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Last week on the blog we discussed project schedules. I outlined five themes that merit conversation for having a project schedule or going without one. In this week’s blog, I discuss the concept of activity deadlines and how to use them effectively.

Have you ever worked on a project where every activity had a start and finish date? Did your software report these activity deadlines on your calendar? Have you ever felt overwhelmed by all of those deadlines?

Just to set this blog post up, let’s define “activity” and “task”. An activity is defined as the essential work package (or a block of work) needed to accomplish your scope. Tasks encompass the little things that you need to do.

I was recently listening to a speaker advocate putting dates on all activities and tasks. According to this speaker, we can only ensure that our activities and tasks will get completed on schedule by having a deadline. But is that our goal? And is it true? I bet most of you finish your days with items still on your to do list.

Generally speaking, to do lists are always more ambitious than realistic. We can only focus on so much, and if everything on your list has a deadline, are you spending your time managing deadlines or providing value? A better approach is to begin each day with the question: “What actions will provide the greatest value to your business, your client, your manager, your family, etc?”

Here are six tips to help you use activity deadlines effectively.

Avoid the temptation to make your project plan more dazzling than it needs to be.

I was chatting with a friend about a colleague of hers who uses some kind of card-like project software. Her boards are exquisite, but she isn’t very productive. She is so busy making her board beautiful, and putting massive amounts of information on it, that she doesn’t have time for the real work. Too often project software can distract us from activities that actually provide value.

Here again, it doesn’t matter what kind of methodology or software we are using. Let’s not get so caught up in labels that people can’t remember, colors that mean nothing, deadlines that are likely to be missed, or unreasonable estimates. The key is to focus on clearly understanding and documenting what needs to be done, who is going to do it, any true dependencies, communication needs, and the nature of any risks. While there can be massive amounts of information that needs to be documented, I don’t believe every activity needs a deadline.

The key is to focus on clearly understanding and documenting what needs to be done.… Click To Tweet

Identify your critically important activity deadlines. Use target deadlines to keep the project moving. 

Some activities have critical deadlines that cannot be missed, others may not even need deadlines. Identify the activities with critical deadlines that cannot be missed and focus your attention on those activities.

I like the concept of target deadlines, or those that are just a target or guide. I use them sparingly to help plan the project execution.

Activities and tasks – how low should we go?

If you are unfamiliar with how to break a project down, you can read more about it here.

Opinions vary on how far down a project manager should go in the process of decomposing a project. It’s a matter of judgment. The more granular you are in breaking down your project, the more activities you will have. It doesn’t matter whether you’re breaking down the project using a Gantt chart, an Excel spreadsheet, or a card like software such as Trello.

The challenge is to keep your project planning efforts in line with the size of the project. When your project plan becomes a list or a board that contains every single phone call or document review, it simply becomes too much effort to manage the plan. And if you put deadlines on all of your work, your calendar will turn into a minefield.

If you put deadlines on all of your work, your calendar will turn into a minefield. #PMOT Click To Tweet

Activities and tasks – document them differently

I recommend that we distinguish between activities and tasks, and catalogue them in different places, with much more documentation on activities than tasks.

Distinguish between activities and tasks, and catalogue them in different places.… Click To Tweet

We need a way to ensure that tasks are not forgotten, without unnecessarily complicating the picture of what needs to be done. This is particularly true on large team projects, where a person can be called away for some period of time (perhaps permanently) and someone else needs to jump in and take over. To be clear, in my opinion, a task that needs a deadline, should be an activity.

On activities, we need documentation on exactly what needs to be done, who is doing it, what it will cost, what the problems are likely to be, and who is particularly interested in the outcome. The more you learn, the more you’ll need to  document in some useful format.

Understand the sizes of your activities.

On complex business and legal projects, there is often little historical precedent for accurately estimating duration. That doesn’t mean that we are totally clueless. It just means that we can’t take our duration estimate to the bank.

Project estimating is a hot topic with strong feelings on both sides of the argument. Just because I argue that estimations that are knowingly flawed shouldn’t be used to manage a schedule doesn’t mean that estimating shouldn’t be done.

I recommend that we use a simple indicator of the complexity or size of the activity, so that we can quickly understand whether an activity will take a day, a week, a month, or more. This is particularly important if you are not tracking costs.

We need a simple methodology for sizing activities that allows us to compare activities across a portfolio of projects. This allows us to better understand the amount of work that has been done in any time period, and the amount of work that is needed. This sizing is also important when we need to assess resource availability or re-evaluate the business case for a project in progress.

Know when an activity deadline will be motivational and when it will be a distraction.

I’ve worked with colleagues who needed deadlines. If I didn’t nail down when I could expect to receive something, I wasn’t likely to get it. I’ve worked with others who paid no attention to deadlines, but would typically get work to me when I needed it, as a favor to me, or because of their high level of responsibility to the project.

I find that asking someone when I can expect something is more effective than assigning a bunch of deadlines, or worse yet, having a software solution that assigns deadlines. We now seem to better understand the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation. And on business projects, intrinsic motivation will be far more effective than extrinsic motivation.

Too many activity deadlines can confuse people and distract them from what is most important. Used well, activity deadlines can work for us, not against us.