At LiquidPlanner, we love hearing how teams are benefiting from our project management solution. Recently, we came across an article written by Chris Clegg, President of PortMA, about how his team of remote workers stays organized when there are a ton of complex projects running at the same time.
PortMA, or Portland Marketing Analytics, is a market research firm that specializes in the measurement and analysis of event marketing return-on-investment and advertising communication. In this work, they service a number of marketing and advertising agencies in the U.S. with design, data collection, analysis, and reporting services, doing anywhere from 50 to 70 projects per year in a wide range of industries.
After reading Chris’ article, we reached out to find out more! We asked Chris how he found LiquidPlanner and how LiquidPlanner has helped his team.
What prompted your search for a new project management solution?
“We outgrew Basecamp. As that platform advanced, it moved away from what we needed. At the core, we needed templates, task dependencies, resource planning, and risk management tools. LiquidPlanner fit the bill on all fronts and has shown us a number of additional features we didn’t know we needed. We’re a better, stronger business because of what LiquidPlanner allows us to do.”
How does LiquidPlanner help your team?
“We work entirely from within LiquidPlanner. All of our internal and external project work is spec’d out in detail with time estimates, assignments, and work orders within the LiquidPlanner system. And then our daily time tracking is submitted against LiquidPlanner tasks to help us monitor our progress against contract deliverable items in real-time. Research Managers and supporting staff are updating their projects and related tasks on a daily basis to keep things moving smoothly. At any given time, we might have 15 to 25 contracts running simultaneously, each with dozens of weekly task items. Without LiquidPlanner we’d be so lost in the weeds, we’d never get anything done. The flat resource planning model and how it defines deadline risks allows us to deal with reality and not bury staff under unreasonable deadlines.
Finally, I’d mention that the template function really serves as our playbook. We’ve built out detailed project templates with descriptions on what each task is, how it’s done, and why. We’ve then added extensive checklist items to define the specifics of what is expected on a given task. This services as our documented corporate processes that allows for work to be quickly handed off from one person to another seamlessly without cutting corners.”
How do you know when it’s time to consider a new tool or process for your business? In the case of project management, here’s a way to find out! Take ourProject Management Health Check,a 9-question multiple-choice assessment of your project management process.
For organizations that track time, there’s always going to be some resistance—or at least questions about it. Even if nobody says it out loud, I’ll bet your employees are at least wondering: “Why on earth is my company making me track time?”
It’s easy to feel like tracking time is a way for leadership to keep an eye on the rank and file. But that’s far from the truth—leaders are busy people. And remember, if you’re tracking your time, your managers probably are too.
Time tracking isn’t about keeping an eye on teams’ productivity as much as it is a smart business move. Think about it: Time tracking yields data that is critical for monitoring business and employee performance. Timesheet data provides businesses with the ability to not only benchmark, but even more importantly, to forecast. Time tracking data surfaces project cost, project profitability, employee availability, employee cost, and so much more.
Whether you’re a project team member wondering “why on earth…?” or a manager who needs to answer this question—here are some ways to talk about time tracking that will get your teams to understand, and feel good about starting their timers.
For projects, time tracking is important because it:
Surfaces key operational metrics that might otherwise remain hidden.
Allows businesses to measure the true costs of any project.
Offers real-time visibility into work that’s been done and work that’s left to do.
Helps companies stick to timeline or project budgets.
Enables managers to understand employee utilization and capacity—and allocate accordingly.
Creates a historical record, enabling you to estimate future projects with greater accuracy.
Can save you money especially when working on a retainer basis. Time tracking is critical for preventing over-servicing.
Helps answer the question: “Can my team take on this new initiative?”
Allows for continual processes evaluation and improvement.
For employees, time tracking is important because it:
Gives insight into how much time is going into different tasks and projects.
Yields data that can be used to ask for more resources, a raise, even a promotion.
Helps keep track of remote or freelance workers.
Provides insight into what an ideal work process looks like.
Helps stay in a productivity flow, and limit interruptions.
Empowers employees to use their own data for goal setting and/or decision-making.
Provides data that can be used to reward employees who meet or exceed project deadlines, budgets and goals.
It keeps employees from being overschedule and overworked—which improves engagement, boosts morale and increases productivity.
Let your employees in
Time tracking comes alive when teams feel like they play an integral part of the work being accomplished. So, if you’re a team leader or a manager, provide knowledge. This means letting your team in on the story of why everyone’s doing the work they’re doing: what the purpose is and how a particular project moves the business forward. Address what’s in it for them and their career, too. Empower individuals—give each person the right amount of autonomy to make decisions, so team members feel like they’re contributing to the momentum of this larger story. Make people feel that they’re a key to success. Once team members feel like they’re part of things, they can begin to understand the value of tracking time—because it will matter to them as well.
Innovative project teams are increasingly becoming an invaluable asset for corporations. Not only is it becoming vital that project teams make use of the latest technological advancements in the products and services that they’re developing; it’s also vital that teams continuously improve the way in which they work—and that they find new and innovative ways of cutting costs in order to stay competitive.
Not long ago I went to China to coach a team from a global electronics firm. They are market leaders, renowned for their quality and cutting-edge products. Still, this organization is facing strong competition on price from other players. Consequently, each year the head of product development challenges the teams to cut costs—sometimes by up to 20 percent—to stay competitive. When looking at how to cut costs, the teams have to be exceptionally innovative in the way they approach the design and production of their products.
