Project management software has not made this any easier. Many of the project management software applications tout how intuitive and simple they are. But the reality is that they have automated some of the more difficult and obscure aspects of project management. In order to really use the software, you already need to be adept at project management. So for most people, the software either becomes a glorified chart-making tool or it is used as barriers to keep the “unwashed masses” out of the intricate mysteries of professional project management.
But in a nutshell, project management is just organizing who does what and when they do it so as to achieve a goal or objective. When the work is very difficult, or there are many people, or there are some tight constraints around the objective; then the project management disciplines can help to identify and overcome unique issues. But it still comes down to “who,” “what,” and “when” to achieve the goal.
That is why I find that most of the time when I am working with an organization that is trying to embrace project management; I need to focus on how to keep things simple. What I have found is that there are two very simple approaches to organizing the “who,” “what” and “when” that everyone can understand and work with.
Post-It Note Project Management
The first is to use “Post-it” notes and a storyboard. In this case, every activity is listed on its own “Post-it” note. I then add the name or names of who will do the activity and the start or end date.
The “Post-It” notes are organized on the storyboard in whatever way makes the most sense to the team. I have organized them in columns where each column represents a week or each column represents an individual on the team. I have also organized them by grouping the tasks for a deliverable around each other in more of a mind-mapping approach.
There are several limitations with this approach. First, you need a co-located team so that everyone can see and track the storyboard. Also, I have found that if there are too many activities it is difficult to fit them all on the storyboard and track progress. My rule of thumb is that this approach is limited to 100 activities or less. Finally, if there are many linkages between activities throughout the project, this approach does not capture that well and another tool or analysis is needed to track those linkages. With that said, most of the organizations that have small ad hoc teams for conducting part-time projects can use this approach.
Spreadsheet Project Management
The next approach is to use a spreadsheet for planning and tracking the project activities. Now I am not talking about using the advanced math functions of the spreadsheet, rather I am using it as a poor man’s database. The reason I like to use a spreadsheet is because all most all mobile devices, laptops, tablets, and phones have a spreadsheet application. If I put the project plan and status in a simple spreadsheet, I can share it with a distributed team and update it any time and from anywhere.
I set up my spreadsheet so that each row is a project task or activity and each column represents information about that task or activity. So one column is the task, another column is the task completion criteria – or “definition of done” – for that task. I also have a column for who is doing the work, the start date, end date, notes or comments, and current status. Another thing I like to do with the spreadsheet is change the color of the row based upon status. That way activities that are done are late or in work can pop out when your check the spreadsheet.
There are several advantages of this approach. It can be easily shared with team members that are not co-located. You can easily add hundreds of tasks (I have used it on projects with over 400 tasks and activities). It is easy to sort the activities by date, by status or by who is doing the work. And as I mentioned it is portable.
There are several disadvantages. One is that you can only see a few rows at a time on your screen. Another is one that was mentioned with the Post-it notes; that is that it is difficult to track linkages between the tasks and activities. When you have the complex linkages you should switch to a powerful project management software application. And you probably need a professional project manager then because of the complexity and risk.
So keep it simple. Use Post-it notes or spreadsheets where possible. If you want to know more about using either of these approaches, check out my online course on the topic.