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I recently talked with the CEO of a business (175 employees; $22M – 25M in total revenues) about their project management needs. The company doesn’t do project work for clients. The business is focused on operations. Still, there are a variety of projects underway. For example, developing a new on boarding process for new employees, evaluating new machinery needs, integrating some grant funded artificial intelligence equipment to analyze how robots might enhance processes, and a couple of smaller technology projects.

The CEO is thinking about switching to Trello. I love Trello, and have used it myself. I love the visual aspects of Trello. And yet, I was quick to comment that Trello is a task management and collaboration tool. It is not a project management tool.

Though some project managers claim to use it on their projects, they often admit that they aren’t really doing project management with Trello. They are using add-ons, templates, or Google docs to manage the rest of the project pieces.

Our conversation inspired me to think about how much project management is really needed on these kinds of projects. In this blog, I pose eight questions that readers should consider, as they ponder how much project management is really needed and whether a good task management and collaboration tool is sufficient.

Are you issuing a project charter for all new projects?

The CEO mentioned a project that was not going well. He was repeatedly hearing that people outside of the project team had no idea the project was happening. This meant that emails to other department heads, seeking information, were not getting the proper attention. I asked about the project charter, and learned that they don’t use charters in the way that I advocate.

A project charter is an incredibly valuable tool for ensuring that everyone in an organization knows that a project is about to be launched. Very importantly, it explains why you are doing the project and asks people in the organization to support the project manager and team. If you are unfamiliar with charters, you can read more here.

How are you breaking your project down?

Once you begin a project, particularly a project designed to accomplish something really new, there is the challenge to understand scope. Trained project managers use a work breakdown structure to help with that task. I’ve written about how to create a work breakdown structure here.

Whether you use Trello, Nozbe, SmartSheet, Asana, or any other tool, I still recommend that you use a visual work breakdown structure. I’ve done them in Excel, Visio, or with sticky notes on a white board in a project room. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a list of activities substitutes for a visual document. A picture is worth 1000 words.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a list of activities substitutes for a visual document. A… Click To Tweet

I recommend that teams break down projects enough to estimate the costs for each activity. The key piece here is to distinguish between activities and tasks. Using the Smart Projex approach, activities are the essential work packages needed to accomplish your scope. Tasks are the little things that you need to remember to do. Every one of them is related to one of the activities you identified in your work breakdown structure. If they don’t seem related to the activities, they likely represent scope creep of some sort.

Each activity needs a clear definition of what done looks like. Two to five words on an Excel list probably won’t work. Think very carefully about what the final work product for each activity will look like at completion. This is harder than you might think, but time well spent.

Do you want to understand how your project costs are impacting profitability?

This is a good question to ask early in the process. If you’re not billing a client for work that you’ve done, you may wonder if it is worth the effort to track your costs. Sometimes, it isn’t. But if a substantial part of your costs are being spent on projects, you may want to know how your projects are impacting profitability. And the only real way to do that is to track your costs, including the labor performed by full-time employees.

While I agree that it’s a major pain, it is also a real eye opener when people understand where their time is going. Most of the companies I work with have limited resources and don’t have the financial resources to operate without a budget. And yet, until you really know how much time your full-time staff is spending on your projects, you can’t make intelligent return on investment decisions.

How are you planning to manage your schedule?

No matter what software you use to manage your project, it will not manage the schedule for you. It may generate reports that tell you how far behind you are, and how long it will take to catch up, but producing reports and driving the schedule are not synonymous.

Passing messages back and forth on Slack or on Trello cards may, or may not, represent progress. But what you really need to be doing is ensuring that you are steadily making progress.

I recommend that teams work in time blocks of two weeks, though that can easily be extended if the project is moving slowly. When you break the project down into the essential activities, aim for an activity that can be finished in a single time block. There is something highly motivating about finishing activities, and that motivation inspires others.

Decide how you want to use deadlines and milestones. In my experience, too many deadlines are demotivating. It’s like starting your day with 25 items on your to-do list, and feeling utterly frustrated because you will never get them all done.

What I prefer are a few target deadlines that you can use to guide the project along. It’s important to have a clear understanding of the few deadlines that simply cannot be missed. I call these fixed deadlines. And, I like to think of milestones as something so big that completion demands a celebration.

Meetings can be used very effectively to guide a schedule. I’ve written about that here. What kind of reporting are you planning to do? Effective reports can help make your meetings more effective.

As you manage the schedule, guard against scope creep by keeping the team focused on a limited amount of work. If and when it seems appropriate to start working on an activity that is not outlined in your work breakdown structure, have a change management process. I’ve written about that here.

Do you think that risk management is simply a job for the executives? 

From my observations, executives (with the possible exception of young start-up founders), understand that risk management is important. Yet project teams often misunderstand their role. It’s not just the executives who should be doing risk management. It’s the people who are closest to the project work. They are the ones who often see things that could go wrong.

Do you have a plan for how to identify, analyze, and manage your risks? If not, and you want to quickly understand the secret sauce on risk management, check out this blog.

Is someone tracking your procurement contract requirements?

In this particular company, many of their projects involve the acquisition of outside resources, including equipment. I often see teams ignore their contracts. That’s a mistake. Contracts are legal documents. You could be setting your company up for headaches or losses by failing to pay attention to the requirements outlined in your contracts.

If your project manager is not reading the contracts, documenting the requirements, and monitoring them, who is? And do you have a process for properly closing out your contracts? Remember: Contracts are legal documents, with legal obligations.

How are you managing your stakeholders?

Experts disagree on the percentage of time that a good project manager devotes to stakeholder management, but I’ve seen the estimate go as high as 80%. When I watch a project manager sit in his or her office and juggle a Gantt chart schedule, produce earned value management statistics, and analyze detailed critical path diagrams, I’m usually convinced that problems are on the horizon. (If you don’t know what any of that means and you’re spending your time getting good results from your stakeholders, you might want to skip those links.)

Managing stakeholders is about understanding the hot button(s) for each stakeholder on your project. It’s about having a communications plan that works, and yes, I know that communications probably deserves its own discussion. It’s about inspiring your team and developing a culture that encourages the early disclosure of problems. And, it’s about developing a plan for conflict resolution before the conflicts drive a wedge into your team.

When you take into account that many projects, particularly government and non-profit projects, have a lot of stakeholders, there can be massive amounts of information that should not be forgotten. While some tools may provide an online space for recording that information, the tool will not really help you manage your stakeholders. That means awareness, coaching, handholding, and meetings of all types. So, what is your plan?

You will likely need some periodic one-to-one meetings. One time when I strongly recommend them is when you need to introduce a change that will likely be met with resistance.

Do you have an enterprise system for tracking lessons learned?

I rarely see project teams doing a great job in this area. Either they aren’t using any kind of tool to track lessons learned, or they aren’t spending time documenting lessons in whatever tool they have. If they are accumulating these valuable lessons in some searchable database, few are referring to it when they start a new project. And so, they admit that they are repeatedly making the same mistakes.

If you or your company is struggling with the confusion between task management and project management, give me a call. Maybe I’ll write about a blog about your company.