Continuously coming up with new ways of working and developing products and services is a skill—a dynamic property that all successful teams will need to develop to lead the competition.
How do you create an innovative team, and encourage cutting edge ideas? Here are five ways to play the innovation game:
1. Seek inspiration from outside the team
Innovation isn’t necessarily about inventing something that’s totally unique and has never been done before. Instead, it could be leveraging an existing idea or technology from another industry and embedding it within the team’s products and procedures.
As the artist Pablo Picasso said, “Good artists copy; great artist steal.” Most industries are advancing at a faster pace than ever before, and there are lots of ideas that can be transferred if you keep your fingers on the pulse. Innovative teams keep abreast of what’s happening in the world around them. They read blogs and trade magazines, attend conferences and trade shows and spend time with other teams who they might learn from and get inspired by. If teams work in silos and rarely get exposed to other ways of working, they’re a lot less likely to come up with new ideas. Innovative teams and people look outside of themselves for inspiration.
2. Share information effectively inside the team
It’s not sufficient for teams to get inspired by new ideas from the outside world if the information isn’t shared with the rest of the team. It’s the team that has the power to collectively do something with an idea—from improving it to ultimately integrating it.
Every team member plays a pivotal role, and every team member is kept in the loop of the latest thinking so that they can be effective in their roles and further develop the ideas. Innovative teams are great communicators and have an effective way of disseminating information between its members. It’s been proven that one of the most efficient ways of encouraging the flow of information is by spending time face-to-face. And this is exactly what innovative teams do. They physically sit next to one another where possible; when it’s not possible, these teams spend time on video conference, sharing what they know.
3. Be a leader who stimulates creativity
Innovative teams are led by someone who recognizes that if you don’t enable people to innovate then it won’t happen. We could call such a leader a Multiplier. A Multiplier is skilled at getting the best from people and at creating an environment where the best ideas surface. These leaders stimulate creativity by asking why and what-if questions and by shifting the burden of thinking onto the team. Multipliers want to learn from people around them, so instead of providing the right answers they simply ask the right questions. In other words, they create debate and invite the team to fill in the blanks.
Teams who are led by the opposite type of leader – a Diminisher – will feel stifled. Diminishers tend to be controlling and want to take the credit for innovative ideas themselves. Instead of shifting responsibility to the team, they stay in charge and tell others – in detail – how to do their job. Invariably, innovative teams would never be innovative if they were lead by a Diminisher.
4. Take time to experiment and play
Put a value on taking the time to come up with new ideas! Teams that work to a tight delivery schedule and who are frequently being monitored and controlled will tend to come up with fewer new ideas because there’s no time devoted to them. Innovative teams, on the other hand, create the time and the space to consider how something can be done differently. They take time out to experiment and to play; their physical work environments will often stimulate idea generation.
In some cases, innovative teams are given an amount of unstructured time where they can work on anything they like, as long as there are results to be shown—made famous by Google back in the day. When teams play and experiment, some ideas will invariably fail—something that innovative teams see as a necessary part of the process, which helps guide them in the right direction.
5. Hire a mix of skills and personality types
Innovative teams are made up of people with a range of personality types and a mix of skills. When teams become too uniform they don’t have enough breadth to fully develop and implement new ideas. An innovative team isn’t just composed of creative types, but also of people with deep technical knowledge who have a more pragmatic approach.
Generating new ideas is one thing, but choosing the best one and successfully implementing it is something entirely different. In spite of their diverse strengths and skills, innovative teams are exceptionally supportive of each other, and are what psychologists call, socially sensitive. This means that not only do team members respect each other and make space for each individual to contribute on equal terms, they are also sensitive to each other’s moods and behaviors. This sensitivity creates a safe space for people because they know that their thoughts and ideas will be encouraged and listened to.
Step bravely and uniquely into the future
Increased competition and technological advancements mean that it’s becoming more important for successful teams to be innovative. Forward-thinking teams are aware of the world around them and willing to take risks; they know how to move on from mistakes and keep executing until they hit on a new market need or improve on an existing one.
Put these five practices into action and you could be surprised what your team is capable of. This might be your best year ever!
The future of industry is changing. Innovative teams are turning to new dynamic processes and software to support the speed of doing business. To learn more about how LiquidPlanner supports innovative teams, read our eBook, “An Introduction to Dynamic Project Management Software.”
Are you grappling with a stubborn project management work issue? Ask Elizabeth! Email your question to: email@example.com. Anonymity included.
Dear Elizabeth: My company’s management team is talking a lot about the incoming Fourth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 4.0. I’m hearing a lot about how we’re going to have to increase productivity and flexibility in our processes. As a product team manager this sounds exciting but I’m not sure what to do to prepare. Advice? –Lagging Behind
Dear Lagging: Industry 4.0 is all about the Internet of Things and bringing computers and automation together in an entirely new way. It’s pretty cool, and it’s great that you are thinking about it now.
Being more flexible and increasing productivity is something that managers through the ages have aspired to. The reason we have robots on manufacturing lines is because someone wanted better productivity than what could be achieved with human workers. So in many respects, the ideas are things that you’ve been subconsciously aware of for some time.
I would start by looking at the flows of work in your area and around your product. Approaches like Six Sigma and Lean can help here: Ultimately you are trying to find duplicated effort and waste in the process so that you can strip it out. I’ve always thought that was a good starting point but it doesn’t go far enough. Sometimes you’ll need to totally re-engineer a process to make it incrementally more productive and your team might already have some ideas about how to do that. Why not ask them?
