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Bare Bones Project Hacks

Bare Bones Project Hacks

Project managers seem to come in two flavors, maybe three. The first flavor are those who follow the PMI guidelines by the book. The second are those who get thrown into project management by way of the “someone had to do it” route. Third would be a hybrid. This addresses those last two types. Let’s talk about some of the basic elements of running a project, and while we’re at it, we will discuss a few methods for running projects that might prove helpful to you.

Project Management Is

At the basic bottom line, a project is a unit of measurement. It’s used to indicate the beginning and the end of a discrete event or series of events. Projects are usually larger than a single task. Going to get milk isn’t a project. Running a business is also not a project. Starting a business to help people buy milk is a project.

A project could be a solo event for just you. For this conversation, let’s assume there are a few people involved. We won’t discuss budget, specifically.

Definitions

One thing that derails projects is the lack of a discrete beginning or end. Projects either meet with dissatisfaction from their sponsors, or they amble on past deadlines as scope creep locks you, the project manager, into a lengthy and morphing situation of countless follow-up tasks. Here’s a trick. Use this measurement up front:

From what to what by when?

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For example, we will go from having no content management system to having a content management system operational and reachable from the outside world by the 25th of July. The definition isn’t going to replace all the details and requirements of the project, but it becomes helpful in setting expectations.

Set Expectations

Once a definition is in place, it becomes part of the project manager’s role to make sure everyone is aware of the scope all the time. With a project involving more than one person contributing, and more than one sponsor or boss, it’s important that everyone knows what they’re getting, and is reminded often of the scope of the project. For instance, if you’re delivering a piece of software that different teams can use to maintain a knowledge management site, it should be explicitly stated that you won’t be POPULATING the catalog of data, if that wasn’t in the scope of the project.

Other expectations will be around the method for conveying information (a list and a review, mentioned below), for escalating, for handling slipping of any dates, etc.

Set Exit Strategies

Some of you are saying, Chris– we haven’t even started talking about the project guts and you’re talking about how to get out, and how to make sure you’re not strung along for more. There are countless military histories that suggest that a poorly planned exit is the downfall of many a battle. To me, understanding the end of the story becomes a great driving power to the narrative of the beginning and middle of the story. It’s the same with projects.

A good exit strategy will answer the following:

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  • How will everyone know things are completed?
  • Who “OWNS” the new situation once the project is complete?
  • Who signs off that things are complete, and how?
  • What, if any, follow-on activities will be carried into a new project?

A List and a Review

If you ask my current VP about project management, he says it boils down to two things: a list, and a meeting to review the list. He is the one who got me in the habit of setting up projects to run like this:

  • Create Project Documents – The answers to all the above, plus the basic high-level task list, and contact info.
  • Create a Milestone List with Dates and Owners – First run is just making up the overall schedule. Run around and make sure the owners agree to the milestones and the dates.
  • Schedule a Review Meeting – We’ll talk about this next.

The milestone list should be kept in a file format that’s easily shared with all resources. I’m not a big fan of distributing Gantt charts in Microsoft Project. If you are, that’s swell. Another easy fix to this is just a simple 4 column table in Word or PowerPoint or Excel, with a Date column, a Milestone column, an Owner column, and a Status column. The first three are easy. Status can be one of five things: NEW, ON TARGET, BEHIND SCHEDULE, JEOPARDY, or CLOSED.

The list becomes the document of record for all parties in the project, including the sponsor. It’s the project manager’s responsibility to manage the list outside the review meeting. This means one-on-one check-ins with the owners of the various milestones, and getting a crisp status for the review meeting.

If all goes well, the review meeting should be a simple reading out of the current status on the list. And by reading out, I mean that the project manager has the floor. This is a “nodding heads” meeting, and in setting groundrules, it’s important to get people’s understanding that this meeting isn’t for discussion. It’s a quick, 15 minute or less, ‘in and out’ meeting, to give status in real time, and to hear back from constituents ONLY if there is a show-stopper new development that happened before you as a project manager last touched base with the milestone owners.

Milestones and a Project’s Guts

You’ll note that I mentioned milestones lists only. I once worked on a fairly complex project, involving millions of dollars of computer hardware and software, upgrades to an operating system, firmware, drivers, the primary database software, and the storage environment, all in the same 2-step maintenance window. We had an outside consultant help with the project planning. He wrote out a 390 task project that took several weeks of revisions and edits and meetings to discuss the new revisions of last week’s edits… TO THE PLAN. It’s a tool, people. Here’s another approach.

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My now-VP came in on that project with me. We fired the consultant, and then my colleague chucked the plan. He wrote out the 10 most important milestones of the event, we assigned them owners, and the project suddenly felt MUCH more manageable.

