“Dear Elizabeth: What would constitute an action for the log versus a task in the project plan schedule? I don’t know where to put my tasks, and it’s confusing to have them in two places.”
This is actually a pretty common question; I’d say it comes up at least once a month! So, first: know that you are not alone in wondering what goes on the project schedule and what tasks are better suited to a to-do list or action log.
Let’s look at the purpose of the schedule and the action log to start with, and then we’ll dive into what goes into each.
The project schedule
The project schedule is your single place to list tasks that drive the project forward.
It’s also the file you use to manage relationships between tasks (dependencies) and task ownership, as individuals will be allocated to tasks on the schedule.
The schedule, therefore, combines what there is to do and who is available to do it. You can use that information to make sure people aren’t overloaded with too many tasks (or, conversely, sitting around waiting for work to come to them). Resource leveling is just one of the many things you can do with a schedule built on robust project management software.
The project schedule also includes milestones and deadlines. These give you a visual reminder of when activities need to be completed. From that, you can work out the risk of not meeting those dates.
Overall, the project schedule is the main way to track project performance and monitor progress. When you see tasks aren’t being completed to the planned dates, you can make adjustments to the schedule, workload, and project approach to accommodate what is happening within the team.
The project schedule is what I call a ‘living document’. It’s something that is updated regularly, often daily, especially as the project moves into the delivery phases.
While the project schedule might not have a lot of detail about future stages of the project, it generally includes some high-level tasks, so it gives you the big picture and the roadmap for where the project is going.
The action log
The action log is a kind of joint project team to-do list. You use it to record tasks that the project team members are going to do so that they don’t forget to do them. Typically, this list doesn’t include things that need to be done months in advance. Instead, it’s a place to document what is important to you now, based on current issues and discussions.
Action logs can take many forms, from a simple spreadsheet to the built-in task management features of your project management software. Most enterprise-grade project tools offer the option to have separate to-do lists as well as scheduled project tasks.
Ideally, the action log should be something you keep as the project manager, and you use in project team meetings to check in with the team. It is the single source of all meeting actions, corridor conversation tasks, and to-do’s that come in on email. You copy and paste all those things into one single location, so you’ve got visibility of all the non-scheduled work.
It’s even better if everyone else can see these tasks, but in my experience, it’s just as easy for me to read out the relevant tasks or copy and paste someone’s to-do’s into an email when I need an update.
Project schedule activities are the tasks that drop out of your work breakdown structure and scheduling efforts. They are the things that move the project forward and contribute to completing the deliverables.
Typically, the input for your schedule activities comes from past projects and subject matter expertise. You will have held workshops or meetings with individual experts to determine what needs to be done to achieve the project’s goals.
Then you’ll have a task owner and an estimated task duration. Typically, schedule activities are on the calendar for at least a day, and many of your tasks may run for longer.
The schedule is also a communications tool to track and monitor project progress and share that information with others in the management teams and project team.
Action log tasks
As the action log is like a team to-do list, the tasks on the list are typically small things that don’t warrant being scheduled activities. They do still contribute to the overall project effort, but they involve less work.
Here are some examples:
- Circulate documents or share other information
- Make phone calls or set up meetings
- Raise purchase orders or process invoices
- Check-in with or talk to someone who is not part of the core team
- Deal with an issue
- Recruit someone new to the team
- Organize team social events or team building
- Prepare slide decks or communication materials
- Research something, like company policy on an approach.
These are small, quick activities that would bloat your project schedule. No one needs to list ‘Invite Carol to meet, Send out agenda, Send out minutes,’ every month on your schedule, but you might want to remind yourself to do those things by having them on your to-do list so they don’t fall through the cracks.
Action log tasks can also be for vendors or other external third parties. You record what you asked them to do, so you remember to chase them up.
In a perfect world, everyone would do what they were asked to the first time, and with no chasing needed. But that’s not the workplace we have! Sometimes you’ll need to remind people what they committed to. The action log is the place to record those commitments so you can follow up when necessary.
The project schedule and the action log work hand in hand to help you see everything that is happening on the project. The bigger tasks that drive the project forward and require substantive effort go on the schedule. The day-to-day office admin and chasing up work of the project team go on the action log. The action log becomes your collective memory while the schedule is the route map that helps you get to your destination.
In my experience both are invaluable: test out using them in the way I’ve described and see if that helps you feel in control of the project work.
Elizabeth Harrin is a project manager, author of several books, and a mentor. Find her online at her blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management.