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Conducting BI Meetings That Solve Problems
By J. René Russell, Project Manager, and Max T. Russell, Max and Max Communications
Great things are bound to happen when participants anticipate a well-executed meeting. Attendees tend to show up on time. They expect their time to be well spent, hesitate before airing irrelevant opinions, and don't fixate as much on their laptops and cell phones.
In a previous article (Managing BI Projects by Expediting Key Decisions) we explained a method of great project management for continuously expediting the next decisions. In this article, we take a close look at how any BI professional can prepare and execute meetings that solve problems.
For purposes of our discussion, let's assume that your BI staff has placed a data analyst in the accounting department. Two days later, your boss asks you to handle a complaint from the director of accounting. She says the new computers the data analyst is using "are too slow."
What five steps can you take to conduct a meeting that solves the problem?
Step 1: Clearly define the problem
The typical reaction to a new problem is to immediately call a meeting followed by more meetings. However, common issues can usually be resolved with a more calculated approach.
First, you must clearly define the problem in order to determine whether it requires a fully dedicated team and -- possibly -- numerous meetings or just simple consultation.
Especially when a problem is common but not far-reaching, subject-matter experts can be used to make fully informed decisions without impinging on colleagues' schedules when you call a meeting that everyone must attend.
Because the accounting director's complaint is not an issue you can resolve on your own, you need to assemble a team to address it. At this time, however, your job is to lay the groundwork for a future meeting that will deliver an effective solution. Regardless of your level of experience and technical expertise, you need to go through a sequential problem-solving process:
- Meet with the director to clearly define the problem she reported.
- Collect all the data you can so you understand it. You may want to take photos of the computer hardware to help your team conveniently evaluate the situation.
- Review the data and prepare a clear problem statement. It is vital to confirm it with the person driving the complaint -- the accounting director.
- Revise the statement as necessary. It will drive the meeting with the team you've selected to address the problem. Your statement might read, "The accounting director reports that the new computers IT recommended for her department 'are too slow' to handle profitability analysis."
Step 2: Measure the distance from here to there
In this step you meet with individual team members privately to determine where you are now and where you need to be. They will help determine the major questions, which might include:
- What is the data flow rate in the accounting department now and what does it need to be?
- What are the processing and memory capacities of the new computers?
- Were the computers configured properly?
- Was the right software installed and configured properly?
Ask team members to suggest known, possible solutions, then boil down these suggestions and all relevant facts to their essentials.
Round up as much support as you can in the meantime by pinpointing what the key stakeholders need for making decisions that lead to an acceptable resolution in their eyes. Stakeholders are leaders who approve budgets and operational changes but who may not be members of your team.
Suppose at this point you have received a confirmation from IT that the right computers were ordered but that they were built incorrectly by the vendor. Put this latest news with your other information and create a presentation. Review it with the appropriate key decision makers on your team and send the accounting director a proposed summary of the solution to test the waters. You might propose replacing the new computers with more powerful ones. If the accounting director buys in, your problem is half solved.
Step 3: Schedule the meeting and analyze possible solutions
The purpose of this step is to pool the latest best thinking of your team members by personally speaking with one or two of them at a time -- more than once, when necessary -- and giving them the chance to explain their ideas to you without the interruptions that often occur in a larger group.
Later, when you hold the meeting with the whole team, you'll be able to keep the focus on determining the best solution because (1) you are keeping good notes on the information you're collecting and (2) you are helping to sift through and articulate the most important information.
For now, schedule the meeting you're still preparing. Invite your team and the decision makers and stakeholders you've been talking to. If some will be off site, urge them to attend using an online meeting tool such as WebEx.
Ensure the greatest attendance by giving invitees sufficient advance notice to include the meeting on their calendars. Hold personal discussions with key decision makers to help ensure they attend. If they can't, reschedule the meeting.
Your invitations should be e-mailed and should contain the meeting agenda and the problem description. You may want to include photos of the computers. Do not include proposed solutions.
Step 4: Conduct the Meeting
In this step you reach a decision. Digitally record the meeting minutes as you go. Begin with the problem statement and carefully and vigilantly guide the discussion toward solving the problem through analysis. Proceed as follows:
1. Hand out your presentation with the problem description written at the top. If helpful, include pictures of the computer hardware and/or copies of manuals and purchase order(s).
2. Provide information about whether this problem has occurred before and, if so, to whom. How were previous occurrences solved?
3. Discuss the monetary and non-monetary costs of doing nothing to fix the problem versus the cost of fixing the problem.
4. Review the possible solutions you obtained earlier from the experts you consulted privately, and summarize them, emphasizing the crucial points, to help decision makers evaluate each option. Welcome new possibilities, noting issues and risks associated with each.
Possible solutions might include one or more of the following:
- IT will help the purchasing department handle the vendor's mistake and will assign non-BI staff to install the replacement computers
- BI staff will handle all those tasks in order to show their dedication to the in-house customer
- IT will re-order the correct hardware and install it on the computers
- IT will order more powerful processors and memory for the new computers, and the BI staff will personally install them in the accounting department; IT will help the purchasing department handle the refund and the new order
Let's say attendees have decided to go with the last solution in order to be totally certain that accounting is not disappointed again.
- Update the minutes. Include the decisions made and a task list of all action items with the associated owners and due dates. Allow the team to help revise the minutes as needed. Then review them and confirm consensus before adjourning.
- E-mail the meeting minutes to attendees immediately after the meeting -- or at least on the same day if possible. Keep your e-mail message clear and brief.
Step 5: Monitor Improvement
Good intentions are not enough. You must monitor progress of tasks against the action items agreed to during the meeting.
Suppose John in IT said he'd work with the purchasing department to get a refund from the vendor and order beefed-up hardware from that vendor. John's name should be on those two action items, along with the next steps and the date he expects to complete each task. His next actions might be (1) to schedule a conversation with someone in purchasing who can discuss the order problem with the vendor and request a refund and (2) to make sure the new order is placed correctly.
Politely follow up on John's and all other action items until the problem is resolved. Document your customer's approval at each stage, and keep your team and stakeholders apprised of the progress.
When the problem has been resolved, either conduct a short meeting or send a confirmation e-mail to document closure. Present the new results in contrast to the old. Monitor your customer's perception of the solution and make sure she's satisfied that the issue is closed.
Be Known for Holding Meetings That Matter
The business world wastes enormous amounts of time and money on meetings that dissolve into chaotic, meaningless rituals.
Voltaire was probably on his way to conducting another good BI meeting when he was heard to say, "No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking."
Respect your customers' complaints -- as well as your co-workers' time -- with well-planned meetings that truly solve their problems.
J. René Russell is a certified project management professional in the medical device industry. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Max T. Russell helps business and IT address communication problems and improve their in-house marketing. You can contact the author at email@example.com.