Assume your team is built with professionals that know their areas of expertise well enough to handle all the little “I’s and T’s” pieces. Instead, work with the owners to boil the tasks into larger clusters, and assign those a single milestone. So, if the fibre optic cables aren’t run on Tuesday, but get in on Wednesday, it doesn’t really mean that the “Install Network to Systems” milestone is off target. Maybe there were other details on the ground level that worked to put this task right again.

Don’t be afraid to quiz the owners on the details as part of your walking around to ensure the status is still accurate over the course of a week, but don’t put all those little bits and pieces on the milestone list. For instance, in my super-huge systems project, we boiled that huge project plan down to 10 items. We spoke with the milestone owners and told them, “We believe YOU are the expert, and that YOU know all the details to getting this task done.” We gave them the onus of dotting every “i.” And it worked. They were actually more responsible, and somewhat appreciative that we didn’t run around bothering them with every little micro detail.

Meeting Notes

Keep these simple, short, and to the point. Publish a copy of the milestone list with any changes of status. Write a quick few notes about any changes to the schedule, any issues to watch. The point is: brevity is better at surfacing issues or concerns. If you write 2000 words just to be thorough about the things that transpired during the meeting, you’ll end up BURYING the important things that others might need to make decisions.

Besides, meeting notes should be unnecessary if all the footwork you did to ensure the list is in order was followed by a brief status meeting. There’s not much to discuss.

Instead, keep the guts and the details of projects in a project log. This log is more for lessons learned, and for reflection after the fact. It’s important the project manager invest in the log during the project and not just write it up after the fact. Remember, using something that’s searchable is better than writing lessons learned notes into a paper pad and storing them away forever. Use pads for collection, but use something electronic and searchable (try a wiki!) for the business of making this information useful for any follow-on projects.

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Human Interaction

More than anything, what will sink a project or make a project is you, the project manager, and your ability to understand the motivations of the people on your team. What are their incentives? What other pressures do they have that are in opposition to the work you’re asking them to do? What are the staffing levels of their group? How’s their home life?

The success of a project, especially around the ever-important and elusive goal of meeting deadlines, usually hinges on people. Are you in tune with the people on your project? Do you know what bothers them about the project? Have you properly praised them at important points in the project? Have you stressed the importance of one part of the project versus the others?

Don’t forget the old bit about praising publically and criticizing privately. It’s not the right place and time to complain about someone’s performance at a status meeting surrounded by all their peers. (Unless, of course, this is really the only motivational incentive left in your arsenal). Project management isn’t about manipulation, but it is certainly about influencing people to see your perspective for the needs of the project, and setting them up for success by guiding them accordingly to paths that will lead to your mutual success.

And sometimes (PMI people are about to faint), it’s important for you, the project manager, to realize that the people working projects have other tasks to complete on other projects, and they have lives, and that there are other things going on in your resources’ lives than just this project. If sometimes (rarely) there are areas where the person can be given a single break on missing something minor (while still staying the overall project course), relax and be a human about it.

Follow Up on the Article

There was a lot to digest in this piece, and I’m sure the project managers in the audience would like to disagree a bit. I welcome comments and differences of opinions. How are you getting things done? Further, if you’d like more information or clarification on anything I might have breezed over, please feel free to contact me through the comments and we’ll try and answer all the questions.

— Chris Brogan writes about self-improvement and creativity at [chrisbrogan.com]. He will be launching a podcast in May. Stay tuned for details.

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Last Updated on March 17, 2020

A Review of the Book “The Art of Learning”

A Review of the Book “The Art of Learning”

Josh Waitzkin has led a full life as a chess master and international martial arts champion, and as of this writing he isn’t yet 35. The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance chronicles his journey from chess prodigy (and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer) to world championship Tai Chi Chuan with important lessons identified and explained along the way.

    Marketing expert Seth Godin has written and said that one should resolve to change three things as a result of reading a business book; the reader will find many lessons in Waitzkin’s volume.  Waitzkin has a list of principles that appear throughout the book, but it isn’t always clear exactly what the principles are and how they tie together.  This doesn’t really hurt the book’s readability, though, and it is at best a minor inconvenience.  There are many lessons for the educator or leader, and as one who teaches college, was president of the chess club in middle school, and who started studying martial arts about two years ago, I found the book engaging, edifying, and instructive.

    Waitzkin’s chess career began among the hustlers of New York’s Washington Square, and he learned how to concentrate among the noise and distractions this brings. This experience taught him the ins and outs of aggressive chess-playing as well as the importance of endurance from the cagey players with whom he interacted.  He was discovered in Washington Square by chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini, who became his first coach and developed him from a prodigious talent into one of the best young players in the world.

