Project Management

Pay Better Attention With The Power of Science

This came up in my news feed the other day:

The article discusses some breakthroughs in the science of helping a person concentrate.  From gamma rays to hearing aids, it outlines some emerging technologies that are geared to take advantage of these breakthroughs (although I think it’d be funny and very creepy to see an office full of workers wearing the device pictured.)

Most people in business know how hard it is to concentrate in the office.  Distractions abound: from the phone ringing to unanswered emails to helping co-workers.  And that’s without naming any internet distractions.  This is why my most important learning from the article came from a low-tech tip the author makes:

“She recommends starting your work day concentrating on your most important task for 90 minutes. At that point your prefrontal cortex probably needs a rest, and you can answer e-mail, return phone calls and sip caffeine (which does help attention) before focusing again. But until that first break, don’t get distracted by anything else, because it can take the brain 20 minutes to do the equivalent of rebooting after an interruption.”

I think this tip is extremely helpful, and it fits perfectly with how I plan my work day (not to mention justifying my coffee habit.)  By only planning 6 hours out of your work day, as I suggested, you’re allowing yourself to take that break after 90 minutes to do those unexpected tasks that require a response, such as email or phone calls.  You can get complete or get a great start on your most important task right away, then refocus and complete that task or your next most important task for that day.

Even if you don’t plan 6 hours of your day, try focusing on your most important task for the first 90 minutes of your day then taking a break.  I do this already, but I’m going to make a more conscious effort of this to see if it improves my performance.

How I Plan My Work Day

In client services, work can be somewhat unpredictable.  A client can call at any time and disrupt whatever plans were laid for the day.  Pile on top of that a small business atmosphere, much like the one I work in, where co-workers may need help proofing a proposal or the copier could go on the fritz.  All of these factors make planning out my day difficult to nail down.

Through my 4 and a half years in client services, I think I found a strategy that works.  I try to plan for 6 hours worth of work in any given work day.  This might sound inefficient and lackadaisical, but it works!  I find that it offers the right amount of structure and flexibility that I need.

In the 6 hours that I plan, I try to write down all the tasks that I need to accomplish in my planner.  This usually happens the day before while it’s fresh in my mind.  It includes more than 6 hours worth of work, but I only plan on accomplishing 6 hours worth of it.  I then prioritize the list, making note of the most pressing tasks and tasks that I didn’t finish the day before, followed by my less time-sensitive tasks.  Client work and important internal tasks such as the newsletter usually rise to the top of my list.  Cleaning my desk and emptying my trash are usually pushed to the next day.

The other 2 hours of my day I use for emails, helping out co-workers or other unexpected tasks.  Keeping these 2 hours unplanned helps me be very responsive to out-of-the-blue requests.  Now if I client calls with a task that will take me an hour, I can easily accommodate that within the flow of my day.  I also have time to help out a colleague if they need me or advise the project managers I supervise with their requests.  It helps make me a better co-worker and client service provider by being able to respond quickly to these assignments.

These 2 blocks of time are not blocks at all – they’re fluid and can be switched on and off as needed.  Knowing about how long the tasks I have planned helps.  If I know a task I need to finish only takes 15 minutes, I can easily get it done before I move on to a request from a co-worker.  If no requests come in a day, which usually happens, I just move further down my list to my less-time pressing task that I can get off of my plate.

It takes a little getting used to, but I think the benefits are there once you get over the learning curve.  It’s definitely not for everyone, but it really works for me.  I find that it really gives me the flexibility to handle urgent client and co-worker requested tasks effectively and responsively.  I feel that I am a better employee because of this.

Start Small, Then Keep Going

This popped up as I was perusing Lifehacker the other day:

Its a tip from a Do-It-Yourselfer that says when working on a complex project, the best way to get started is to tackle the simple, easy tasks first.  It gets the small, easy stuff out of the way early, and it gives a few quick wins towards solving the bigger problems.  This positive momentum goes a long way in making the tough task look solvable.

This is similar to the way I like to plan my work.  I break a task into smaller, more managable steps, then plan to complete those steps.  It helps make a large task less daunting, and helps give me smaller goals that don’t take up my entire day, leaving me time to get other things done as well.

The best example of how I do this, and how I realize I do this, is my World Religions final from college.  For our final, we had to answer 4 questions in a 10 page essay.  I had other finals that week as well, so I was sure I had the time required to write a 10 page paper.  Plus, it was my second semester senior year.  Most of my attention was pretty much elsewhere.

I devised a plan, and I didn’t even know it.  The paper was due Friday, so starting Monday I began answering 1 question per day and trying to write 3 pages per question.  So, come Friday, I’d have 12 pages written and all 3 questions answered.  Plus, I could still enjoy myself during the week since I only had 3 pages to write instead of 10.  It turned out to be a pretty good strategy too – I got an A on the final and an A in the course.