Aside from that, think about the tools you use and how they are going to support you. Software like LiquidPlanner allows you to stay flexible and shift between priorities, so make sure that you have the underpinning infrastructure and systems to meet the demand for flexibility when it comes.
Dear Elizabeth: It’s that time of year again—reviewing the year gone by and preparing for 2017 goals and commitments. I could use some new ideas to get myself and my team excited about reviewing what they’ve accomplished and using that to set up some goals they’re excited about. Any tips? – Goal Tender
Dear Goal Tender: First, congratulations on caring enough about your team that you want them to be excited about the coming year and what they’ve achieved. Far too many people in your situation see end-of-year reviews as a bureaucratic process to get through before they leave for the holidays. So, kudos to you!
I find that team members have short memories and will often only bring to the table things that they have achieved in the last few months. You could give them a template that says things like:
In March I achieved . . .
In April I delighted this customer . . .
And so on. Ask them to go through their project plans, notebooks and emails to find the examples if they don’t immediately spring to mind. There are a ton of achievements stored in their project management software so they will be able to find something, I promise.
As for 2017, you could think forward and ask them to imagine what their 2017 end of year review would look like. What do they hope they have achieved? What projects would they like to have worked on, or what skills would they have developed? This can help build a sense of interest in the coming year.
Finally, use the end of year conversations with your team to share with them as much as you can about the wider business plans. People are inspired when they know they are part of a company that is going somewhere. Talk about the plans you have for new clients and new projects and business developments. Show them what they could be part of over the next 12 months.
Long ago, in a city not far away, I worked for a very profitable company that got its start in the garage of one of its founders. We had grown to about 120 people with worldwide sales. Our products were the undisputed gold standard of the field. The employees were well paid and generally quite content. What’s not to like?
But if you looked closer, there were some problems. Our product line had never been refreshed; 12-year old designs were getting harder and harder to build as components went end-of-life; the manufacturability and reliability of our flagship product was poor; new product development was sluggish and unfocused.
I joined the company as an engineer, but it was obvious that we didn’t need our twentieth engineer; we needed our first project manager. As such, I wrote the company’s first requirements document, and got the stakeholders to agree to the product definition. I did what I could to add rigor to the development effort.
When I took over the project to write the software for the refresh of our flagship product, I created a giant flowchart that showed every possible interaction that a user could have with the product.
This story almost had a happy ending
In the end, I couldn’t get any of the other project leads to follow my example and use a project management process. As a result, a redesign project that should have taken less than three years to complete took seven. Sure, there were challenges getting the hardware to work, but these challenges paled in comparison to the delays caused by the lack of project management and a product development process.
My experience at this company served as both a motivating force and a warning for the importance of applying project management practices to the product development process.
If your team struggles to develop new products in a reasonable time, you could be missing a simple tool: project management.
Here are four ways to incorporate project management into your product development process.
1. Have a requirements document
Every project should have a requirements document that describes what the goals of the effort are and what “done” looks like. The flowchart I mentioned earlier served as our requirements document: If it was on the flowchart, we’d implement it, otherwise we wouldn’t.
Your requirements doc can be short and simple or long and detailed, depending on the situation. More importantly, it should be approved by all of the stakeholders.
By putting requirements in writing, you can avoid false consensus, where everyone thinks they know what the end product will look like, and someone has a different idea. You will also need a process to update this document, because there will be changes as you progress. All of the stakeholders should understand what these changes are and why the requirement is changing. In the end, it’s much easier to move an arrow on a flowchart than to change code and retest.
2. Have a process to start and stop projects
Just like people, healthy companies must grow and mature. They go through stages of development, and project management should grow along with the company. Too often, as companies grow, project management is one or two stages behind where it should be.
As you grow, you’ll need a process to green light new projects, making sure you have a requirements document and the resources to do the work. You also need a way to kill the projects that don’t make sense as soon as possible. Having a prioritized list of every project will help when there are resource conflicts. Finally, have a list of pending projects, so that good ideas have a place to wait until you have the resources to start the effort.
3. Treat project management like your other disciplines
You want to grow your company’s project management maturity along with the size and number of the projects that are happening. If your company is big enough to have a director of mechanical engineering, it’s probably big enough for a director of project management who is responsible for mentoring the project managers and developing good process.
You should also make sure you have top quality tools. I’ve seen companies skimp on this one, and it just doesn’t make sense. If you’re paying your project managers and engineers a good salary, a tool that increases everyone’s productivity will have a positive ROI.
4. Always focus on adding value
You need to guard against process that doesn’t add value. To do this, update your old processes to make sure they fit the reality of what the company is and will become—not the company that was.
One process that always adds value is bug tracking. If you find a bug that you can’t fix right away, you need a proper database to store it. It’s better to ship a product with known bugs that you’ve decided are low enough risk than to ship with unknown issues. The truth is, there are always some unknown bugs. What’s unforgivable is when you ship with bugs that you’ve just forgotten about. All of the bugs in the database need to be prioritized. Prioritize them as compared to the other bugs, as well as to new features.
Proper process is critical to running a healthy company. If you just let everyone do what they want, a rogue trader may cost you two billion dollars. If you run a multinational corporation like a startup, there’s no way for management to say, “We need to focus on the internet” and make things happen. The key is to have the appropriate level of management that allows people with good ideas to bring value to their projects and the company while still allowing the management to set priorities and direction.