    The book presents Waitzkin’s life as a study in contrasts; perhaps this is intentional given Waitzkin’s admitted fascination with eastern philosophy.  Among the most useful lessons concern the aggression of the park chess players and young prodigies who brought their queens into the action early or who set elaborate traps and then pounced on opponents’ mistakes.  These are excellent ways to rapidly dispatch weaker players, but it does not build endurance or skill.  He contrasts these approaches with the attention to detail that leads to genuine mastery over the long run.

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    According to Waitzkin, an unfortunate reality in chess and martial arts—and perhaps by extension in education—is that people learn many superficial and sometimes impressive tricks and techniques without developing a subtle, nuanced command of the fundamental principles.  Tricks and traps can impress (or vanquish) the credulous, but they are of limited usefulness against someone who really knows what he or she is doing. Strategies that rely on quick checkmates are likely to falter against players who can deflect attacks and get one into a long middle-game.  Smashing inferior players with four-move checkmates is superficially satisfying, but it does little to better one’s game.

    He offers one child as an anecdote who won many games against inferior opposition but who refused to embrace real challenges, settling for a long string of victories over clearly inferior players (pp. 36-37).  This reminds me of advice I got from a friend recently: always try to make sure you’re the dumbest person in the room so that you’re always learning.  Many of us, though, draw our self-worth from being big fish in small ponds.

    Waitzkin’s discussions cast chess as an intellectual boxing match, and they are particularly apt given his discussion of martial arts later in the book.  Those familiar with boxing will remember Muhammad Ali’s strategy against George Foreman in the 1970s: Foreman was a heavy hitter, but he had never been in a long bout before.  Ali won with his “rope-a-dope” strategy, patiently absorbing Foreman’s blows and waiting for Foreman to exhaust himself.  His lesson from chess is apt (p. 34-36) as he discusses promising young players who focused more intensely on winning fast rather than developing their games.

    Waitzkin builds on these stories and contributes to our understanding of learning in chapter two by discussing the “entity” and “incremental” approaches to learning. Entity theorists believe things are innate; thus, one can play chess or do karate or be an economist because he or she was born to do so.  Therefore, failure is deeply personal.  By contrast, “incremental theorists” view losses as opportunities: “step by step, incrementally, the novice can become the master” (p. 30).  They rise to the occasion when presented with difficult material because their approach is oriented toward mastering something over time.  Entity theorists collapse under pressure.  Waitzkin contrasts his approach, in which he spent a lot of time dealing with end-game strategies
    where both players had very few pieces.  By contrast, he said that many young students begin by learning a wide array of opening variations.  This damaged their games over the long run: “(m)any very talented kids expected to win without much resistance.  When the game was a struggle, they were emotionally unprepared.”  For some of us, pressure becomes a source of paralysis and mistakes are the beginning of a downward spiral (pp. 60, 62).  As Waitzkin argues, however, a different approach is necessary if we are to reach our full potential.

    A fatal flaw of the shock-and-awe, blitzkrieg approach to chess, martial arts, and ultimately anything that has to be learned is that everything can be learned by rote.  Waitzkin derides martial arts practitioners who become “form collectors with fancy kicks and twirls that have absolutely no martial value” (p. 117).  One might say the same thing about problem sets.  This is not to gainsay fundamentals—Waitzkin’s focus in Tai Chi was “to refine certain fundamental principles” (p. 117)—but there is a profound difference between technical proficiency and true understanding.  Knowing the moves is one thing, but knowing how to determine what to do next is quite another.  Waitzkin’s intense focus on refined fundamentals and processes meant that he remained strong in later round while his opponents withered.  His approach to martial arts is summarized in this passage (p. 123):

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    “I had condensed my body mechanics into a potent state, while most of my opponents had large, elegant, and relatively impractical repertoires.  The fact is that when there is intense competition, those who succeed have slightly more honed skills than the rest.  It is rarely a mysterious technique that drives us to the top, but rather a profound mastery of what may well be a basic skill set.  Depth beats breadth any day of the week, because it opens a channel for the intangible, unconscious, creative components of our hidden potential.”

    This is about much more than smelling blood in the water.  In chapter 14, he discusses “the illusion of the mystical,” whereby something is so clearly internalized that almost imperceptibly small movements are incredibly powerful as embodied in this quote from Wu Yu-hsiang, writing in the nineteenth century: “If the opponent does not move, then I do not move.  At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”  A learning-centered view of intelligence means associating effort with success through a process of instruction and encouragement (p. 32).  In other words, genetics and raw talent can only get you so far before hard work has to pick up the slack (p. 37).

