Staying Organized – Recap of Key Techniques

Most would agree that key among the primary skills required to be a good project manager was the ability to stay organized. Due to the nature of the work that project/program managers must perform on a daily basis, it is absolutely imperative that one stays on top of things. That will ensure nothing is falling through the cracks and no key issues are missed.

As an addendum to a previous post outlining some of the key techniques to ensure you, as a project manager, are staying ahead of the game and managing your projects effectively, listed below is a recap of some suggestions in this matter. i.e. What steps might a project/program manager take to ensure that they are not becoming overwhelmed by their duties and that they can maintain composure and effectively monitor the status of all the specific components of the projects in their queue?

1. Do NOT fall behind on email (or voicemail)

This is surprisingly a common problem in our modern corporate world. Email, while an effective communication medium, can often become quite the cumbersome utility when the mailbox begins to fill up. This is especially more daunting for those in the project/program management field, where communication is one of the staple aspects of their day-to-day role. And naturally, email is nowadays the defacto communication method being used. Which makes it all the more imperative for the project/program manager to stay on top of the deluge.

There are a few methods that one can utilize to ensure that email does not become a burden and continues to stay an asset for the project/program manager:

  • Deal with email first thing in the morning; do not let it continue to accumulate
  • Set up your email client with separate folders and use rules to place more pertinent items into key areas for easy access; this will separate the important emails from the ‘noise’
  • Prioritize emails for review as needed (most email programs will have a ‘flagging’ feature to accomplish this)
  • Clean out the ‘trash’ or ‘spam’ folders daily (this will also increase the response time of your client)
  • Use the Out of Office assistant when you are not available; this will ensure that individuals who are attempting to contact you recognize that you are unavailable and that they may need to contact someone else

Additionally, follow similar steps to ensure you do not fall behind (or miss) key voicemail messages.

**Additional Note: If you are taking PTO or will be unavailable for any extended period of time, always ensure that you provide adequate instructions in your Out Of Office replies that will give individuals proper contacts that can be tapped in your absence. And depending on the situation, you may need to also provide emergency contact details should you need to be reached for whatever reason.

2. Stay decisive and follow-through on your decisions

As a project manager, it sometimes takes time to make a decisions, especially those that require input from stakeholders, the sponsor or team members. With that being said, it is extremely important to not let key decisions ‘linger’. The more a decision is pushed, the higher the probability of a problem occurring. This is due to the fact that key decisions (and the requisite discussions that go with them) may bring to the surface other issues that require further dialog. So if a decision is required, make sure that you endeavor to have closure on that decision and move on.

In addition, follow-through on decisions that are made. There could have been action items that stemmed from a recent meeting where a decision was made. If so, ensure that those action items are being addressed and that you are receiving the necessary status and updates on any items that affect the original decision.

**Additional Note: If you are managing a program or are working collaboratively with other project managers on a deliverable, always ensure that your decisions are shared with the overall team, especially in cases where dependencies span projects. For more complex decisions, those are probably best handled via consensus by all the key members.

3. Ensure your work area is effectively set up

A project manager is only as good as the surroundings he/she sets up for themselves. With that being said, if your work area is cluttered, with items in disarray and not effectively stored and accessible without a Herculean search, you should take the time to clean things up. Make sure you have a filing system in place and follow through with being diligent about organizing any key documents you use. This also includes storing information on your hard drive in a fashion that makes sense. If you are finding that you have to continuously search for key documents, schedules or other items on your computer on a regular basis, you are wasting time and hurting yourself. So take the time to ensure that you can actually DO your job without creating additional work for yourself for now reason.

**Additional Note: Try to also keep any potential distractions to a minimum. That includes playing music that may cause your mind to wander (stick to Classical Music; that works for me) and avoid situations where you may be in an environment of constant interruptions.

4. Try to plan ahead

While we live in the present, we are always looking to the future. This goes double for the project/program manager. Their job involves ensuring that schedules and milestones are being met. Since those often reside in the future, the project/program manager has to endeavor that they are always looking forward and anticipating any potential problems down stream. Now obviously, no one has a crystal ball. But there are ways to determine if there is a risk for a problem with the project downstream by extrapolating existing trends. Whether that be a standard trend analysis chart, a burn-down chart (for Agile) or simply gauging project slippage by determining what has been done versus what is left to be done, keeping your eye on the ball and performing these extrapolations will greatly improve the chances of being able to spot a problem before it manifests.