Is your project management process holding you back? Find out! This 9-question multiple-choice quiz will diagnose the health of your PM tool and process.
If you work in manufacturing, you’re likely familiar with Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or Materials Resource Planning (MRP)—the system used to manage product planning, inventory management, production, fulfillment, and other aspects of production management and control. What’s more, you probably have a decent appreciation of how ERP/MRP systems have enabled manufacturing companies to optimize core business processes.
But what about the rest of the picture? Contrary to the “R” in the name, most modern ERP/MRP systems fail to fully address a key type of resource—namely, the people whose work supports and feeds into your core manufacturing operations.
Why an Optimized Manufacturing Floor Isn’t Enough
To remain competitive, you need to continually improve your products and optimize your manufacturing processes. Regardless of where an idea originates, the “heavy lifting” to make it happen isn’t done on your manufacturing line; it’s done by the engineers, designers, technicians, and other skilled professionals whose work supports—and feeds into—your manufacturing floor. And therein lies the problem that many companies face: after handoff to manufacturing, things go rather smoothly. Before that handoff, however, it’s likely to be much more of a free-for-all, with each person’s immediate priorities often based on who’s yelling the loudest.
More often than not, this is due to a lack of proper project management. Many companies still use spreadsheets to plan and track peoples’ work. Rarely does this yield more than a static, infrequently updated list of tasks.
While this approach may be OK for initial, high-level planning, it quickly falls apart as the rubber meets the road. Tasks take longer than estimated; customers submit change requests; team members get pulled off projects; budgets change; corporate priorities shift; and so on. There are endless examples. Regardless of the specifics, without proper project management, as things change, people waste time spinning their wheels—and decisions are made without full visibility into how they may affect other commitments.
The fact is that you need to treat each team member like any other enterprise resource—possessing a finite amount of output over time. And like any constrained resource, to get the most out of it, that resource’s output must be optimally orchestrated with respect to the work done by other resources.
While people aren’t machines, and the information or inputs they need to start a task are different than the raw materials that land on your loading dock, you can still think of the collective results they produce as a system of inputs, outputs, dependencies, units of effort, potential bottlenecks, and so on. Of course, unlike a machine that produces widgets at the rate of 600 per hour, when it comes to people, you’ll also need to take into account the uncertainty that comes along with estimating how long a task will take.
Given this, how do you best allocate the efforts of all team members to maximize your overall business throughput? That’s where the right project management tool can help.
A Better Way
You wouldn’t try to optimize your manufacturing operations without your ERP/MRP system, would you? Then why not take advantage of the same computational power that makes this possible to optimize how the people who support your production processes work, letting it do the “heavy lifting” (i.e., algorithmic optimization) to determine the optimal path forward?
A good project management tool, applied within a proper project management framework, can help you to:
1. Manage your team as a set of constrained resources. You need to apply the same discipline to planning and orchestrating peoples’ work as you do to optimizing your supply chain and production floor. This starts with realizing that, just like the machines on your production line, your team members are constrained resources—capable of doing one thing at a time, and capable of only so much output (or effort) in a given unit of time. A plan that’s effort-based (as in “this task will take between 35 and 40 hours”) instead of date-based (as in “management wants this finished by the end of the month”) will make sure your plans are grounded in reality instead of wishful thinking.
2. Create realistic schedules based on availability. Given the effort required for each task in a project, a project management tool that incorporates resources and availability into its scheduler across all your projects can help you estimate realistic delivery dates across your team’s entire workload. Delivering by the end of the month may be key to your job security, but without a plan that’s based on the actual effort involved and the availability of the people who will do that work, how much confidence will you have in hitting your date?
3. Handle the uncertainty of innovation. Unlike the amount of time required for a machine to crank out a widget, the effort required for an engineer to first design that widget is less deterministic. You never know what can happen, and a good project management tool can help you take that uncertainty into account. Look for a project management tool that lets you input task estimates based on best case/worst case scenarios—or, even better, one that lets the people who will actually be doing that work estimate the effort involved. This helps lead to a project schedule that’s grounded in reality, taking into consideration that you’ll probably encounter a few unexpected issues along the way—a common occurrence when attempting to innovate.
4. Make your team a part of the process. Modern project management tools are designed to tie team members into the project management process—enabling them to see their individual tasks (ideally in priority order); take ownership of that work from start to finish; and see how their efforts relate to the efforts of others and the bigger picture. Many collaborative project management tools also deliver other team-centric functionality, such as commenting, document sharing and notifications.
5. Monitor progress. As team members mark tasks complete, your project management tool can use that information to recalculate delivery dates in real time—provided you’ve chosen one that includes this functionality. This will help you quickly identify potential issues, such as a late task that’s threatening your delivery date, so that you can investigate further and take any necessary actions. Remember that, no matter how much you plan, things won’t go exactly as expected. The question is: Do you want to know about potential issues as soon possible, or do you want to hear about them for the first time in your weekly status meeting—if they get brought up at all?
6. Track time. In many companies, tracking time to project codes (think timesheets) is mandatory. Some project management systems have this built-in, eliminating the need for people to use a parallel process. Even if this isn’t required for your organization, the ability to look back on past projects can beinvaluable when it comes to refining your task estimates for the next project.