So the next time you’re facing a daunting, complex task, try to break it into smaller, more managable tasks, and solve the  easiest ones first.  This will get you going on solving your problem and space out your tasks so they don’t consume all your time.

How I Keep Myself Organized

Working for a small agency who offer client services, my day can be pretty hectic. I’m currently the project manager on 4 different projects, all of which are at different stages in our process and require me to accomplish different tasks. Plus, since we’re a small agency, I have internal roles and responsibilities I need to accomplish, such as writing the newsletter or building trainings.

All in all, I have a lot of different tasks with different due dates and time frames.  I need to keep these tasks organized into order to make sure they get done when they need to be.  If I didn’t keep these tasks organized, my projects would fall behind and potentially fail, and the company would suffer.

Obviously, I can’t let myself slip on accomplishing my tasks.  Here are some things I do to keep my work organized so I can accomplish it effectively:

  • At the end of each day before I left, I write a to-do list of my tasks to accomplish the next day.  This makes me write down what I need to do while it’s the freshest in my mind.  Writing down these tasks while they’re top of mind is extremely helpful.  I’ve tried to write them down at the beginning of the day, and I found that I would miss one or 2 tasks that I would have remembered if I had written them down the day before.
  • I write my to-do list in a planner. This keeps all my lists in 1 place for future reference.  It’s nice to be able to go back to lists from a week or a month ago to make sure I didn’t miss a task.
  • Not only can a small notebook help boost your creativity, it can help keep you organized as well.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been out on a weekend and suddenly remember that I have to do something at work.  Having the notebook gives me a place to write down what I forgot in a place I’ll have with me in the office on Monday.
  • In the same theme as the small notebook, my iPhone is a great resource to remind myself of tasks.  I simply open the Notes program, type in what I need to remember, and email it to myself to have for the next business day.
  • For the projects I manage, I write weekly and sometimes daily emails to update everyone involved with the project to the project’s progress and what needs to be accomplished.  These emails help me organize the tasks that need to be completed for the project.  Not only do I remember my own tasks, it helps me organize the other project participant’s tasks as well.
  • I also try to manage my Outlook Calendar for tasks that are time-sensitive.  I usually do this for task that need to be accomplished a few weeks or months out.  Putting it on my calendar gives me a set reminder that I need to get something done.  It’s nice to rely technology as a reminder.

Using all of the activities I outlined above help me keep the tasks I need to accomplish organized in a way that helps me get them done.  I don’t always us all of them, but it’s good to have them at my disposal should I need them.  Hopefully you’ll be able to use them in your work as well.

Teaching A Man To Fish – Training

As part of my promotion, I was charged with training the 2 new project managers my company recently hired.  I was pretty proud to be given this task, as it meant the company trusts me and wants to see me share my accumulated knowledge with the younger staff.

I started this task by examining the company’s existing project management training.  These decks centered around the 6 different processes a project manager is regularly managing.  I had been trained using these decks, but I didn’t remember them being what I wanted them to be.  My goal was to find their shortcomings and eliminate them to the best of my ability while adding in the knowledge I gain over my 2.5 years there.

After reviewing them, I realized what I didn’t like about that: while they were good, they were pretty high-level and written more like tips to keep in mind than a training.  They didn’t give a step-by-step process that showed what tasks and responsibilities needed to happen and what order they should occur.  I never had this type of training in project management, and I felt it would be extremely helpful for our 2 new hires, who have never managed project before.

So I set out to re-write our training decks to include the correct processes that need to be followed every time we manage the type of project being trained.  I didn’t completely disregard the material that was there, and I agreed with the way the trainings were broken up.  There was a lot of good material already written, so I just fit it into the training where I felt it was appropriate.

I really tried to add in what I learned during my time with the company as well as the best practices I learned from previous trainings.  I also wanted to build the decks to be a resource that the new hires could refer back to if they had any questions about what they should be doing next or if they needed to find the right document they need to be using.

In the end, I ended up modifying all 7 training decks:

  • Project Managers Overview
  • Managing The Project – what happens on every project
  • Managing A Facility- for recruiting consumers for projects
  • Managing A Session – ideation sessions, focus groups, etc.
  • Managing A Resource – an outside resource who is used for a project
  • Managing a Delphi – a phone interview with an expert
  • Managing Ethnographic Research – in-home interviews with consumers

I also added 2 more trainings on top of the 6 above and the other various skills and tasks a project manager for my company should know:

  1. An Organization Overview, where I talked about the organization, the way we do things such as timesheets, expense report, and itineraries, and other little things that no one officially told me and I found out on my own.  I felt this could be helpful for a new hire to know right off the bat.
  2. Managing The Budget, where I talk about managing the money and time budgets that are allotted for each project.

