Delegates on our project management training courses often ask for tips on managing project tasks more efficiently. On large programs, there are hundreds of activities to keep track off – including many that are smaller and never make it on to the project schedule.
Given the importance of tracking progress to be able to monitor project performance with approaches like earned value management, it’s important to have reliable and effective ways to manage project tasks. Here are three approaches for managing project tasks and staying on top of your project work – tried and tested by our delegates and trainers over the years.
1. Task boards
If you don’t have too much on, a visual task management tool like a Kanban board can be a great way of showing what is in progress, completed and yet to be started. They work best when shared with the team, so people can pick up a task when they have time available, and signal to everyone else that work has begun.
These days, most Kanban boards are electronic, and enterprise project management tools often have a Kanban or board option built into the way you can view tasks. Choose any type of categorization to group the tasks: you don’t have to remain limited to the ‘not started’, ‘in progress’, and ‘complete’ column headings of old.
However, as a task management tool, we believe visual project management tools and task boards work best when there aren’t too many tasks. Otherwise it can be difficult to see what’s on the list without scrolling through many screens. If you do have a lot of activities to track, perhaps across multiple projects, then the next option might be better for you.
2. Activity lists
Next, the humble To Do list. We know from experience that most project managers maintain a personal To Do list that tracks their actions and often includes follow up reminders for checking in on the actions of others. That list might be in a project management software tool, a spreadsheet or a notebook, but the important thing is that it captures everything relevant.
Many of our delegates talk about sharing To Do lists publicly with the rest of the team so everyone can see what they are working on. This can help to give some visibility to tasks that have remained outstanding for some time as well. Many collaboration tools allow you to create and share lists, and you can edit the settings so that either people can update and amend the list, or they can’t.
Another bonus of activity lists is that they form the basis of a Gantt chart. A work breakdown structure is essentially a list of everything required on the project. These can provide the starting point to create a Gantt chart for tracking project activities.
Typically, a project schedule won’t include all the smaller tasks like ‘send slides to project sponsor by Friday’ but those ad hoc activities can be managed elsewhere. It’s common for project managers to have two different ‘levels’ of To Do list: the activity list that forms the basis of the project schedule, and a separate, faster-moving, personal list that captures smaller must-do work.
3. Time tracking software
Either of the above two options can work in conjunction with this tool: time tracking software. Many of our project management training delegates work on projects that require them to track their time. They either bill the client for the hours, or have to record time for internal purposes so project profitability can be costed. Alternatively, you might be tracking time to input into your earned value management software for monitoring project progress against the integrated baseline.
Timesheets need data populated so you can attribute time to the correct activities. Sometimes, the activities are large and broad; other times they are specific and narrow. In an earned value environment, they should represent the effort required for the control account, and that can be a useful way of making sure every activity is documented, assigned someone and tracked appropriately.
Think of this as top-down task management instead of the bottom-up approaches we discussed earlier.
People assigned to tasks can easily see what they are supposed to be doing. You can address task conflicts, check everything has someone assigned to it, and prioritize work based on what’s showing in the timesheet app for this week.
We wouldn’t recommend running your whole task management approach through time tracking software to the exclusion of all other methods, but it does act as a useful check-and-balance that all work is assigned to someone and that the project activities are being done.
From what delegates tell us, there are plenty of efficient ways of helping the team understand the tasks required for the project and tracking that they are being done. Visual project management, To Do lists and timesheets are three, but we also know that managing project tasks is very much an area of program management that can be customized, personalized and delegated within program structures. In addition, you may have to create methods that work in alignment with how you are expected to provide status updates to clients.
It’s OK to evolve your method of task management as you go through the project. Take onboard feedback from colleagues, suppliers and the client, and adapt how you track activities to fit the prevailing program culture as well as the contracted expectations.