7. Adjust to changing priorities. Everyone working on the right tasks at the right time is essential to optimizing team output. A project management tool can help you easily prioritize (and re-prioritize) peoples’ work, in a way that’s clear to everyone on the team. While this can be invaluable within a project, with the right project management tool, as overall project priorities change, individuals can see this shift in their task assignments across all projects—and know that, every day, they’re focused on the same number-one priority as the company as a whole.
The above capabilities can help you apply the same discipline to managing peoples’ work as you do to your core manufacturing processes—think of it as “ERP for Your Peeps.”
So if you’re still using Excel to manage your work, it may be time to dump the spreadsheets, find a real project management tool, and put it to proper use. Before long, your schedule estimates and project plans will likely improve. And with team members tied into those plans, you’ll likely have a more accurate picture of project progress and potential threats to meeting your deadlines. Best of all, you’ll eliminate a good deal of the chaos, churn, and frustration that often accompany a lack of proper project management.
To learn about how other manufacturing companies have met their project management needs, read one or more of these customer stories: Rex Materials Group, bf1systems, and ETEL.
What’s the most advanced, technically and physically demanding event on the planet?
It’s motorsports. The machines are purpose-built, designed to last for only one race at a time (a few hours). Manufacturing tolerances for these race cars require an insane amount of precision, to both increase power and reduce weight. Furthermore, in a motorsport series like Formula 1, the difference between winning a race and losing it can be measured in one-thousandths of a second.
How bf1systems Shows up on the Race Track
While fans and viewers are focused on the flashy drivers, their colorful cars, the loud noises and potential death-defying crashes, the race teams and factory engineers are focused on other details—like the amount of pressure in an F1 tire and how it helps or hampers tire performance throughout a stint. In order to get reliable data on tire performance, teams throughout major race series, from F1 to NASCAR, Formula 3 and FIA World Rallycross, turn to the engineering team at bf1systems.
The #1 Challenge for the bf1systems Team: Responding to Change
The bf1systems team juggles up to 40 projects at a time. These range from one-month projects (such as designing a new housing for an existing sensor) to major 18-month projects with multiple deliverables. One example of a major project is the development of an entirely new wheel sensor system for a Formula One Team, which might include sensors, control modules, antennas, embedded software and diagnostic software.
For years, the business struggled with managing fast-paced, highly design-driven projects.
For Peter Harris, Electronics Project Manager at bf1systems, the biggest problem this presented for his team was an inability to accommodate change.
“We have a huge push at the start of the Formula One season, when things can change on a daily basis,” he explains. “Without proper project management, if a customer wanted a change on Project A, we had no way of evaluating the impact on that project—let alone the effects it would have on Projects B, C, D, and so on. The lack of a consolidated view of resource usage across all projects only exacerbated this pain.”
Time to Find a Better Solution
With a list of requirements in hand, Harris considered a new list of project management solutions. “After I had a clear idea of what we needed, LiquidPlanner really stood out,” he recalls. “It was the only affordable solution that ticked all the boxes. It was also clear that LiquidPlanner had the right product direction: an effort-based approach to project management that could help us address rapidly-changing priorities and keep everyone on the team tied-into the current project plan. With the case for LiquidPlanner clear in my mind, I sat down with our Technical Director and Operations Director and got their buy-in.”
Benefits of Using LiquidPlanner
Harris’ team isn’t just using LiquidPlanner to capture hard data, such as task estimates versus the actual time required to complete that task. The team is also using it to capture “softer” aspects of project history, such as the email thread that may have led to a change in the plan. And because this information is accessible to all, it keeps everyone up-to-speed and on the same page in the face of continual change.
“We’re using the community tools in LiquidPlanner more and more,” says Harris. “I love the space it provides for notes; in fact, the extent to which team members are using the commenting features in LiquidPlanner has been a very pleasant surprise.”
For a data-driven engineering group, LiquidPlanner has enabled bf1systems to get a solid grip on historic project data and use this information to shape future projects. In addition, the team is able to deal with rapidly changing requirements and ad hoc projects throughout the race season in a more efficient way.
For more, you can read the full bf1systems customer story here.
Prioritizing project work is a challenge for project teams across many industries. While shifting priorities are a natural part of working life, when you don’t prioritize work you can lay havoc to all your team’s projects and initiatives, and even drain team morale.
Effective prioritization is as much an art as a science. Here are some best practices for prioritizing work for your project team.
1. Make the Project Schedule Visible to Everyone
Running a project team without using a schedule that’s accessible by everyone is a sure-fire way to set your team up for problems. At some point during a project an executive is likely to make a demand that shifts priorities; or, another team’s work is delayed and that has a ripple effect. This new information doesn’t always disperse itself through the entire team, so you have some individuals working on either a shelved task, or yesterday’s priority.
To keep team members updated on their top priorities every day, use a collaborative project and work management tool that lets everyone from individuals to managers to stakeholders have unlimited visibility into the project schedule and all the associated work in progress.
2. Create a Project Backlog
A great way to prioritize team work is to use the project backlog concept from Agile software development. This lets you capture all of your project tasks before you assign priorities to team members. A great way to put this into play, is to use a work management application that includes a folder for your backlog tasks; or, create your own team folder for backlog tasks yourself.
The project backlog concept can be an important tool to show management all of the work that falls under your team’s responsibility that still needs prioritization.
