By Benedict Pinches

Those of you who know me are aware of my dislike of conference calls. The great digital revolution has brought many good things, but being stuck at the end of a hot ‘phone for three hours while you struggle to hear Carla from Boston is not one of them.

I remember Rory Sutherland from Ogilvy Group speaking at the Wired Conference in 2011 when he said that companies had got the promotion of teleconferencing wrong. Instead of flagging up the cost savings a Company would make by clamping down on business flights, Company Directors should have made the adoption and invitation to a teleconference an aspirational thing. Perhaps adopting this approach might have made teleconference attendees feel a little less like second-class citizens, deemed ‘not worthy’ of frequent flyer airmiles, and a little more like valued participants exploring an important subject. This in turn might have focussed our attention a bit more on engaging processes and ‘teleconference etiquette’ (like not turning up mid way through the call). Maybe. I just know that I have found tele and video conferences much more difficult methods of engaging team members and other stakeholders than traditional face-to-face meetings.

I was having dinner last night with a friend who agrees with me. Tim works for a company with a strong tradition of supporting home working, initially as a way of reducing costly property overheads, but as the head of a large programme he has insisted that his core team of project managers co-habit an open plan office space and report in at least four days a week. He made the point that project managers being paid six-figure salaries with multiple suppliers and consultants reporting into them are unable to perform properly without being ‘on the ground’ with the ability to look into the whites of their teams eyes. Despite initial grumbling, the initiative has worked and there appears to be a genuine programme culture emerging that cuts across the usual tribalism – no small feat when so many different organisations with different agendas are involved.

At a minimum, Programme Review Meetings should be held face to face wherever humanly possible. Tracking progress across a number of projects and business-as-usual operations is notoriously difficult and prone to failure at the best of times, so why increase this risk by giving your workstream leads the option to hide behind a computer screen or telephone?

A start-up that I worked for at the turn of the century (God – that makes me feel old) asked themselves this question and arrived at a simple but effective solution. The company had an aggressive timeline to reach IPO, and with complicated technical projects interfacing with sales and product initiatives there was a strong emphasis on communication. I was responsible for the Programme Management Office (PMO), and pushed to have weekly Programme Review Meetings so that we could keep on top of the fast developing situation. The Programme Director asked me to book out the newly built Board Room for these meetings, and insisted that all the project managers and workstream leads attend in person rather than sending deputies or conferencing in.

I remember thinking that this was a bit draconian, but my opinion quickly changed when I saw how it affected progress. The reporting slidepack that we asked the project managers to present was a simple one – progress for the week, actions for next week, a financial table, risk updates and issues for escalation. They were requested to stick to these five slides, and keep their presentations to no more than 10 minutes. What happened was that project managers openly challenged their peers’ bland assertions that projects were ‘on track’, and clearly stated dependencies and issues that needed resolving by the management team. The meetings were not always comfortable and I know several individuals who used to dread attending them, but the process ensured that reporting cover-ups were reduced and people worked hard behind the scenes to ensure that their colleagues supported their weekly report presentations. This behaviour would not have happened if the meetings had occurred in a virtual environment, and I believe the process was a large contributor to the overall success of the programme.

Of course, the process also increased the level of conflict across the organisation and there were times when the meetings appeared to be chaotic and out of control. Voices were often raised and tempers flared as hard-working project managers were forced to justify their lack of action on a particular issue. The Programme Director, coming from a professional sporting background, relished this combative atmosphere and we became like referees at a high stakes tag team wrestling match.
There has been much written about the creative power of chaos and conflict (see ‘Virtuoso Teams’), and I’m convinced that cold business efficiency and measured communication can only deliver part of the prize. Sometimes you’ve just got to get up close and personal.