Simple ways to make your project meetings more effective

People usually fall into two categories - those who enjoy project meetings and those who hate them. Both sets of people are right. The opportunity to get together with the rest of the project team is one of the most valuable events that you can schedule, but they have the potential for wasting huge amounts of time and money if they aren't managed correctly.

You will know how to adapt for your particular situation but we have a few principles for running a productive project meeting.

Have the right person as chair
It sounds so obvious but all too often the most senior person in the group takes the chair rather than the right person. Clients are rarely the right person as they usually have issues driving them from outside the project rather than the day to day issues of the matter in hand. Choose carefully so that the chairperson has an overview on all aspects and can draw the group together and move them forward while avoiding getting bogged down with minutiae.

Think about your agenda
Any good agenda will have three key sections.

Section 1 - The basic information about the meeting.
Who should be there, where it is and the start and finish time. You can also put the date of the next meeting here.

Section 2 - What is being discussed.
By all means have a couple of regular items such as minutes from the previous meeting but remain focused on progress rather then past content or a rigid 'system'. If there is a major topic for discussion don't be afraid to put it down as a specific item and ensure that the group know that they should forward items for inclusion rather than waiting for the dreaded AOB. Consider which items are time critical and which require input from outside the meeting.

Section 3 - A schedule of attendees contact information and the future meetings.
Always set meetings dates as far in advance as possible, at least four weeks into the future. This should avoid those protracted discussions where everyone is looking at their diaries to try to find a day that works. A regular day, say every second Thursday at 10:00am, will allow the attendees to schedule the rest of their time. Including a contact schedule with minutes is just good old fashioned practice that will save plenty of time and excuses.

Accept that some people won't be able to make every single meeting and ensure that each person has a 'second' who can stand in for them. The project should remain the focus, not the individuals delivering it. If your project meeting demands detailed information then include it in sequence, not as an appendix.

Start and end on time
9:00am means 9:00am so if you need tea and bacon sandwiches beforehand then feel free to have refreshments as the 9:00am agenda item. It might find it useful for some attendees to have a meeting beforehand with people such as suppliers or subcontractors so you can gave the latest information to hand. You might also want to bring one of them into your project meeting if there is a key issue that concerns them.

End times are equally important. Most meetings can be dispatched in an hour but you will get a feel for how long you really need if the chair is adept at keeping it moving along.

Resolve each item
Before moving onto the next item make sure that each item has an action point, even if it is 'no action' or 'held over to next meeting'. Don't be afraid to reschedule items for a later date if it is not time critical.

Distribute minutes within twenty four hours
That sounds like an impossible challenge but trust us on this one. How often have you distributed minutes the day before the next meeting? Late minutes are no good to anyone except in court.

Minutes aren't a record for posterity, they a live working document that shows the decisions, actions and responsibilities held by the group. Unless they are with the people that are carrying out those actions they will not be focused or collaborative. Failure to get those minutes out will often mean that the next meeting is full of excuses, blame and panic about the delays that are stacking up.

All minutes will have an item number, the item itself, the required output or action and the person who is actually going to be responsible, not an organisation. Include a draft agenda for the next meeting with a request for any items for inclusion by a specific date.

One final point that is worth remembering; all too often meetings are where minutes are kept and hours are lost. It doesn't have to be that way.

Keep up to date with planning applications near you


We've come across a useful service that enables you to create an email alert that flags up planning applications in a given radius around a postcode.

It can be found at www.planningalerts.com.

Are some radical changes in building design floating over the horizon?

If the futurologists are correct we are about to see a huge shift in how our buildings work. Cloud computing is still in the formative stages but I can see a trend developing that will eventually be able to replace the traditional model of tethered desktop working.

There is endless geeky debate about what cloud computing actually is, but the key feature that affects the built environment is that by putting data and even the applications onto the cloud a business and its people will be able to free itself from the geographic restrictions and therefore the need for a building to carry out those traditional functions.

We've all seen laptops scattered around coffee shops. Whereas a few years ago those people were seen as either hardcore road warriors or sales reps far from home, the changes in accessibility mean that those meetings are now equally likely to be about business deals, job interviews, or even architects working on drawings.

Those people aren't just working remotely from the office. They have understood (even if they don't realise it) that don't actually need an office at all!

It's early days and this new-found flexibility could easily be mistaken as the death knell of the traditional office but I think that is a little premature. We are social creatures and the fact that coffee shops are providing meeting places says a lot about the desire to get together with colleagues.

What seems more likely is that there will be a shift in how commercial premises are used. Rather than being stuffed full of tethered technology a new model (models?) look like emerging where the building acts as a venue for the human network within.

That might mean smaller buildings with more flexible layouts. Perhaps hot-desking principles will see a resurgence or perhaps we'll see more collaborative office layouts where groups form and disband quickly around projects rather than corporate structures.

Using the construction industry as our example, we've already seen on-site design offices. In the same way project teams from different disciplines and different firms could come together in a place to work together - maybe even for only a couple of days a week if they are engaged on multiple projects, with multiple teams. The physical closeness of the people in the team should lead to a better output in a shorter time with fewer problems, delays and future defects.

The key factor is the flexibility to form groups, sub-groups and then disband them within the project context.

It follows that the building will need to adapt to follow suit. Most of us would recognise that a building in no more than a container for what goes on inside. If the insides don't need lots of technology, plant, equipment, HVAC, wiring, etc then the requirements for that container will change fundamentally.

Cloud computing might be the driver of the next great leap in workplace trends.

Unite go ahead with new 3rd party investment

There is a some good news in the student accommodation sector as Unite PLC sign up to a joint venture with the Bahrainian Oasis Capital Bank. They will fund the development of three new student accommodation properties in London with a completed value of £194m. For their part Unite will provide the pre-fabricated accommodation module at market value and manage the project for a 5% fee. After completion Unite will manage the schemes.