So far, the trainings are going very well.  I feel like the new hires are further along than I was at the point their at right now.  I’ve been running the trainings very collaberatively, where I’ve invited the other project managers outside of the new hires to share their experiences and the tips and tricks they’ve learned along the way.  Its been adding a lot to the trainings, and its giving the new hires a pretty well-rounded view of project management.  They’ve been using the decks as I intended, meaning they are going back to them for guidance and using it at a reference.

The next step is to get them som hands-on project management experience, which will come with time.  Right now I feel like I’m point them in the right direction and giving them the tools and knowledge to be successful with the experience opportunities arrive.

A Needle In A Haystack – Recruiting The Right Consumers To Interview

In the work I do, we often turn to recruiting facilities to help us find consumers for in-home (ethnographic) interviews, focus groups, or other forms of qualitative research.  We utilize the databases of these facilities to help us find consumers who match certain criteria we’re looking to research.  I write a screener, which is a list of questions targeted to find these types of consumers, and the facility uses it to call people in their database they think could potentially fit.

Depending upon the project, recruiting can range from extremely simple to almost impossible.  In my experience, I’ve managed 3 types of projects: easy projects to recruit, average projects, and very difficult projects to recruit.

The easier projects to recruit often have pretty general criteria that apply to a lot of people.  It’s usually looking for people who own a certain product, use a certain product every day, are regularly in situations or activities such as business travel, or other general types of criteria.  I consider projects like this to be easy recruits because these people are found pretty quickly, and it allows you to be picky about the people included.

For a project I was working on, our screener called for people who owned their home and had a household income of over $150,000.  The 2 markets we were holding the study in were able to complete this recruit in less than a week, and our client could essentially pick and choose who they wanted to be included.

The average projects don’t always allow for that type of flexibility in recruiting.  These projects are looking for the same types of consumers as the easier projects, but the requirements are less general.  The project could be looking for a specific brand of product or a situation that most people aren’t always in, such as recently making a major purchase or traveling for business at least twice a month.  There also could be constraints on the project from the client that hinder the type of recruit you can do.  I consider these recruit average because they’re usually what I encounter when I’m recruiting for a project.

The best example I have for this type of project from my experience is one I worked on about a year ago.  We were looking for Boomers (ages 55+) who ate applesauce on a regular basis (at least once a week.)  This doesn’t sound like that difficult of a recruit, except we were on a shoe-string budget and couldn’t afford a usual recruiting facility.  We ended up recruiting 6 local friends and family who met our criteria for half-hour interviews, and ended up getting a lot of great information from them.

Then there are some project who seem to be looking for a needle in a haystack.  These projects are the ones that are very difficult to recruit.  Not having a budget for recruiting isn’t usually the case; it’s usually extremely limiting criteria for recruiting that make these project difficult.  In my experience, most of these projects are medical or pharmaceutical research projects.  They can be looking for a person who has a certain disease at a specific stage or is taking a drug for a certain amount of time.

I have experience with the later portion of the statement above.  Recently, I was working on a medical packaging research project that was looking for heart disease patients that have been on a certain cardiovascular drug for less than a year.  This proved to be extremely difficult, as the recruiting facilities I contacted were having trouble finding people that met this criteria.  I ended up contracting with 3 recruiting facilities and still could not complete the recruit.

Having had the applesauce project under my belt, I decided to employ the method I used for that project.  I turned to friends and family for help.  After a lot of phone calls, emails, and searching, we were able to fill complete the recruit with people referred to us by our friends and family.  We actually ended up finding more people than the 3 facilities combine!  They ended up being great interviews, and my client was extremely pleased and came back to me for additional projects.

Recruiting for in-home interviews can be interesting.  A project can be an easy recruit, and average recruit or a very difficult recruit.  Having the right tools to recruit the right people can make or break a project.

Communication Is King

Project management can be tough.  It forces me to wear many different hats depending upon the situations.  On any given day I could be playing the role of planner, organizer, negotiator, account manager, writer, facilitator, and/or adviser.  I enjoy this role because I’m able to gain experience in all these roles, and no 2 days at work are ever the same.

In most of the work I do, I’m the central point of the project.  I’m communicating with my internal team to help better serve our clients, and talking with the client to make sure they’re getting what they need from us.  I’m also working with outside resources and vendors to get what we need from them to accomplish the project successfully. I’m constantly interfacing with a lot of people to make sure the project will be successful.

Because I’m in contact with the most people, I have to make sure everyone is in the loop.  Everyone involved wants the project to succeed and need to make sure we’re going to hit our deadlines and keep everything on schedule. No one wants to be in the lurch, so I have to make sure they know where we stand at any given time.

I try to keep everyone informed in a number of different ways.  I find that the most effective way is through email.  I try to send email updates at least once a week.  I usually end up sending them daily.  I summarize what’s happened since my last email and what needs to happen next.  I bullet-point things as much as possible so it’s easier to digest.  I try to attach names and dates these action items so people know what they’re responsible for and when they need to have it done by.