3. Manage Your Team for the Long and Short Game
I once worked for a manager prone to distraction because he was eager to please his managers and show off to his office crush. To display his industriousness, he responded to incoming work requests by pulling the whole team off ongoing work, despite looming deadlines. If he used a project schedule, he would have realized the team was almost evenly spread between longer term projects and short-term work.
Instead of always defaulting to all hands on deck, this manager could have pulled a team member or two from a project where the new priority wouldn’t compromise the whole team’s deadlines. Managing the short and the long game means effectively prioritizing work on longer ongoing projects, as well as the shorter projects that will occur as well.
4. Know Your Business
The manager from the preceding point #3 had a few more shortcomings: He didn’t understand the subject matter, the technology or the processes underlying his team’s projects. Further complicating matters, he would take work management advice from his office crush, someone who knew even less than he did about the team’s work. This combination really messed with the team’s priorities.
When you know your business, you’re in a much better position to prioritize project work. Here are some ways to learn more about your business, and continually stay on top of trends:
Read widely in your field and industry.
Pursue continuing education.
Ask each team member about the work being done.
Learn what matters to your manager, other stakeholders and customers.
When you know the business, and understand how your team’s work fits in to a larger vision, you’ll be able to set the right priorities for your team.
5. Give Project Tasks a Finish Date
Most organizations are kept in business by meeting deadlines and delivery dates, especially manufacturing companies. When team members receive a task that has a deadline attached to it, they’re much more inclined to start that over another one without a finish date. That’s why best laid project plans always include deadlines or finish dates assigned to every task that makes up the project. The dates alone can help both management and team members prioritize their work. And if priorities still aren’t clear, or there are too many overlapping dates, this spurs conversations about project priority and what work most matters to move forward.
6. Add Buffers: Account for Uncertainty in Your Schedule
You can be sure that something unexpected will occur during the course of your project—a stakeholder request, a delay, resource issue, you name it. When you work in an environment that’s especially notorious for shifting priorities, some project or team managers will build in a buffer of time to plans. For example, a buffer could be a few hours or days added to a review period. You can remove a few hours from the buffer without disrupting project delivery while still meeting new priorities.
I once had a project lead who was able to create a little oasis of productivity and rationality in what was otherwise a dysfunctional organization. His secret was that he could tell when a priority might shift before it even happened.
He did this by becoming a student of project failure and dysfunction; he could identify the exact project milestones where the process might break down and priorities would change.
He took a proactive stance: Whenever he saw a possibility where a priority would shift, he adjusted team priorities and schedules accordingly. The lesson I learned was to always try to be aware of all parts of the project, not just my own responsibilities. The issues that affect your team’s priorities usually begin upstream.
8. Draw the Line between Urgent and Important Tasks
Managing the long and short game also means balancing priorities on urgent and important tasks, and knowing when to draw the line.
Drawing the line means:
Urgent tasks get immediate attention based on business-critical factors like winning new business and keeping existing business. Getting a check from a customer as the result is often the big decider with urgent tasks for many organizations.
Important tasks receive ongoing attention, and are only put on hold when an urgent task truly requires all hands on deck. Important tasks support the projects that together keep the business going, so don’t undervalue their priorities.
When a new work request comes in, ask yourself if it falls into Urgent or Important task buckets. If you’re not sure, use it as an opportunity to have a conversation clarifier around what the larger goal is, and structure your priorities from there. You don’t want to be the person always saying “yes” to an incoming “urgent task.” Because as we all know, not every piece of work is business-critical—no matter how much it might feel like it is.
Be a Proactive Manager of Priorities
Your team wants to be working on the right priorities! They want to know that the work they’re doing is the right work to move the business forward, no matter how often priorities change. As a project manager or team leader, it’s up to you to stay proactive in directing the undulations of the team’s priorities. Make sure your team has the tools and schedule access they need to know what their priorities are; get to know what your team is doing, what individuals need, and what your stakeholders are expecting from you.
If you manage priorities effectively, not only will you increase productivity, you’ll improve your team’s morale. Everyone wants to do work that really makes a difference!
Are your team’s priorities supported by a solid project management process? Find out! Take ourProject Management Health Check, a 9-question multiple-choice assessment of your project management process.
Project Manager . . . Program Manager. Most of us have met one or the other, and many of us have wondered: What’s the difference? It’s easy to get confused because in some organizations program managers do work that looks a lot like what program managers do. Also, the names are so similar it’s hard to separate their meaning. And then there’s the question—does it matter? Yes, it does!
If you’ve ever been curious as a project team member to know what the program manager down the hall is doing; or you’re someone who wants the next challenge in your project management career, I’m going to lay out the differences here. For starters, the fundamentals of good project management build the foundation for making a successful transition into program management. So, let’s start with the basics.
What exactly is a program?
I’ve seen this word misused many times. This happens when a team member is offered the title of “program manager” where the scope is only confined to one project. If I dust off my PMI standard, we know that a project is a “temporary endeavor used to create a unique product or service.” A program is “a collection of related projects managed in a coordinated way to obtain benefits and controls not available from managing them individually.” It might seem like running a program is similar to running a bunch of projects, but there are several key differences between how a project and program moves through the project lifecycle.
Here, I’ve categorized some of these differences across the initiation, planning, execution and close lifecycle steps.
Project vs. Program Initiation
Here are a few key tasks that distinguish programs from projects. Project and program sponsors are critical, although the funding cycle, organization structure and sponsorship can take longer.