It's a creative way to keep student development going forward and while the London schemes are very much in the elite segment of the market they will help to sustain the modern student accommodation model, further improving the living standards of residents.

The schemes are:

Lavington Street: a 230 bed development situated on the South Bank near the Tate Modern and in close proximity to Southwark underground station. Planning consent was granted in July 2008 and practical completion is scheduled for August 2010.

James Leicester Hall: a 573 bed development situated in an established student area adjacent to Caledonian Road underground station. The site was acquired in November 2008 with a detailed planning consent in place. Practical completion is scheduled for August 2010.

301 Holloway Road: a 316 bed development situated in Islington, adjacent to Holloway Road underground station and 200m from London Metropolitan University, North Campus. Planning consent was granted in August 2008, and practical completion is scheduled for August 201

5 planning pitfalls to avoid

All too often when we get carried away on a wave of enthusiasm for a new development but there are lots of traps for the unwary seeking a planning permission for their property.

These five common pitfalls are all too easy to fall into, especially when you are concentrating on running a business that earns the money to pay for your proposal. Planning is largely procedural with an equal amount of changeable opinion thrown in but be prepared to commit time and resources if intend to succeed. No two proposals are ever the same but the pleasure given by a positive decision always feels fabulous.

1. Don't delay, speak to the planning department early
Planners get a bad press, but it isn't always deserved. Most local authorities will support their planning departments getting involved in pre-consultation for schemes because it saves time later. The trouble is that planners receive lots of calls about ideas that go nowhere, impossible or improbable uses and people who just want a letter to increase the value of their land.

You need to present yourself credibly to the planner. Find out who is dealing with your area and importantly make sure that you speak to the right officer for your project. Some officers have particular specialities, briefs or interests and finding the right one can make your dealings a pleasure. The wrong officer can lead to a whole world of heartache.

Most will welcome a call and a meeting so be prepared to have a meaningful dialogue that you both benefit from.

3. Don't do it all yourself
This goes without saying for most people but you would be amazed at the number of times that somebody turns up at the planning department without a clue about what they are doing.

Being a captain of the widget industry doesn't help when plotting a route through the complexities of creating buildings that meet the myriad laws. policies, occupier requirements... and let's be honest - opinion! Get yourself an architect, planning consultant, project manager or development consultant and let them deal with it.

3. Don't assume that planning policy is what it seems
Planning policy - it's a minefield. Laws are handed down from central government which are then interpreted and implemented by local authorities after interminable consultations, councillor meetings, votes and very occasionally catering for public opinion.

But even when it is published in the local plan / framework / policy it can change for seemingly bizarre reasons. It's important to keep yourself up to speed with changes and again it's back to speaking to the planning officials. Just be sure that you are speaking to the right ones because all too often in local authorities the right hand doesn't know what the left is up to.

4. Don't forget to speak to the natives
When we're tied up in negotiations with officials it's all too easy to forget that your development will affect somebody. It might be one neighbour or it might be the entire district but it's guaranteed that somebody will be interested and the supporters rarely make themselves known so you might well have to face the wrath of the locals.

Consider holding a public meeting on neutral territory, be open about what you are doing. It's difficult to pull the wool over peoples eyes when you are erecting a building. By engaging you have the opportunity to demonstrate that your scheme isn't a blight and that it can bring real benefits to the area. Supporters are as rare as hens teeth but if you have some invite them along too.

Letters to neighbours or maybe a phone call to explain will give you great PR. Even if they don't agree with your plans they can't say that they didn't know or get a chance to have their say. This kind of open consultation does make a difference when presenting your case to the planning committee.

You will probably be pleasantly surprised at the outcome of local consultations because most people are just worried about the unknown. By presenting the scheme properly and professionally you will probably allay many fears that would otherwise have turned into objections.

Councillors and MP's can be helpful but don't forget that they have an eye on the next election and they can change their mind right up to the time of the vote in the chamber. MP's tend to go with the flow but take care, if you do decide to speak to councillors as you might find that they declare an interest and abstain from voting. That abstention might have been the casting vote in your favour.

5. Don't underestimate the impact of delays
8 weeks -that's the government's stipulated period for determining planning applications. You might get lucky but if your project is of any size it's probable that they will extend that period with your grudging permission.

That might not be the last of it though because it is quite possible that your application might take a year or more to determine so have a close look at what the effect will be in terms of time, money and the knock on problems caused by extended or unexpected delays.

Some planning departments are better than others but don't underestimate their potential to make life a misery while you are going through the process. The costs of delays could affect your entire business and the bank might not hold open a finance offer.

Why sharing is good for business

After the success of the blog network that we created for Hobson and Porter they asked Provesta to look at a number of ways of further improving how they communicate to the outside world.

Andrew McCormick, H&P's business improvement manager, is an advocate of giving clients what they want and he's seen it improve client confidence and satisfaction as a result. Instead of being overly cautious and afraid of negative feedback he actually asks clients what they really think of H&P and how well they did on their projects. The results are then fed back into further improving the business.

Transparency has become increasingly important to industry and local authorities are taking up the challenge and encouraging their suppliers to do likewise. Provesta created a new website using the free tools at Google Sites. Hobson and Porter Share is loosely based on a wiki format which allows anyone with permission to create web pages, post documents and information that is pertinent to the company or projects. The level of openly available data far exceeds what most companies make available online which reinforces the transparent future that H&P see for their business as projects become more focused on long term partnering and framework agreements.

Already Hobson and Porter are seeing that their approach to bidding for work is having dividends as they are selected increasingly for the quality of their bid rather than just the price.