By Beth Harper
Sitting on one of those long, painful, study status update calls recently, I was reminded of the famous light bulb joke. You know the one: “How many engineers (lawyers, politicians, etc.) does it take to change a light bulb?” I was both flabbergasted and frustrated that, after 45 minutes, the project manager was still wading through status updates from a myriad of CRO and vendor partners and CRAs — just to figure out where the study was from a site activation and enrollment standpoint.
Despite access to great project management tools replete with dashboards galore, as an industry we still seem enamored with weekly status update calls. While many cite the desire for all study team members to know what’s going on with the project as a rationale for these meetings, it may be time to challenge convention. Does the specialty lab vendor representative really need to know the status of the budget and contract approval for site X in country Z? Do the U.S. CRAs really need to know the drug importation issues taking place in Poland?
I counted no less than 37 participants from different companies and regions around the globe on the recent call, and I started doing some quick calculations of how much this status update meeting was costing the sponsor. Multiply that exorbitant cost times weekly meetings over several years. If only that money was being spent on something more value added — perhaps we might really experience some transformative changes in drug development.
Interestingly, a Google search on “making meetings more productive” revealed 49,600,000 results, so clearly this is not an industry-specific issue. According to one source, about half of attendees report that the majority of their time in meetings is dedicated to providing status updates.1 So what’s a study team leader to do?
Certainly, help can be found in new collaborative project management tools like Trello, Asana, and Wrike, or industry-specific tools like clinical trail management systems (CTMS) or study start-up tracking systems like GoBalto. However, technology in the absence of fundamental cultural shifts can only go so far. Furthermore, there are endless books, blogs, and inspirational posters on meeting etiquette and productivity, so it’s not for a lack of resources that we can’t seem to get out of this “weapon of mass interruption.”2
My work in troubleshooting trials has uncovered several fundamental root cause issues in terms of ineffective meeting management when working with project teams (particularly in outsourced trials):
- Lack of clear expectations from the outset in terms of what meetings will be held for what purpose
- Failure to agree in advance on report format, meeting frequency, meeting attendees, and decision-making processes
- Lack of clarity on what the truly important performance metrics are and triggers that would prompt a need for intervention on behalf of the sponsor
- Deficient decision-making processes — no one seems to have the “D” anymore3
- Discomfort on the part of the CRO to transparently reveal study performance issues and bring these to the sponsor’s attention for action (which only compounds the basic trust issues between sponsor and CRO)
Ideally, meeting culture expectations are established during the project scoping and kickoff meetings. In lieu of working through endless transfer-of-delegation documents (which need to be tackled at some stage of course), the most productive teams adopt the investigative-report style of meeting expectation management:
- What meetings will we have for what purpose, when, where, how often, and who is critical in terms of attendance?
- What tools, technologies, and dashboards are available, and how will they be used to report on study status and monitor study progress?
- They agree on what are the three most critical things that the sponsor needs to take action on each week, what decisions or actions are needed, and how the actions will be implemented.
- They appreciate how much time and money can be wasted during unproductive status meetings, and they are strict stewards of these precious resources — ensuring everyone is disciplined to provide their status updates via the tools best designed to do this.
If you’re in the habit of doing routine study status update meetings, I challenge you to do a meeting management (reality) check-up. Are you getting the most out of your meetings, or are you just being charged for that time by your vendors, whose attendees are either daydreaming, sleeping, doing other work,4 or would rather be watching paint dry or doing something equally unpleasant?5 Think about it.
- Brianna Hansen, Everyone’s a Project Manager, But Not Everyone Can Manage Projects (Infographic), Wrike, Oct. 2015.
- Yuki Noguchi, “And So We Meet, Again: Why The Workday Is So Filled With Meetings”, NPR, Jan. 2015.
- Paul Rogers and Marcia W. Blenko, “Who Has the D?: How Clear Decision Roles Enhance Organizational Performance”,
- You Waste A Lot of Time at Work (Infographic), Atlassian, Accessed Feb. 2017.
- Minda Zetlin, “17 Percent of Employees Would Rather Watch Paint Dry Than Attend Meetings”, Inc., Jan. 2015.
About The Author:
Beth Harper is president of Clinical Performance Partners, Inc., a clinical research consulting firm specializing in enrollment and site performance management. She has passionately pursued solutions for optimizing protocols, enhancing patient recruitment and retention, and improving sponsor and site relationships for over 30 years. Beth is an adjunct assistant professor at the George Washington University and has published and presented extensively in the areas of protocol optimization, study feasibility, site selection, patient recruitment, and sponsor-site relationship management. She is currently serving on the CISCRP Advisory Board as well as the Clinical Leader Editorial Advisory Board.
Beth received her BS in occupational therapy from the University of Wisconsin and an MBA from the University of Texas. She can be reached at 817-946-4728 or firstname.lastname@example.org.