Project Tasks – Initiation
Program Tasks – Initiation
● Identify the project sponsor.
● Allocate budget.
● Identify key stakeholders.
● Assign a project manager.
● Validate the program business case.
● Identify the program management structure.
● Identity the program sponsors.
● Review funding sources.
● Assign a program manager.
Projects can be funded and initiated faster than most programs primarily since budget, sponsorship and stakeholders are smaller than most programs. A project typically exists within one team or an organizational boundary. A program will often cross multiple organizations, and this has an impact on stakeholders, sponsors, funding sources and even assigning the right program manager.
In a project, the project manager is primarily responsible for the scope, cost and timeline. In a program, the program manager will also staff a project management office (PMO) to help manage program scope, costs and overall timeline. Since it can take longer to initiate a program after its conception, the organization might have to validate the business case to ensure the program goals are still worth pursuing.
Project vs Program Management Planning
Every effort has a planning phase. A program will rely more on a rolling plan, as multi-year programs will need to adjust their plans as the business changes. Scope, schedule and resources all apply to both programs and projects although the planning is conducted at different levels. Project managers are used to tracking tasks against a project schedule. Program managers need to track milestones against a program level schedule.
Project Tasks – Planning
Program Tasks – Planning
● Develop the project management plan.
● Define project scope.
● Define the schedule.
● Define the resources.
● Define the detailed budget.
● Develop the program management plan.
● Define the program scope.
● Define the program schedule.
● Define the detailed program budget.
I’ve been on other programs where teams struggled with developing integrated project schedules, mainly due to the tool they’re using (or aren’t). The end result involved team members trying to make the project schedule mechanics work when they should’ve been focused on the milestones. In a program, communication across teams and milestone management are more important than tracking individual project tasks. Let the project managers manage their work and let the program management team manage across the work streams.
Project vs. Program Execution
Successful execution is all in the details! Both projects and programs have a lot of details to manage, including the deliverables, schedules, and issues and risks. Below are a few of the key distinctions.
Project Tasks – Execution
Program Tasks – Execution
● Manage the project schedule.
● Manage the project budget.
● Manage issues and risks.
● Manage communication.
● Manage scope and change.
● Manage the team.
● Manage quality.
● Manage project procurement.
● Manage the program milestones.
● Manage the program budget.
● Manage program issues and risks.
● Manage program communication.
● Manage program scope and change.
● Manage human resources.
● Manage quality.
● Manage program procurement.
● Apply stakeholder management.
● Apply program governance.
In the PMBOK, integration management is the set of project management processes used to make sure that projects are properly coordinated. Project plans, project execution and change control techniques are all used to steer each project in the right direction.
One of the key roles of the program manager is to ensure that all the work streams connect together. Project teams have a more focused view on the work that comprises a project; the program manager has a broad view of all the work streams. This role needs to see how all the “gives and gets” integrate across the timelines. As a program manager, it’s also important to understand the major dependencies across project teams. You don’t necessarily need to integrate every project schedule and every task as a program manager, but you should develop a program-level plan that integrates the major milestones.
I was once involved in a digital marketing program, where the IT team was delivering a content management system with different components. The global marketing team would develop different sites based on the components delivered. As the program unfolded, both European and U.S. marketing teams needed to know when specific components would be delivered by the IT team. If IT was late, the site development was impacted.
Every project has issues and risks. As the program manager, you don’t need to manage or even know about all of them. The program manager needs to know about the program-level issues and risks but doesn’t need to know about every risk with each project. The guideline I use is to focus on issues that impact a milestone. Otherwise, you’ll be reviewing every issue and risk during program status meetings, and that would take hours.
All project-level issues and risks should be available for the program manager to review. Have a log for common risks and issues, so they can be categorized.
Project vs. Program Closure
The closure phase is the last phase where the project or program manager formally closes the project.
Project Tasks – Closure
Program Tasks – Closure
● Conduct project conclusion and lessons learned.
● Transition solution to operations team.
● Confirm project success or failure.
● Provide performance feedback.
● Disperse resources.
● Close financial contracts.
● Archive project documents.
● Conduct program conclusion and lessons learned meeting with the PMO or project lead.
● Transition solution to multiple operations teams.
● Provide performance feedback on PMO/project lead resources.
● Disperse PMO/project lead.
● Close any financial contracts.
● Archive program documents.
Each project in a program will have its own set of lessons learned; however, the program PMO or project lead will also a set of lessons learned. Project managers will provide performance feedback to respective resource managers; the program manager might also provide feedback on the team that formed the PMO. In an IT program, there can be multiple operational groups that need to support the systems delivered—and more teams requires more communication. Financial close out and the archiving of documents is similar across both efforts, except the size could differ in a program.
Program management is an important role in a project-driven organization. It’s also an exciting challenge in a project manager’s career. As you familiarize yourself with the difference between project management and program management, and even consider program manager as the next step in your career, it’s important to identify exactly how these roles differ. Programs are more complex and require more political awareness than the average project. However, the satisfaction from delivering across complex organizations is a rewarding one!
Here’s something project and program managers have in common: the need for a reliable project management tool! Is yours up to snuff? Take our Project Management Health Check, a 9-question multiple-choice assessment of your project management process.
