This is not really a new issue and there are quite a few books written on the subject. I come from the perspective of someone who has done the academic legwork and has been taught the *proper* ways of managing projects. I have also worked on software projects and I know that the academic view on the subject is not really that great when it comes to real life projects. Anyway consulting and market research in general are quite different from software development and project management has a bit different face there.
Anyway, rambling aside, I recently read “Reworked”. I’ve known about 37 Signals for a while now and if I have to be honest, I respect then a lot. There are not a lot of 12 man outfits out there that can make as much money and create a invaluable products as 37 Signals have. My recent search for an easy way to manage my research projects led me straight back to Basecamp. Problem is Basecamp is not cheap and my current budget is quite tight. I had to justify spending money on a project management solution and I was up against the IT manager who says there is no more money because of a recent hardware and software upgrade and we don’t need a project management solution. Needless to say … I lost. So I looked for some free solutions and none really work that well. At the end I gave up. Tried setting up an Access database for project management purposes and after 2 weeks of trial and error, much to my surprise, the solution is much simpler than I would have ever guessed. It is actually 2 excel files. The legwork takes very little time (much less than anything else) and the solution is quite flexible. I’ll explain a bit more later but first a bit more about the problem.
You see when you manage Projects there are 2 very significant aspects.
* First, you need to be able to manage your time
* and 2nd management needs to know how far the projects are and what you have been doing.
That is all great but it hardly scratches the surface of the problem. You see project management is not only about time management. It starts from the moment that you start planning the project and ends when you do the analysis of your delivery which is after you have finished the project. So in a way, you have to have a plan for your project along with the time management of some sort. What “Rework” got me to think of is that plans actually change in the real world, and believe me they ALWAYS do. So in a way every plan is actually a guess as to when you think that a certain task would be completed. However, you cannot get away with planning as Fried and Hannson seem to suggest. Plans help you think about the project and what you need to do in order to complete it. Planning actually should be viewed as an act of brainstorming and evaluating existing practices. It is an auditing act amongst other things. What is however, detrimental is setting dates and deadlines. At the stage of planning your project there is no need for you to set dates and furthermore it’s detrimental because you are making sure that none of your projects would be completed on time and you are condemning yourself to overtime. It really doesn’t matter how much overhead you leave you will run into the ceiling eventually OR you are just spending way too much time on your plan.
One thing that you should NEVER do is overspend on planning. Think about it this way, your time is a part of your budget. You need to spend it sparingly and you do have a very limited amount of it. The less you spend on planning and maintaining reporting and other administrative tasks like that the more you have for the actual task.
So what I did was I basically decide to reengineer the existing process of project management at my company. It sounds sophisticated but it really isn’t. I analysed the existing resources, the current practices, the driving forces, and the needed outcomes. At that point I had everything to create a new lean project management process. We are now working with 2 excel files. One is a project plan, the other is a tasks plan. The project plan is based on total number of weeks allowed for a project. Deadlines are not really set. Tasks are kept based on a logical progress of events in order to complete the project. Duration is kept in days and hours with a work week having 4 days and a day having 8 hours. Projects always start in week one and never go beyond the length of a project. Excel is simple but complex enough to where you can do simple tasks like keeping track of the tasks that you need to complete for a project. In most project managers this file would be called the milestone file. I don’t like the term because I don’t like to deal with an expected outcome of a mini project. It’s an unnecessary overhead. Milestones are NOT a requirement for project management, they are NOT a deliverable/outcome. If anything, you can class them as a tool but for me you would really have to convince me that the project is complex enough for it to need such a tool. In consulting and MR they really aren’t that complex. But feel free to prove me wrong!
So far all you have a project plan. You can show that to your client and tell them exactly how much it would take for a project to be completed. You can using as a marketing tool as well as a management one. A project plan would also tell you when you can start planning for your next project if they overlap (and they most likely will) and it will also determine a lot of other aspects of how your next several months will progress. So it might seem like a simple Excel file but it is a lot more than that.
You know how I said there are no dates in it? Well here is why. Say you have to pause the project because of an illness or because a resource becomes unavailable. There is no need to change the dates. Yes you can easily change dates with software, but why should you if you don’t have to? Also, even if you have done this job for many years now, you cannot predict the future and eventually changes will have to be made. When you work with other people/suppliers their plans will change too. Eventually you will find yourself waiting for them. It is not your fault and in a regular plan you will have to change things. Your tasks are still on track and your plan never got delayed. Yet you will have to change deadlines in it. Why? In our system, what happens is that you simply suspend the plan for some time. Effectively you will need a 3rd file that notes delays so that you can create the delivery report at the end and conduct an analysis of the delivery. Only this simple system still lets you know exactly how much time you will be pass the deadline even though you never think of the deadline as a concrete date. Truest me when I tell you that at the end of the project your analysis would take no time at all and you will be able to justify to either your colleagues or management what happened and why the project is delayed. You have accountability and transparency at every single moment of the project. Best of all, in most cases you will spend and hour at the start of a project creating the project plan and probably 5 min. every week maintaining it (if you are unlucky).
The 2nd part of the project manager is an excel file that lists the tasks that you have to do over the upcoming week. We talked about this and it could be 2 weeks if the team is long enough and the sequence of events is too complex and intertwined between teem members.
Auditing is a very important aspect of every project management system so what you would have by default, is 1 hour every Friday when you review the tasks over the last week, note ones that are not completed and why, and plan your tasks for the upcoming week. This is done by all members of the team individually and then they all exchange the plans, or in our case present them on Monday morning. The working assumption here is that the team is small enough to where you can all meet up and present plans within an hour every Monday. Technically, meetings can be virtual so you don’t even need to do them. Is this an overhead? Possibly, however the meeting was a desired outcome in my case. In ideal world, you would just share your list of tasks with the rest of the team and they can review it every monday morning and ask you questions. As the project progresses, you will get a distinct paper trail of what tasks were completed and when. At the end of the project you will have all that data that you can analyse (if you need/want to). You as a manager can prove to a team member why they got a certain evaluation and noone will ever argue about data that they entered. You can also address problems as they arise and look for solutions. The weekly plan gives you enough granularity for detecting problems in early stages but it also does not require more than an hour a week to create and maintain. That is approximately 2.5% of administration time every week which is pretty good if you ask me. ( 1 hour out of 40 just in case you are wondering ) In reality, with larger projects, you would see that the time is more like 4-5% administration tasks but that is still pretty amazing. And best of all, there is no huge jump in the time that it takes a manager compared to the time that it takes a regular employee. Not only that, you are actually encouraged to do the work right because this is your own task planner and keeping it accurate helps you more than it helps your manager. By design, it is guaranteed that employees will do a good enough job at keeping track of what they do.
I almost forgot, we don’t keep dates on the deadlines for weekly tasks. The week has starting date and an end date but tasks have deadlines in day names. After all you don’t need to know the date if you know the day. It is just one week we are talking about and thinking in days saves you time.
Do I think this system is perfect? No! It would have to be tried and proven but it has enough flexibility for it to be adjusted and applied to many cases. Also, this whole process would have to be a bit more optimized and possibly built into a dedicated software for me to consider it as perfect. It would have to be integrated with your calendar (which it kind of is) and possibly create a culture where other team members ask you questions and try to understand why certain tasks took so long or so little time. It is not about defending your choices but rather about creating a collaborative environment and building a stronger team and utilizing the company’s intelligence.
I’ll keep you updated on how the process works but meanwhile what do you think? Do you have a similar experience and what did you do? Why and what were the benefits, outcomes, problems that followed from your decision?