How I Manage Projects
I’ve spent the last 15 years desperately trying to figure out the best way to manage projects. I’ve tried all manner of software, even wrote my own. The results of these exhaustive trials may surprise you. In short: simpler is better.
First, the size of the project has a lot to do with it. Most of mine have been small — in the $1,000-$3 million range. Projects of this size are generally less complex than mega-projects in terms of the number of tasks, subs, resources and the like. What works for small won’t likely work for large.
The real difficulty with small projects comes with the number of them you’re managing at once. In my case, I’ve had anywhere from five to 75 going simultaneously. Keeping them all moving forward without things falling through the cracks can become tortuous, if not impossible.
I once took a graduate course called “Project Management.” It was a joke. If I tried to apply half of the baloney that course “taught,” I’d be laughed right off the job. Project management (in the real world, i.e. not the fake classroom) boils down to a few basic, common-sense concepts:
- Mind the budget
- Mind the resources (workers and equipment)
- Mind the materials
- Mind the schedule
- Make sure it gets done right the first time.
You don’t need a master’s degree to understand that. However, getting it all done while maintaining your sanity, not to mention your marriage, is the challenge.
The Problem With Project Management (PM) Software. Software companies would have you believe that their product will instantly solve all your project management woes. Not! I own a software company, so I know a little about the industry. In a nutshell, it takes more time to set up and maintain a project with most PM software than it’s worth. And that’s not even taking into account the learning curve involved in simply becoming proficient with it. Ironically, PM software was invented to save time, yet to really make it sing takes lots of… time. (As soon as this column is published, I’m sure I’ll receive many e-mails from angry software manufacturers telling me I’m crazy because I haven’t tried their product. Please, don’t waste my… time.)
The Most Powerful Project Management Tool. Actually, the two most powerful PM tools are the cell phone and e-mail. Since everyone and their kids already have a cell phone, no need to delve there. However, I am amazed that not everyone in our industry uses e-mail; and also that those who do, generally underutilize it.
Why E-mail? Here’s why:
- It creates a permanent record of the “conversation.” I am continually amazed at the selective and shockingly short-term memories of folks in our industry: “What? I promised you I’d have the survey crew at your project TODAY? No, no, no… I never…” E-mail is an instant cure for a bad memory.
- It isn’t as disruptive as a telephone. Project managers are constantly pestering people for information and for action. Lots of times, however, it’s not needed immediately. Since no one wants to be a siren-blaring “Emergency Eldon,” we like to give our coworkers as much notice as we can, and try our best not to be a nuisance (even though that is precisely our job). E-mail is great for this. Recipients can check it at their leisure, not yours.
- If you don’t have it, it’s a black mark against you. Like it or not, technology is upon us and will only become more prevalent. Nearly all the important players in your bailiwick have and use e-mail regularly. In my case, if I know that certain contractors or consultants don’t use e-mail, I hesitate to even hire them. Brutal, but true. How long did it take you to buy your first cell phone? E-mail is the next cell phone.
- It is a quick and easy substitute for a letter or memo. Many of the e-mails I write summarize a conversation or recap the important points of a meeting. Rather than using paper, envelopes, stamps, secretaries and the U.S. Postal Service, I just bullet the major points and action items in an e-mail and fire it off. Quick, simple, permanent, done. Certainly, there are instances when pen and paper are appropriate, but nowadays that is the exception, not the rule.
I see I’m running out of space in this column, yet I’ve barely scratched the surface of how I manage projects. Seems like a new white paper may be in order.
Tim Garrison of ConstructionCalc.com, is a professional engineer, author and software producer for the building industry. Send e-mail to email@example.com. Tim reads every one.
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