    Another useful lesson concerns the use of adversity (cf. pp. 132-33).  Waitzkin suggests using a problem in one area to adapt and strengthen other areas.  I have a personal example to back this up.  I will always regret quitting basketball in high school.  I remember my sophomore year—my last year playing—I broke my thumb and, instead of focusing on cardiovascular conditioning and other aspects of my game (such as working with my left hand), I waited to recover before I got back to work.

    Waitzkin offers another useful chapter entitled “slowing down time” in which he discusses ways to sharpen and harness intuition.  He discusses the process of “chunking,” which is compartmentalizing problems into progressively larger problems until one does a complex set of calculations tacitly, without having to think about it.  His technical example from chess is particularly instructive in the footnote on page 143.  A chess grandmaster has internalized much about pieces and scenarios; the grandmaster can process a much greater amount of information with less effort than an expert.  Mastery is the process of turning the articulated into the intuitive.

    There is much that will be familiar to people who read books like this, such as the need to pace oneself, to set clearly defined goals, the need to relax, techniques for “getting in the zone,” and so forth.  The anecdotes illustrate his points beautifully.  Over the course of the book, he lays out his methodology for “getting in the zone,” another concept that people in performance-based occupations will find useful.  He calls it “the soft zone” (chapter three), and it consists of being flexible, malleable, and able to adapt to circumstances.  Martial artists and devotees of David Allen’s Getting Things Done might recognize this as having a “mind like water.”  He contrasts this to “the hard zone,” which “demands a cooperative world for you to function.  Like a dry twig, you are brittle, ready to snap under pressure” (p. 54).  “The Soft Zone is resilient, like a flexible blade of grass that can move with and survive hurricane-force winds” (p. 54).

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    Another illustration refers to “making sandals” if one is confronted with a journeyacross a field of thorns (p. 55).  Neither bases “success on a submissive world or overpowering force, but on intelligent preparation and cultivated resilience” (p. 55). Much here will be familiar to creative people:  you’re trying to think, but that one song by that one band keeps blasting away in your head.  Waitzkin’s “only option was to become at peace with the noise” (p. 56).  In the language of economics, the constraints are given; we don’t get to choose them.

    This is explored in greater detail in chapter 16.  He discusses the top performers, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, and others who do not obsess over the last failure and who know how to relax when they need to (p. 179).  The experience of NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh is also useful as “the more he could let things go” while the defense was on the field, “the sharper he was in the next drive” (p. 179).  Waitzkin discusses further things he learned while experimenting in human performance, particularly with respect to “cardiovascular interval training,” which “can have a profound effect on your ability to quickly release tension and recover from mental exhaustion” (p. 181).  It is that last concept—to “recover from mental exhaustion”—that is likely what most academics need help with.

    There is much here about pushing boundaries; however, one must earn the right to do so: as Waitzkin writes, “Jackson Pollock could draw like a camera, but instead he chose to splatter paint in a wild manner that pulsed with emotion”  (p. 85).  This is another good lesson for academics, managers, and educators.  Waitzken emphasizes close attention to detail when receiving instruction, particularly from his Tai Chi instructor William C.C. Chen.  Tai Chi is not about offering resistance or force, but about the ability “to blend with (an opponent’s) energy, yield to it, and overcome with softness” (p. 103).

    The book is littered with stories of people who didn’t reach their potential because they didn’t seize opportunities to improve or because they refused to adapt to conditions.  This lesson is emphasized in chapter 17, where he discusses “making sandals” when confronted with a thorny path, such as an underhanded competitor.  The book offers several principles by which we can become better educators, scholars, and managers.

    Celebrating outcomes should be secondary to celebrating the processes that produced those outcomes (pp. 45-47).  There is also a study in contrasts beginning on page 185, and it is something I have struggled to learn.  Waitzkin points to himself at tournaments being able to relax between matches while some of his opponents were pressured to analyze their games in between.  This leads to extreme mental fatigue: “this tendency of competitors to exhaust themselves between rounds of tournaments is surprisingly widespread and very self-destructive” (p. 186).

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    The Art of Learning has much to teach us regardless of our field.  I found it particularly relevant given my chosen profession and my decision to start studying martial arts when I started teaching.  The insights are numerous and applicable, and the fact that Waitzkin has used the principles he now teaches to become a world-class competitor in two very demanding competitive enterprises makes it that much easier to read.

    I recommend this book to anyone in a position of leadership or in a position that requires extensive learning and adaptation.  That is to say, I recommend this book to everyone.

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    Featured photo credit: Jazmin Quaynor via unsplash.com

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