**Additional Note: Remember that planning ahead is a continuous process. Do not just perform your planning exercises once and then shelve them. Make sure you revisit your plans and make adjustments accordingly to take into account changes to scope, time, cost or general strategy of the project or its superset program.

5. Fight any procrastination tendencies

We all have the tendency to procrastinate. It’s part in parcel with just being human. But as many might surmise, this problem exists in degrees depending on individual. Some people may occasionally put something on the back burner, while others are notorious for burning the midnight oil and doing everything in a rush at the last-minute. Regardless of personality type, procrastination needs to be fought especially vigorously when in the project/program management realm. If anything, project/program managers should be the symbol of all that is NOT procrastination. The reasoning there is that one of the staple aspects of being a good project/program manager is leading by example. If your tendency is to defer things and wait until the last-minute to get something done, that behavior will not go un-noticed by the team members. And as such, it will begin to manifest in them as well. That type of issue will snowball as the procrastination becomes additive. And the project/program manager may find themselves nearing a key milestone and discovering a swath of undone work.

One especially important thing to note: procrastination is a common human tendency, so it likely will occur in some fashion from various parts of the overall project team. Which is why it is especially important that the project/program manager is cognizant of it. Not only does the project/program manager need to ensure they themselves do not fall into that trap, but they are also tasked with ensuring it is not occurring in a large degree within the team. Which is what makes being aware of procrastination all that much more imperative for the project/program manager.

**Additional Note: Procrastination can often be a result of the previous tip with regards to your work area and distractions. As mentioned, keep those to a minimum. Things like instant messenger, Facebook, or multiple bookmarks to various websites are a one way ticket to ensuring your focus will drift to everything BUT the tasks at hand.

6. Use tools to help you do your job

The whole purpose of any tool is to assist in work. We use hammers because its easier that trying to push a nail into a board with a rock or your thumb. Similarly, we use computers because of their ability to do calculations and operations far faster than we can.

With that in mind, the project manager needs to be aware of the tools that are designed to make their job easier. Various communication tools, like email, WebEx and teleconferencing are now common-place within the industry. Additionally, software tools like MS Excel or Project are meant to give the project/program manager the ability to better scope, monitor and track the various aspects of all their projects. One can go so far as to say that the internet itself is a staple tool nowadays, since it affords the project/program manager the ability to perform searches on key questions or pitfalls they may have come across and discover information from kindred project/program managers on how best to handle a particular situation that has arisen.

With that being said, the project/program manager needs to be both aware of and utilize the tools that are available to make their job easier. Doing so will ensure specific aspects of their job are less cumbersome, thereby making the project/program manager more efficient and effective overall.

**Additional Note: One special note is that while tools are good at helping you do your job, don’t turn them into a hinderance. You may find that you become so accustomed to using specific tools for your job, you end up using them even in situations where they may be too cumbersome or unwieldy. Afterall, you don’t necessarily need to launch MS Project or Excel every time you need to categorize something.

7. Never be afraid to ask for help

The old adage states: “if you want something done right, do it yourself…” And while this may hold true, it does NOT mean that you should not ask for assistance in a situation where you have hit a roadblock. Colleagues and peers are often more than willing to give feedback or suggestions for a variety of circumstances. Additionally, you may discover that a colleague who ran into a similar problem not only solved it, but has a re-usable resource that you can leverage for your own project.

It is common in many circles (even outside of project management) for individuals to be hesitant to ask for help. They may feel like it is defeatist and that asking for assistance is a bruise to the ego. But invariably, we ALL have to ask for help from time to time. It should not be in any way thought of as ‘demeaning’. No one is going to make you feel stupid (well, usually) if you ask for some assistance or insight. In fact, most people consider being approached for help or suggestions as a form of flattery. So don’t be afraid to approach your colleagues if the need arises.

**Additional Note: One important point to make is that while passing off tasks to others or asking for assistance is important in being able to handle your duties, do NOT turn this into a crutch. It can become very tempting to rely on a specific resource for help because they have been good at providing assistance in the past. But be mindful that you may be undermining their own work and potentially causing animosity by continuously asking them for their help. Other people are there to help you, but they are not there to do your job for you. So it is important to understand the difference.

Project Metrics Overload! – Keeping Your Metrics Lean and Efficient

Keeping tabs on a project (or program’s) progress is of critical important to the project manager. The success (or failure) of a project can often hinge on the effectiveness of the project manager in being able to spot issues that may be arising and deal with them in an efficient and expedient manner.

There are numerous attributes to a project. From resources to tasks to timelines, the various pieces that make up a full project’s structure can become quite complex.

