When to panic (Project Management)

To continue my previous post on top tips for project management, I have some more lessons learned to share about managing tasks:

  1. If you’re too busy to manage your priorities (because you have 30 things on your to-do list) then simply triage the list into a top 2-3 of ‘red flag’ items you consider need doing and do those things. You can use other people (colleagues, contractors, your boss) to flag up most things that you may have missed – if somebody needs something urgently, they will usually pester you. Obviously this isn’t great, but it is a reasonable way to manage highly scare resources – such as time when you’re extremely busy.
  2. Work in meetings – I’m a terrible one for working in meetings. You can’t do this in all types of meeting however. When I am running the meeting – either wearing project management or client hats (or both!) then obviously there isn’t any spare attention for other things. But, when you are in a multi-disciplinary project meeting and it isn’t your turn I find there is space to do work. Ideally this should be related to the project meeting you are in (such as administration, basic design calculations, emails, meeting requests and invitations).  Sometimes a meeting develops into a nebulous discussion which can be highly distracting if you’re trying to focus on a particular task and listen at the same time – when this happens I find it’s best to either jump in to the discussion or leave the room.
  3. Drafting emails as a planning and organisational tool! Yes, I often write emails (sometimes in meetings) and just save them in my draft folder. This helps to save time in the morning when they can be launched in quick succession after the benefits of a nights sleep.
  4. A 500 line Gantt chart is a poor tool for planning what needs to happen on your project next week. Obviously you need to have a huge gantt chart somewhere, but you’ll do much better with a list of 5-10 things you can give people to do.
  5. Project management 101 says that it’s a transactional (take information from A, give it to B and C) type of business, rather than a transformational exercise (take in Apples, give out Apple Pie). My experience so far is that whilst you can get great efficiencies in transformational work (such as experience that enables you to estimate the right solution rapidly, software, tools and well developed methodologies) as you go along – whilst the same is not true of transactional work. One email in the Inbox becoming three similar emails in the Outbox is almost certainly not a 3 fold multiplier on efficiency, productivity or any measure of product/project delivery.

To close, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about managerial efficiency  and metrics. The metric I like best at the moment is how many people (‘managers’) you need to spend a given some of money over a period of time on a project activity. It’s kind of like Brewsters Millions, there is a limit to the amount of money (being as good a proxy as any for project delivery) that one manager can spend reliably in an hour/day/week/month/quarter. It’s a nice thought, though I don’t yet have any data to back it up. It’s also important to factor in the effect of inflation, so that managers spending 10x what managers spent per unit time 5 years ago is also no guarantee of ‘better’, and complexity, as a manager working on a relatively intricate and complex project will find it much harder per unit of delivered work than someone working on a blank sheet of paper or a greenfield site. More on this topic later, if I manage to find some nice looking data somewhere…

P.S. Just before I take of my project management hat for the night, I think it’s a reasonable time to panic (as calmly as possible… of course) if you get to the end of the week and didn’t manage to knock down ANY of the red flag items you had on your list from Monday morning. In this case you probably need to either work harder or get more resources – or both.

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2 thoughts on “When to panic (Project Management)

  1. I agree with your point on a 500 line gantt chart being a difficult communication tool. However with excel based gantt charts task filters and flags can be used to actually make working in a 500 line project practical.

    • pingu98 says:

      That’s true for the bits of the gantt that you slice off and give to subordinates, however as the project manager you’re supposed to master all 500 lines… or at least the ones that count which are likely to cut across the filters you put in place.

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