Maintaining Alignment of Project Priorities

By Tom Barker

The Clearinghouse Concept

There is an old saying that “situations alter cases” and nothing could be truer for today’s project managers, beset as they often are by continual changes to priorities among the various project stakeholders. What starts out as a well-defined project with a workable plan and adequate resources can all too quickly come unglued.

Typically, new business issues arise that spawn new high priority projects that impinge on the scope of the existing project:

  • Resources are diverted to support these issues/projects.
  • Stakeholders get confused about which project is doing what for them, and end up starting projects of their own to meet local needs.
  • The project manager does not get to know about any of the above until it’s too late to prevent them, leaving them to carry out extensive “damage limitation” work.

The root causes of such events are well known to managers and organizational experts alike. As Ram Charan, former Harvard Business School professor, author and long-time coach to such CEO’s as Jack Welch of GE, puts it:

“Information that flows from one part of the organization to another gets clogged or distorted. The bigger the company the harder it is for people to share information, make joint decisions and adjust their priorities. Decision making slows. The edge in execution get blunted.”

Ram’s advice to organizations is to identify where information sharing and trade-offs are critical and then implement a specific organizational mechanism to achieve it. He points out that this cannot be just copied from another organization but must designed to be “right” for each company, otherwise it won’t work.

One such mechanism, which we call “The Clearinghouse”, is the subject of this article. What we will talk about is:

  • What it is
  • How it works and why it works
  • How to identify the needs and design a clearinghouse

The most visible part of a clearinghouse is the meeting or meetings that bring all the right people together at the same time, either co-located or conferencing.

The second most visible aspect of a clearinghouse is the level of participation of all those taking part. Information is exchanged and integrated, decisions are made. What is less visible is that, as a result:

  • Every participant gets a total picture of the business that assists them in setting their own priorities in synch with the company as a whole.
  • Numerous follow-ups occur naturally between participants, made easier because of their common membership in an event/community and because the “ice has been broken” on a wide range of topics that might otherwise have felt politically or socially too “risky” to raise.

So you say a clearinghouse is just a well-run meeting? Yes in the same way that Wayne Gretzky was just a skater. A clearinghouse is a purposeful event that is designed and operated in order to achieve a set of desired results. A typical meeting in most organizations is anything but purposeful nor is it designed or operated in order to get results. On the contrary most meetings are determined by the organization’s preconceptions, norms, and experience modified in some cases to fit the preferred interaction style/skills of the most senior participants.

Ram Charan sums up the situation by describing the typical business meeting as a venue for:

  • displaying a deck of useless slides
  • blaming people (usually those not present) for not doing the right things.

The difference between a clearinghouse and a meeting is the difference between being purposeful and being powerful. Being purposeful is about being intentional, deliberate and determined. It is about doing what needs to be done.

Being powerful is about having ability to do things, to act, its about having influence, authority and ascendancy. It is about what can be done by those participating, not what is actually done. A well designed clearinghouse with the right participants is both purposeful and powerful. A typical meeting called in most organizations, involving the highest ranking people that can be rounded up may be equally powerful but is not likely to be purposeful.

So what give a clearinghouse its purposefulness? The name itself provided a clue. The Oxford dictionary carries the following definitions.

maintainalignfig1 Maintaining Alignment of Project Priorities

So a clearinghouse is a clearing in the (organizational) forest where people gather to distribute information (that they have collected) and to sort and dispose of issues in order to remove obstructions, avoid collisions/interference and authorize and assign projects/tasks.

While there is no cookie-cutter that can be applied to setting up a clearinghouse, there are some design parameters that seem to be important. These can be summarized as the 8 F’s, namely:

  • Focus
  • Frequency
  • Fast
  • Format
  • Flow
  • Formality
  • Filters
  • Follow-up

Ram Charan advises “Do work on the business side first to set the priorities, then take time to design something, whether a conference call or a fifteen minute meeting, that gets information flowing and the right people talking.”

Any gathering that involves multiple people must maintain a fast pace if people are to stay involved, alert and contributing.

For example a GE business unit that uses the clearinghouse concept to leverage worldwide market intelligence, sticks to some simple rules

Focus Discussion questions should be specific and simple enough to be answered in two minutes.
Formality/Filters All participants should be put at ease and encouraged to contribute
Fast Meetings should be short so people don’t lost interest
Format Information should be processed along the way and summarized at the end
Frequency Meetings are held every two weeks
Follow-up Alignment of marketing priorities

A colleague, Larry Chester, with wide experience in teaching managers the skills needed to operate in a clearinghouse, recalls one chemical company that used a very effective clearinghouse which followed these rules:

Fast/Frequency One half hour per week, where issues were identified, clarified, prioritized and assigned
Formality/Filters All participants should be put at ease and encouraged to contribute
Format Separate resolution meetings of no more than 2-hours to resolve each assigned issue, involving appropriate subgroups of participants
Follow-up Feedback of results of resolution meetings into the clearinghouse to ensure closure

“This worked really well,” says Chester, “In fact they were able to cut total meeting time in half and resolve the majority of issues after the first resolution meeting.”

A large packaging manufacturer improved its interworking with a major customer by implementing a clearinghouse that reviewed issues and set-up joint projects to resolve them. This clearinghouse

Follow-up Operated in a partnership mode, with each issue/project investigated jointly by one supplier and one customer member

Format/Filters Emphasized the sharing of test data and factual information to provide an objective basis for decision making and build trust

Focus Had quarterly priority setting sessions for executives to set joint priorities that all projects should follow and review clearinghouse operation

Formality Everyone was encouraged to contribute data and views on the issues as they saw them and to listen carefully, and understand others perspectives

Could your organization benefit from implementing the clearinghouse concept? Almost certainly.

The most productive areas for a clearinghouse are often at the “joints” in the core business processes, for example, the interfaces between:

  • Marketing and distribution
  • Research, development and manufacturing
  • IT system development and system support
  • Marketing and the customer

This does not mean that only people from those specific areas are involved, far from it.

The steps to implementing a clearinghouse are

  • Identify where information sharing and trade-offs are critical to the success of organization
  • Do the work on the business side to set the priorities
  • Design an organizational mechanism to achieve it (the 8 F’s)

The answers to these questions are then defined in a brief charter with input and views from likely participants.

This serves as a “constitution” for the session; its development will

  • Help all participants to play their part
  • Help give clues as to the type of skill development that may be needed by participants
  • Provide a means to evaluate the operation of the clearinghouse (changes to the 8 F’s).

Remember it is not the “meeting”, it is the “clearing” that gets results.

Dr. Tom Barker is a principal at Process Design Consultants Inc., who provides customized training, coaching and consulting in project and process management. Tom has led numerous organizational change and re-engineering projects with large organizations in Europe, US and Canada.

“First published in Project Times Fall 2001” (Project Times link http://www.projecttimes.com/)

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