A common fallacy within the world of project management (and also in other fields), is the tendency to try to track every possible metric that exists. The general concept behind this technique is the assertion that more is better.

While it is important to track progress and specific items pertaining to a project/program’s general success criteria, there are potential downsides to attempting to track too many attributes. Doing so can make the overall project more unwieldy and complex then it actually needs to be. Furthermore, tracking too many metrics can actually devalue key metrics and cause them to be lost in a storm of data. The project manager may also discover that he/she is spending so much time maintaining these unwieldy data sets, that other aspects of their core responsibilities will fall through the cracks.

Based on all the aforementioned, what sort of criteria should the project manager be tracking and what steps can they take to avoid the deluge of unnecessary and sometimes irrelevant data?

Keep Things Lean

Whenever you are looking at setting up the specific metrics you wish to monitor, always try to start out small. A good rule of thumb is to use the Triple Constraint as a frame of reference and general guide for the metrics you will want to monitor. (For more information, please view the post: Scope, Time and Cost – Managing the Triple Constraint)

A simple concept would be to just create three metrics to monitor based on the aforementioned Triple Constraint attributes. From there, you can look to expand your metrics pool as needed. But remember to do so sparingly. As indicated, the more metrics and data sets you add, the more cumbersome and complex it will become to maintain and monitor your project or program.

Bring Core (Critical) Metrics to the Forefront

Not all metrics or KPIs (Key Performance Indicators) are created equal. As such, there will likely be certain indicators of project performance and status that you will want to have readily available and easily obtained. When you are composing your metrics reports (whatever format they may be in), always ensure that the core critical metrics and KPIs are always viewable FIRST. So for example, if your standard report is an advanced Excel Workbook, ensure that the key metrics will exist in the first few worksheets of the full report. It is also advantageous to provide a more terse summary worksheet that will focus all the key metrics into concise packets for easier viewing. This also becomes especially important if you are using this Workbook as your primary distribution medium for project members, stakeholders or the sponsor.

Set Up a Concise Set of Dashboard Metrics

Nowadays, most companies will have some internal software system that allows for the creation of reporting dashboards. Dashboards are a fantastic way of creating dynamic and easily viewable mash-ups of the primary metrics pertaining to your program.

A dashboard, in general, should be something that is easily viewable in a single pass and requires minimal amounts of scrolling. Which provides further validation of the premise of this article in that simple is almost always best.

The type and nature of your own dashboard will be defined by you. But it is imperative that the dashboard is also something that is obvious to those who do not always necessarily have as much understanding of project metrics and KPIs. As such, from a visual standpoint, it is important to focus on chart types and display concepts that are more intuitive to a wide variety of individuals from varying backgrounds. (For more information on better project metrics display techniques, please feel free to access the post: Conveying Project Status – The Simplistic Approach)

An example of a well structured dashboard that is conveying project status and specific KPIs is provided below:

(Above graphic provided by ProjectManager.com)

For those individuals who are either freelancing or working in situations where a good dashboarding solution is not available, you should consider the website ProjectManager.com. It provides a robust and relatively inexpensive cloud dashboarding solution that is easily configurable and sharable for anyone with internet connectivity.

Maintain Different Dashboards Depending on Audience

A final note on dashboarding: while it is important to convey key information in a dashboard that is easily viewable and requires minimal scrolling, that does not mean the project manager has to sweat over trying to determine which metrics to add and which to leave out of a dashboard. Virtually all dashboarding solutions are designed in a way that allows you to store multiple dashboard types and layouts. As such, a project manager can create different dashboards that target different audience types. One dashboard could, for example, be configured to show KPIs denoting resource distribution and task loads which would likely be used by project team members or their direct management to determine who is working on what. Additionally, a high level dashboard showing overall project health and timelines might be something that would be viewed almost exclusively by the project stakeholders or sponsor. As you can see, different dashboards designed effectively, will provide different outputs or views depending on the target audience. One note of caution: a project manager may simply start creating dashboards at their leisure thereby undermining their efforts to keep things lean. Whenever possible, try to ensure that you leverage existing dashboards and their content for different audience types and only create ancillary dashboards if you feel that it is too difficult or impossible to provide all the data summations for the different user types in a singular view.

Conclusions

Keeping your metrics easy to decipher and not overwhelming is important to not only the project manager, but their constituents and team members. As alluded to earlier, focus on keeping your displays as simple and readable as possible. Avoid data inundation. And remember, if it is confusing to you, it will most certainly be confusing for someone else.

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