Taking a product from concept to production is a complicated undertaking. There’s a lot at stake, and a lot can go wrong along the way. For example, there’s time-to-market market and quality control issues; you have to consider supply chain, global teams, international trade issues, regulations, product development phased and more. And still, I’m constantly surprised to see how many teams still manage all of these moving parts using static spreadsheets. And even when there are systems and tools in place to build schedules, they tend to be too inflexible, and can’t account for the amount of uncertainty that permeates today’s global market.
Project Management + Manufacturing = Perfect Match
Manufacturing can, however, benefit greatly from project management ideas. I believe that there are few things in life that cannot be projectized. Even life itself has a beginning, middle and end, and creates something unique. The manufacturing environment comprises a lot of beginnings, middles and ends. After all, a single product is made up of a multitude of projects, and considerations, including:
Design of a new, industry-designing product
Managing a change order
Improving a process
Every one of these considerations benefits from some basic project management best practices. Or course, it can feel a bit daunting if you’re thinking of your entire process; instead, start with something do-able, bite sized pieces.
Here are five tips to start incorporating project management processes in your team:
1. Establish Requirements
One of the first activities in any project is to define what the project is, and everything that needs to be done. This is achieved by collecting requirements which include details of the deliverables, timelines, quality expectations, etc.
Setting goals and establishing these requirements is the first step for any project to go forward, regardless of methodology. This will also encourage your team to get together to think about the work ahead, define milestones and deliverables, and think about deadlines. Be as detailed and thorough as you can during this exercise, as it will help you manage the project later on.
Every project, whether in a manufacturing environment or any other, will involve requirements and goals. Creating a goal-oriented culture is important, and it is the first step to incorporate project management into your team.
2. Choose a Methodology
Now that you have well-defined goals, you will need a game plan to achieve them. The problem is, once you set a goal or destination, there are many ways to get there. That is when methodology can be helpful.
In today’s agile-focused landscape, there are many who dismiss methodology as something limiting. Some postulate that freeing your team from methodology will allow for more flexibility and agility in achieving your goals. I believe that there is still a place for methodology, as it provides your organization with a framework to approach work that is familiar to all. A method, or process for managing work helps create a culture of people who can fearlessly tackle projects and get things done, and it fosters a common language with which to talk about how to achieve your goals.
There are many methodologies and approaches to use to manage projects, and all of them are being used by manufacturing teams. There’s no right choice here: use the approach that makes more sense to your team and is more in line with your organization’s way of approaching work. For example, organizations well versed in Lean manufacturing tend to adopt a lean approach to project management. Other manufacturing teams are already familiar with Waterfall; those relying heavily on automation and IT systems, might choose Agile. Six Sigma is another popular approach to managing work, focusing on process improvement.
Choose a methodology to implement, and don’t let it constrain your work. Instead, use it as a recipe that you can change to meet your organization’s shifting needs and objectives.
3. Use a Project Management Tool
Once you have chosen an approach or methodology, and you have a good grasp on your requirements and goals, the next step is to choose the right tool to help you manage it all.
When choosing the right tool, ensure that it is easy enough for all on your team to learn. Because manufacturing is such a dynamic environment, choose a tool that will be flexible enough to change as your circumstances change. LiquidPlanner is a great example of a tool that is dynamic and also with a track record of helping manufacturing teams.
4. Track Progress
One of the important benefits of project management involves the monitoring and controlling of project work. This process has to do with checking your progress to make sure you’re on track to deliver on time and within scope and budget.
When teams don’t accurately track their work progress, the results can be truly catastrophic. Planning your work ahead of time gives you a roadmap for when you’re actually performing the work. If you don’t track how you’re performing, you won’t know if you’re going off-course; as a result, you won’t know what adjustments need to be made. Strong project plans and reliable schedules alert you to when you’re going over your budget or deadline before it’s too late to do something about it. In manufacturing, when time-to-market and costs can determine whether your product will succeed in the marketplace, poor planning can sink a project.
Using project management software with time tracking features is a powerful way to track project progress. These tools make it easy for you to judge how well you’re doing when it comes to reaching your milestones and goals.
Once you start tracking your progress, you’ll quickly see all the opportunities to fine-tune your approach to managing your project: your manufacturing projects will progressively get better, while you develop your own internal flavor of project management that fits your organization’s culture and way of work.
5. Implement a Risk Management Process
In manufacturing, risk management is absolutely imperative. The projects your organization and team will manage have a direct impact on your main business objectives and key results like time to market.
Risks are issues you identify before they become reality. Risk management is coming up with a plan for what to do if the worst happens, and then handling issues if and when they do become real.
Manufacturing teams that are not practicing risk management—or practicing it poorly—may be faced with problems that could range from delays and quality problems to canceling production. Even established companies like Boeing have been caught mismanaging risks on major projects.
Practicing risk management will get you to sit down with your team and go through the exercise of identifying everything that could go wrong. The next step is to prioritize risks by impact and importance, and most importantly, assign an owner to each risk. Planning for issues is a fantastic way to get you and your team talking about project management, especially as you decide on a course of action to take in case your risk becomes a real issue. As with other project management processes, a collaborative project management tool can help you and keep your entire team on the same page while planning and managing risks.
Projects and operations can coexist beautifully! Where operations and manufacturing focus on mass production, the art of starting the production of a new product, improving on processes, implementing better communication among manufacturing silos, and even ending the production of a product are all projects. By implementing project management in your organization, your processes, product and work environment will all greatly improve as well.
Could your project management process be better? Find out! Our 9-question multiple-choice quiz will diagnose the health of your project management tool and/or process. Take the quiz!