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TRIUMF | Vancouver, BC | Canada

View Blog | Read Bio

How to Get Started

–by T. “Isaac” Meyer, Head of Strategic Planning & Communications

This morning, I left my office at 8:55am and walked through six puddles along the sidewalk, turned a corner, and went up a short flight of wooden stairs.  I opened the door to Trailer Hh and went inside.  (Trailers are the bread and butter of science laboratories; never is there sufficient time and energy and funding to support real office space for all the things that happen on site.)  I followed the sounds of laughter and, to my surprise, the smell of donuts.  (If you’re from Canada, you know they were Tim Horton’s).

And then I arrived.  The end of the long hallway with its trailer offices into the “meeting room” that was about 20′ x 20′ and 10′ tall.  I joined 15 other people and the meeting began. RD stood next to white board, donut in one hand and alternating between coffee and a dry-erase marker in the other.  We went around the room giving 3 minute summaries of what happened yesterday and what was going to happen today. About 40 minutes later, RD thanked us and said, “Well, that’s our third meeting!  See you again tomorrow morning.”

This is called getting started.  For real. Getting the Advanced Rare-IsotopE Laboratory (ARIEL) started at TRIUMF.  A $63 million investment by federal and provincial governments in a next-generation electron accelerator for the production and study of isotopes—isotopes for science and isotopes for medicine.

Now, the project started on July 1, 2010, and the final pieces of funding were announced June 22, 2010.  So why is THIS week called “getting started?”

Because we put 30 people in one trailer who are working almost 100% full-time on the project.  Because we have had three daily morning meetings in a row to discuss the project.  Because we stand up to have those meetings because there is so much going on, sitting down would be a waste of time.

And that’s how projects get started.  An idea gets batted around, someone offers to “write it up” or “do some calculations.”  Then someone “drafts a proposal” or “forms a team.”  And then funding comes into place.  And then the team is truly formed and then, sometime later and yet still absolutely essential, there starts to be a daily meeting about how the project is going and what’s going on.  And it is almost always a standing-only meeting and it involves a whiteboard, coffee, and its always kept as short as possible.  People come to this meeting to find out what is happening even if they are not directly involved in performing the work.  It’s like the control room or the command centre; you go there to see how its’ going. When that type of meeting starts to happen, you KNOW the project started.

And these meetings are generally low-tech.  You’d think we would use high-definition video conferencing and laser pointers and maybe 3-D imaging to visualize where we are and how its going.  You might even think we’d use an e-mail list or a hypernews forum or a twitter feed to distribute the action items. But the #1 rule in project management is “keep it simple.”  Paper, pencil, whiteboard, coffee.  That’s simple.  The physicality of a schedule cannot be denies when its printed on ArchE paper and hung up on the wall with thumb tacks.  The most technology we used is an iPhone; someone photographed the whiteboard and e-mailed THAT around.  That’s a real project and that’s a project that is really moving.

I remember when I was at SLAC in California, part of the assembly and commissioning team for the BaBar particle-physics experiment. I went to the morning meetings; not every day, but at least once a week.  I would go often and I’d learn a little bit about everything that was coming together.  And sometimes, I’d have to say something.  As a graduate student that was a bit scary because the director of the laboratory could be there and he was famous having a brain whose razor sharpness was only exceeded by his aptitude for finding the error in your report.

So there I was, eating a donut (courtesy one of the project leaders out of her own wallet) and in the presence of the ARIEL project moving from “we’re working on it” to “it’s really happening and we don’t have time to sit down.”  Soon, everyone would be wearing hard hats and soon the meetings would take place outside near the construction site on a semi-regular basis.

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