Abundant Optimism

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Develop Project Management Tools by Using Them for Daily Activity

By Tamara Martfeld

If you have ever been involved in a special project you may have experienced a project manager who seemed to have everything together and know exactly what is happening on every aspect of the project. Or you may have had someone who had no clue about anything, even the most simple tasks. The person who had everything together likely had basic skills and knew how to use them. Those basic skills are useful in many non-project activities.

Projects are generally defined as something with a definite beginning and end, for example getting a man on the moon and then back to earth safely. Once it is done it does not have to be done again, and doing it again would be another project. Daily work tends to not fall into this category. The work tends to repeat as if it will never end, for example washing the dishes (not a work activity for most, but an activity most will recognize). I have had a few project management classes and have been on several projects, and those teaching or leading recommend not treating non-projects as projects. I disagree.

The basic steps to project planning are prioritizing what needs done, brainstorming for ways to do what needs done, breaking the project into manageable steps, listing the things needing to be done, determining how long things will take to get done, determining if one task needs to get done before another can be completed, and deciding what resources are needed to complete the task. Some of these steps involve a level of skill and developing those skills will help you when you have a project or simply have a lot to accomplish. By using the steps and skills daily you will gain experience.

For example, assume your job is maintaining a complex database. Definitely not a project, but project management skills can be applied. With a complex database there is frequently information which is more important to be entered, for example a critical date field. There may also be more than one type of document which needs to be entered into the database – a system I work with has at least six documents from which data is entered. Prioritizing the work will enable you to get the important data entered first.

Brainstorming on this task is a little more challenging, but it can be done. As you enter the data look for ways the process can be improved. Is there something about the database which hinders the work, and if so, how would you change it? Are the forms easy to follow, and if not, how would you design the forms? Can some part of the task be automated? Even if you are unable to make any changes, getting in the habit of looking for alternatives will help you in many areas of your life. If you are in a job where suggestions are welcome, you may be able to profit from your effort. Note that this is not technically brainstorming, but the thinking process is similar.

Because the work is daily, it is likely already in manageable steps. If it is not, you get the opportunity to practice this skill more thoroughly. If it is, still break it down further. For example, break the work down into one or two hour segments, into morning vs. afternoon work, or by type of document. By breaking down the work you get into a habit of seeing the smaller steps. This is important when you have a large task. Consider the old question—How do you eat an elephant? The answer – One bite at a time. Being able to see the smaller step helps you from getting over-whelmed with the work needing done.

Creating a list of what needs done may or may not be beneficial in this case. However, if maintaining the database is only part of your job a list of everything being done will be helpful for prioritizing the work.

Determining task durations should be easy if you have been at the job for a while. If you have variety in your work, time how long each activity takes. Learning how long various tasks take will enable you to better plan your day and help you should you ever be assigned a project. Knowing the durations of the various tasks on your desk will also help you when your boss asks how long it will take to get a specific job done.

The order things need to be done is probably already determined. However, that does not mean that it has to stay that way. Is there a better order for the work to be done? Why is it done in the current order? Is something being done which makes no sense? Does one piece of data need to be keyed before the system will accept another piece of data? By looking at the relationships within your current work you get used to thinking in terms of the relationships and can sometimes eliminate steps or otherwise streamline the activity. Again, you may not be able to make any changes, but getting into the habit of thinking this way is beneficial.

Determining resources has likely been already done in this example. However, if the job is a new task the resources will need to be identified, such as computer, electricity (or battery), light to read by, someone with keying skills, etc. Even if this is already done, do it again for the exercise. Many people miss something critical when listing needed resource because they are used to some things always being there – electricity or light would likely be on that list for this task.

Obviously, all the skills and steps will not fit every job. Using the skills and steps where they can apply will help you develop the skills so that when you are assigned a project you have some experience. Also, using the skills can make the job easier to manage. A true project is normally much more involved. The steps and skills mentioned here are very basic. After you have mastered these steps and skills Google project management to find more in-depth tools or take a project management course or two. I recommend more than one course if you can find them as each takes a slightly different approach and knowing different approaches will give you more options when managing a project. Apply your knowledge as you can in your job to get the practice.

I hope your year is going well so far. Don’t forget that you get an extra day this year (February 29). Use it for something fun!