I’ve found that people find this extremely helpful and informative.  Even if they only get to glance at the email, they can see where we stand and what’s happening next.   It helps make sure everyone is on the same page and that our goals are being accomplished.

In my role as project manager, I play the part of many different roles and talk to a lot of different people about the project.  Making sure every everyone knows what’s going on is crutial to the project’s success.  I try to keep everyone who’s involved with the project informed through constant communication.

Communicating Your Way To Clarity

With the ever-growing number of ways to communicate with each other, you’d think people would take advantage of them.  Unfortunately, that’s not the case.  I’m finding that a lot of time and effort could be saved through simple communication.

We often base our actions and work off what we think someone meant in an email or a phone conversation.  We let our interpretation of what was said guide our actions.  We do what we think we’re supposed to be doing when we aren’t really sure.  For some reason, we never bother to clarify this and just go with our assumptions.

This can lead to confusion, misalignment and can ultimately waste a lot of time.  You’d hate to pour a lot of effort into something only to have it turn out to be not useful in the end.  Our time is at a premium and we want to ensure we use it wisely.

I find that a simple email or phone call goes a long way to clarify things.  Instead of basing your actions on what you think was meant by a line in an email, it’s best to give a call and find out what the person really did mean.

An example is a proposal I was recently working on.  We were basing the proposal on an email we received from a client stating what they were looking for.  While we were building a process we thought would accomplish the client’s goals, we became unclear on one of them.  We discussed the goal for a little while and determined what we thought they meant to accomplish.  We began working on this assumption until we hit another roadblock that was based on the assumption we made.

Instead of just continuing with our own interpretation of their goals, I called the client to see if the direction we were moving was correct.  Turns out it wasn’t, and we were building a good chunk of a proposal on what we thought the client wanted. They wanted something different.  We saved ourselves a lot of work and possible embarrassment with that simple phone call.

This also works with co-workers as well.  When I’m working on a project and I’m not sure what exactly they mean by what they want me to do, I simply walk down the hall and ask them.  I find that it saves a lot of time and headaches by simply asking what was meant and not working from what I think was meant.

The next time you find yourself in this situation, where you aren’t sure what to do because you aren’t sure what someone meant, get in touch with them and ask.  It will help make sure you’re on target and help you product better work.

Calling The Same Plays From The Same Playbook

You can’t hand the ball off to your running back while he’s running a screen pattern.  If part of a football team is running one play while the other half is running a completely different play, the team is doomed to fail.  They actually have a term for it; it’s called a “broken play.”

It’s the same in business.  How many times have you walked into a project meeting and gotten nothing accomplished because the whole team came in with different agendas and objectives.  This happens all too often.  The team isn’t aligned around the project goals, and everyone has their own version of what they think should get done.  They could probably call this a “broken project.”

Just like a football team, a project team needs make sure each player knows exactly what their role is in any given play and what tasks they need to accomplish in order to be successful.  The entire team needs to be moving in one common direction in order to accomplish the agreed-to goals.

Alignment around goals is especially important in my role at my organization.  As a project manager, I have to interface with 2 project teams – the client and our staff.  Usually, the client team was assigned to this project, and only one or 2 people completely understand its objectives and goals.  Our staff is much the same way.  Only a few people were involved when we were bidding to do the work on this project.  More often then not, they’ve only ever heard our client’s name mentioned in the hallways.

This puts a lot of importance on kickoff meetings.  Kickoff meetings help align teams around a project by bringing out the project’s objectives early on.  I try to have them with both the client and our staff project teams soon after the project is booked – usually within a week.  You can read how I like to run kickoff meeting with a client here: The goal is to get the team moving in one unified direction with each person understanding their role and tasks to accomplish for the project.

Like I said above, the client team is usually assigned to a project.  They only know that they’ll be working with this team on this assignment.  They usually have a vague notion of what the project hopes to accomplish and definitely don’t know the ins and outs yet.  Having a kickoff meeting with the whole team allows them to clarify project assumptions and share what they’d like to accomplish through this project from their perspective roles.  This helps put everyone on the same page before our stage of the project starts and gives both them and us clarity on where the project should go.

Kickoff meetings with internal staff are just as important.  Everyone is working to help the client accomplish their goals, so everyone working on the project needs to know what those goals are and how they can help get there.  Clarifying who’s doing what helps people plan and know what to expect.  I can’t assume someone will book my travel for me if they only find out about it 2 days before you leave.  By reviewing the project outline, schedule, goals, team roles and expectations before a project starts, I feel I’m better serving the clients I work for and giving them a well-run project.

I feel that having kickoff meetings early on ensures a higher chance of success for a project by unifying the team and getting them moving in the same direction and knowing what they have to accomplish to get there.