Are you a project chugger?

Woman with clipboardA bit of bright weather and suddenly the pavements are full of people waving clipboards, trying to get you to stop at the end of a busy day and donate to charity. While the causes are always good, the method of extracting direct debit details from passers by is low-tech, and if you are trying to get somewhere in a hurry, you will have learned that it’s best to give the chuggers a wide berth.

The term chugger comes from ‘charity’ and ‘mugger’ and is a catch-all word to describe people who flag you down in the street and engage in small talk while trying to get something out of you that you may or may not be willing to give.

Change the context of the street to the office corridor, and project managers are just as guilty of being chuggers – and we don’t even collect money for charity. We’re just after information from the project team for status reports, emails and because we feel insecure if we don’t know what is going on all the time. Every time we see a team member walk past we jump on them for the latest news, even if we saw them only a couple of hours ago.

Do you recognise yourself? Lots of project managers are project chuggers, without realising it. Unfortunately for our teams, it’s not easy to work for a chugger. There’s the constant worry that you don’t have all the information to hand and that you’ll be asked for the details when there aren’t any to tell. On top of that, you have to be prepared for any eventuality: who knows what your project manager will ask you about this time? There’s no structure to chugging for information. And there is always the risk that it’s easier to make something up or try to baffle the project manager with science if there isn’t anything to say, rather than see the disappointed look on their faces when you tell them you have nothing to report.

There is some good news: if you are a project chugger there are steps you can take to curb your addiction to project information and make it easier for your team to give you status updates.

Get updates at regular times

Ask your project team to give you regular updates at specific times such as every Friday afternoon, or first thing every day. Make this once a week at least. This way your team will get into the habit of giving you information on a continual basis. They will know when to supply it and you will know when you will receive it, so it won’t feel like you are working in an information vacuum.

Define what you need

It’s great to know what the latest status is of every last detail, but do you really need to know?  If you trust your team to get on and do their jobs you can implement reporting by exception.  If you don’t feel comfortable going that far at least define with your team what the important elements are and focus on those.  Better that you know about the big issues so that you can do something about them, instead of listening to issues that your team can resolve perfectly well without you.

Who gets the update?

Do you all get together for a regular round-the-table update? Or do you speak to each team member individually? It is useful for everyone to have a view of what the whole team is doing, so if you can all join in and listen to the status updates from each individual then make the time to do it. Finding out what your colleagues are up to can alleviate problems, prevent rework and generate a more cohesive team atmosphere. If you get the updates in writing decide who is on the circulation list. You could get each individual to email you directly and then you can produce a consolidated report.

Set a time limit

Some people will ramble on… Stick to the time limit by using an egg timer.

If you meet regularly and you bring the whole team together for status updates, bear in mind that some people will ramble on.  You probably already know those characters.  Tell people that they only have two minutes to give the update for that day/week. People often have no idea how long two minutes actually is, and they can still be talking ten minutes later. That’s fine, if what they say is relevant to the entire group, but you can encourage people to stick to the time limit by using an egg timer or a stop watch. Otherwise you risk wasting the rest of the team’s time.

Be flexible

There will be times when you need to get information outside your set status update framework. That’s fine: it happens, and as the project manager you do need to know what’s going on. However, you can approach this in a non-chuggerish way. Don’t pounce on your team member. It’s appropriate to check if they are in the middle of something and be prepared to come back – in half an hour or so, not three weeks. If you need to speak to them straight away, make it clear that it’s necessary. Get all the information you need in one go: don’t go back several times with “just one more question.”

Most people respond well to being allowed autonomy and the benefit of a trusting work relationship. However, there are some people who will never give you status updates, regardless of how many times they promise faithfully to send you a report every Friday afternoon. For those characters on your project team the more direct approach will work better, or else you risk not getting any updates at all. Don’t chase everyone though – save your chugging to those who respond best that way, and keep it to once a day at a maximum. You don’t want your project team to start walking the long way round to the photocopier just to avoid your desk!


  1. says

    From my experience it also makes sense to provide team members with some sort of an incentive to encourage timely status updates. For example you can offer them skipping those dreadful weekly meetings if they provide daily updates via whatever online pm tools your organization is using.

    • says

      Vadim, thanks for your comment. Incentives are good, and there’s nothing better than cancelling meetings. But if only half your team use the tool and the other half want to come to the meeting, that could give you a problem. I would say that it is better to encourage/mandate one way or the other to ensure some consistency.

  2. says

    I have been guilty of this I think, I will pay more attention to avoiding this. Good post.  I have a question for you.  Someone has been put in charge of my team who has good ideas and is smart, but who says the same thing every time we meet, no matter what the agenda.  The meetings always stretch from one hour, to an hour and a half without any end in sight.  They just sit and talk and talk.  We never actually seem to resolve anything and the conversations feel like being in a boat with a rower with one oar.  There is a lot of splashing but we don’t get anywhere.  I am really task oriented and I get frustrated with the wasted time and lack of direction.  Do you have any advice on how to handle this without, well, “rocking the boat”?

    • says

      Heather, do your meetings have minutes? If so, you could start each meeting with a quick review of the minutes from last time and then say “The new topics for discussion this time are…”. If the person raises the same points from last time, you can tell them that they have been discussed and documented. Or, as they are the ones probably chairing the meeting, could you volunteer to chair it one day? Or volunteer to take the minutes (this could land you in a perpetual secretarial role, so be careful with this one).

      I imagine other people have the same level of frustration that you do with your new team leader. Could you get together with them for a grass roots effort to shut down any lectures that start up, by finding moments to interrupt and then say, “I know we don’t have much time left, and Carol had a point she wanted to raise today.”

      There is a school of thought in communication studies that you have to keep repeating the message to make sure that it is heard and understood. This may be what your new team leader is doing. What signs can you give that the message has been understood and that you are ready to move on this week?

      Could you schedule another meeting for just after yours is supposed to finish, and say at the beginning, “I have to go at 10am for a meeting with [someone really important] so could we aim to finish on time please?”

      Or just have a quiet word offline with the person, saying that for the last couple of weeks the meeting has been booked for 1 hour and has actually taken 2 hours. Does s/he think s/he could rearrange it so that it is booked for the amount of time it is going to take, so that you can all make sure your diaries are properly arranged to accommodate the extra time of the meeting?

      Frankly I think it is incredibly rude to expect you all to sit there after the scheduled end of a meeting. If it was me, I would say something like, “I know I can’t speak for anyone else, but I feel that we properly discussed those issues last time and I’m keen to know what the priorities are for this week. What does everyone else feel?” By phrasing it in a non-threatening, question way to the whole group, not the leader, this could have the effect of moving the discussion forward.

      You don’t comment on their personality style, so if they are a generally pleasant person they will properly be mortified to know what you think and will quickly improve their meeting organisation.

      In Chris Barez-Brown’s book Shine, which I will be reviewing for this year’s Summer of Books in August, he says: “When closing, let everyone know what’s changed as a result of the meeting. If nothing has changed, the meeting was a waste of time.” Something you could point out to your leader, perhaps?

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