Slippery Project Management: Three Tracking Problems and How to Solve Them

Liz Pearce | April 6, 2011

Project Mangement Availability
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Building the perfect project plan is a tough job. On one hand, you need to get an accurate picture of what work is being done when. On the other hand, you have to create a plan that is manageable (read: not overloaded with a bazillion items).

Unfortunately, business is messy. No matter how good your intentions are, slippery little tracking problems inevitably creep in. In this post, we look at a few common project planning issues, explore different approaches to solving them, and hopefully help you reach the goal of a better (if not perfect) project plan.

Problem #1: Accounting for non-project work in your schedule

Applies to: Anyone who has overhead tasks on their plate.

Project Mangement AvailabilitySolution A: Reduce their daily availability down to the number of hours they will likely work on project work.

Pros: The schedule will stretch tasks out over the allotted time, presenting a more realistic picture of what they can get done within their designated availability. Plus, you’ll have fewer items in the plan, which keeps things simple.

Cons: The overhead will be uncategorized and untracked, at least as it relates to the rest of the project work.

Best for: Teams that are focused more on results than reports.

Project Ongoing TasksSolution B: Reduce each person’s daily availability down to the number of hours they will likely work on project work (as in Solution A), but also have them track time on a list of shared “ongoing tasks.” (The “ongoing tasks” can be unassigned and un-estimated, and anyone on the team can add them to their timesheet.)

Pros: You’ll still get an accurate picture of project task completion dates, but you’ll also get an idea of where all the overhead time is going. That can help everyone understand the full workload better, and thereby inform business decisions.

Cons: It’s easy to forget to track overhead work, since it doesn’t appear on anybody’s list of active tasks.

Best for: Teams that rely on data to measure efficiency, where tracking time is part of the culture and accepted by everyone on the team.

Problem #2: Building workflow into your project schedule

Applies to: Teams that have complex approval cycles.

Corporate Project Management 1Solution A: Create a task for each step in the approval cycle, regardless of how small it is.

Pros: Everyone’s role in producing the project deliverable is defined. Schedules will be more accurate because more granular tasks are being included in the plan. Key steps are less likely to be missed because they’re listed out in advance.

Cons: The project plan can sometimes get out of control, with a lots of “micro-tasks” to manage, assign, estimate, etcetera. Team members viewing the plan can be daunted by the sheer number of things they need to keep track of.

Best for: Teams that bill clients based on time tracking data, and/or who rely on a tightly-managed plan for keeping on top of many individual deadlines.

Solution B: Create one task assigned to the person doing the major chunk of work, then reassign it to the approver (or whoever the next person in the workflow chain is) when the handoff needs to take place.

Corporate Project Management 2

Online Collaboration

Pros: Keeps the project plan simple and easy to manage.

Cons: Schedule dates may shift and briefly throw off the plan. For example, let’s say a designer estimates 15-25 hours of work on a site design. After 6 hours, the first rev is done and she passes it off to the business owner for a short review. For a period of time (until the review is complete and the task gets passed back to the original owner), the remaining effort will be stuck into the reviewer’s schedule, pushing out other dates in their plan.  Plus, the secondary people in the workflow chain don’t account for their parts of the tasks in their own plan, creating a potentially unrealistic schedule for the work they do own.

Best for: Fast-moving teams that don’t want the burden of an overly-complex plan. They’re willing to endure some short-term fluctuations in schedule dates as long as the primary tasks are being managed well.

Problem #3: More than one person is responsible

Applies to: Teams where collaborating on individual project tasks is par for the course.

Solution A: Create a separate task for each person doing the work*.

Corporate Project Management 3

Pros:  You can tell exactly how much each person will be contributing to the overall effort on the task. Plus, the task can be prioritized appropriately for each individual (it may be the #1 priority for Mary, but #3 on the list for Jen.)

Cons: Where to store project collaboration information (like documents and comments) can be unclear. If you’re reporting or billing against the work, the two (or more) tasks will need to be aggregated.

Best for: Tracking-centric teams or in cases where the hours spent on shared tasks are significant (as compared to a short consultation that lasts 15 minutes).

*You might be thinking, “Microsoft Project lets me assign two owners to a task. Why can’t LiquidPlanner do that, too?”  The reason is this: sticking with one owner per task is the most accurate way to capture the effect of the task (and how much effort is associated with it) on each individual’s schedule. Tying two peoples’ work together doesn’t fly when they won’t be working on the task at the same time, which is often the case.

Solution B: Designate one of the task owners as the “primary” owner. Let the secondary collaborator track time against the task owned by the primary owner, but don’t include it in their list of project tasks.

Corporate Project Management 4

Task Estimate

Pros: You’ll have fewer plan items to manage. Plus, overall responsibility for the task is clear, even if ownership is shared.

Cons: To get an accurate project schedule, you’ll have to make sure the secondary owners have reduced availability that reflects how much “overhead” time they spend collaborating. Team members should also make it a practice to use collaboration features to keep each other in the loop.

Best for: Teams where project communication, flexibility, and openness are paramount.

Each of these problems is, at its core, a variation on one question: how much detail should you include in your plan? And at the end of day, the answer depends on your team’s culture and tracking requirements. To avoid ongoing friction, it might makes sense to have a frank discussion about the tradeoffs of more vs. less detail with stakeholders early on the in the project planning process.

What other challenges is your team dealing with when it comes to building out a project plan and tracking work against it? Share them in the comments! Maybe we’ve got some different approaches for them, too.