use status meetings to convey overall project status and important issues such as upcoming deadlines or changes in the project time line, focus, strategic direction, or priorities.

  • Ensure linkages between different sub-teams are communicated. If one team has a deliverable that is an input for another team, status meetings are for ensuring all teams are aware of the statuses of their predecessors and dependencies.

  • Direct team members to complete work prior to the status meeting so that each attendee is ready to present brief status updates.

  • If you have a room full of people, a good rule of thumb is that any conversation that takes place should be relevant to at least 80% of participants.

  • If during a status meeting, a discussion becomes detailed or limited to only a few people, it should be tabled and addressed at a later working meeting.


Optimizing Working Meetings

Working meetings are generally used for two or more team members to complete project tasks or dive deep on issues within a sub-team or between sub-teams. Here are a few points to note:

  • Working meetings should produce outputs and deliverables, with updates on these elements later provided during status meetings.

  • Working teams may meet regularly throughout the duration of a project, gather ad hoc, or simply assemble as often as is necessary -- even if that is only once.

  • If a particularly visible department needs a platform to be heard, have a few key players hold a working meeting to incorporate each other's input first so that time spent discussing the issue during the larger status meeting is minimized.


Don't Try to Eat the Elephant in One Bite

Let's use the example of converting an enterprise-wide, 50+location, multi-division company with legacy PBXs to a new hosted UC system. The various teams that might be represented on such a project include: networking, carrier services, purchasing, vendor, vendor PM, client PM, facilities, purchasing/procurement, construction trades, and telecom/IT implementation. Getting everyone from these diverse groups in a room (or on a conference call) on a weekly basis to address issues would be like trying to eat the elephant in one bite. Results would be hit or miss, with progress in some areas but none in others, most likely resulting in project delays, frustrated team members, and unhappy stakeholders.


Using the status/working meetings concept, appropriate working meetings might be:

  • The carrier services team is responsible for ordering and tracking carrier services both globally and on a site-by-site basis.

  • The network team is responsible for determining global and local network requirements. Members identify network hardware requirements for each site and advise the carrier services team on what needs to be ordered on the carrier side. 

  • Project management and contracted vendor meetings would be reserved for the client PM to sync up with the vendor and/or vendor PM to address and resolve contract and vendor issues.

  • Contact center working groups would include client PM, contact center stakeholders, and vendor contact center designers.

  • Key player meeting(s) would address the needs of high-visibility departments.

  • Site conversion meetings would be established for each individual site being converted. The site conversion team for each site would focus on issues related to that site, but would bring their knowledge from participating on other teams, such as networking and carrier services. As an example, for a project converting one site per week, there could be three site conversion working meetings each week: one for the site that is scheduled for the next cutover, one for the second site in line for conversion, and another for the third in line.


The lead member of each working team would then represent the group at global status meetings and report on issues from sub-team meetings.


Much in the same manner that tasks are divided up in a work structure breakdown, meeting efficiency is created by applying project management principles and separating meetings into working and status types. Meeting efficiency, in turn, makes the proverbial elephant more digestible. 


"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communication technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.