Saturday, January 1, 2011

Simple project management tracking tool

Many situations call out for a very simple project management tool.  An example would be a department manager with a handful of direct reports.  Each of her direct reports has several projects underway.  The projects aren't complex enough to require sophisticated Gantt charts.  The projects are relatively independent such that there isn't a need to map out contingencies.  The manager just wants a simple tool to keep track of commitments and identify projects where extra attention needs to be paid.

In this sort of situation, a tool such as Microsoft Project is far too cumbersome.  There is a good chance that most members of the team don't have that software installed or know how to use it.

Even simple collaboration tools such as Basecamp involve more administration than is necessary.

In cases like this, what often happens is that no systematic tracking gets done.  The manager may meet with her staff individually or in a regular staff meeting, but a systematic review doesn't get done.  Individual projects that are top-of-mind get discussed, but some important ones fall by the wayside.  Commitments are made and then forgotten.

In cases like this, a tracking tool stripped to its bare essentials can provide tremendous value.  One way to set up such a tool:

Create a row for each project to be tracked.  A project can be anything requiring more than one simple task to get done.

Decide on the time interval at which you plan to review progress.  Depending on the context, that could be anywhere from a day to a month or more.   Updating even this tool and reviewing it does require some effort, so it is best not to make the time interval shorter than necessary.  Two weeks tends to provide a good balance between minimizing administrative burden and ensuring timely review.

The first week, ask the project owner to list out what will get done on this project over the selected time period.  These actions go in the second column.

At the end of the time period, ask the project owner to fill in the third and the fourth column.  In the third column, indicate what actually got done during the first time period.  In the fourth column, indicate what the project owner plans to do over the next time period.

Every subsequent period, add two more columns, following this pattern.  Don't delete old columns - they provide a useful reference of what has been committed to and done in the past.  For easier viewing, old columns can be hidden in Excel by using "Freeze Panes."

This simple structure has a number of benefits.

Accountability: the project owner's commitments each time period can easily be compared to what actually gets done
Prioritization: the structure provides visibility into all of the project owner's commitments, which may reveal that there is no realistic way they will all get accomplished.  This gives the manager and project owner a chance up front to prioritize
Overcomes resistance: A core principle taught by David Allen in Getting Things Done is the great benefit of writing down the very next physical step we need to do to make progress on a project.  Often we avoid dealing with a project because getting started seems overwhelming.

Here is an Excel version of this project management tool.  The tracking certainly does not have to be done in Excel - you could use paper and pencil, a whiteboard, cuneiform, whatever.  It is the structure that is important: what got done, and what is going to get done.

Project Tracking Template

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