11 December 2007

Tools of the Trade for a Project Manager

Alice came to the fork in the road.
"Which road do I take?" she asked.
"Where do you want to go?" responded the Cheshire cat.
"I don't know," Alice answered.
"Then," said the cat, "it doesn't matter."

- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

The lovely Lily tagged me and many others for input on how they plan things in their lives in general, and how, like BlogLily, we might be planning things -- do we dare say it: a survival plan -- for the holiday season.

I've pondered for a few days how I might approach this post. I was stumped. What could I say about my personal plans? I deal with professional plans daily, but cannot share them. Nor would I want to even if I were not so constrained by all sorts of legalese from doing so.

So I thought I could share with you a few valuable tips for planning in general, and the holidays -- or any stressful period -- in particular. Like a good project planner, I must tell you up front: Communication is key. In this particular instance, communication is in written format and it is imperative that you read to the very end of this post. If you cannot do that, then skip to the bottom and read the last paragraph. If you cannot even do that much, well if I haven't lost you yet, feel free to leave.

1. How do I plan? I am a great sequencer. I loved to alphabetize in first grade. I used to write step-by-step manuals for exciting manufacturing processes like operating plastic extrusion machines or welding evaporator fins on refrigerators. I love it when system analysts and software engineers draw flow charts and UML diagrams. (Psst: trade secret. Many don't, unless management makes them!). I love to make lists of things to do in order. And I like marking those items completed.

2. But, before one can made a sequenced plan, one has to gather your information. Brainstorm. Research. Take notes. I spoil myself -- even for work -- by using paper & pens that I like. At work, that means indulging in buying Moleskin Notebooks, the larger 5" x 8.25" size. Squared, not ruled. I sometimes think that I like the squares because it will be easier to draw flowcharts. See # 1 above if you wonder how often I do that. More than the remote possibility that I might need to freehand a flowchart, I like these because I've never been able to write within the lines. Those nuns in grade schools were unable to correct that. Tsk. Tsk.

3. Sometimes at work I use a neat software tool for brainstorming and organizing my thoughts. I have only used it twice for non-work projects -- last year when I traced the spread of the poetry meme (see here), and this week, for this post. (Note: I'm not selling anything.) MindManager lets you record your ideas and then organize them. Different people do mindmaps in various ways. I've seen this used in writing classes. I like it because I can easily rearrange and categorize items. Since I started using this, I've taken fewer pictures of my white board with my phone. I think it mimics the non-linear way that I think and helps get all the pieces on paper so that later I can put them in order -- like a puzzle. I did a map to show you as an example. This is the beginning of my task list for what I need to do to have new carpet installed in my house: 6 rooms, 8 closets, too many heavy items to be moved.

4. Once I have my ideas on paper, I can group them together. I have numbered the different clusters in my map, but I don't care if they are in numerical order. By looking at this drawing, I can see where I have the most tasks. That might be the most time-consuming, but that isn't always the case. The map gives me a pictorial representation of where much of my energy will need to be directed. I can take a step back from this and make a decision that the carpet won't be installed this month. My 'resources', aka husband and college-student child, have too many other activities this month. I can't get the job done by myself. It doesn't need to be here before January. I can breathe a sigh of relief.

5. From here, I can put this into a a sequential project plan. If it were a work project, I would assign resources, schedule the amount of time, specify deadlines, indicate milestones. A project plan is not only a good tool for those doing the work, but it can be used to communicate to others what needs to be done and where you are towards meeting your goals. There would also be lots of other documentation -- communication plans, risk plans, training plans, resource plans.

At home, I don't schedule things. But, I do make lists. I might place a list on the fridge. I might think of this poem when I see the list:

This is Just to Say
--William Carlos Williams
I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I would be reminded that my fridge notes are never as poetic as William Carlos Williams' notes must have been.

I might ask my family to assist with some tasks and we'll discuss when we'll do them. I can hear my son objecting as he reads this: "We'll decide?" he'll lament. I will move on, thinking briefly about how at work I'm much better at finding compromise. But, at home, things are different. I find it difficult to formalize a plan at home. I want to relax at home. Don't bother me with methodology once I walk in the door and put down my briefcase. I want to forget about goals, tasks, and timelines.

Still, I think these are good exercises to do -- regardless of your plans or what tools you use. By planning you force yourself to think of specific goals, identify tasks, and think realistically about how long it will take you to accomplish something. A plan should help you see too where you might need to ask for assistance or guidance. I encourage you to try it.

After you have completed all of your plans, take a look at them. Aren't they pretty? Won't you feel like you have accomplished much? Aren't you tired? If this is your home life and your schedule is overbooked, go back to your first list. What are you trying to accomplish? Look closely at my list:

Throw away your plan. Make a list like this. Hug your babies. Kiss your spouse. Forget about your electronic gadgetry for awhile. Breath deeply -- it will all get done that needs to be done.

Philosopher Henri Frederick Amiel said: Life is short and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are travelling the dark journey with us. Oh be swift to love, make haste to be kind.

Find beauty in your world. Recite a poem. Make haste to gladden a heart. Have a cup of tea.


Smithereens said...

At the beginning, I was just going to say that I share your Moleskine love, but then... I read your carpet plan and I nearly choked. If I had done even half of such a plan, I would have felt so overwhelmed that I would have gone straight back to bed and not change the carpet at all, never.
I have the ostrich approach, but no high expectations. Midway through a project, I discover problems that probably existed at the beginning, but as I'm already in the process, I can't run away.

Cam said...

Smithereens: It is a daunting task, which may explain why I've wanted to replace the carpet since I moved here -- 9 years ago. Then I just thought it ugly. Now it's ugly AND old. If you enlarge the photo of the plan, you can see that I put smilies near some of the tasks -- and none of them are smiling! Dining room closet -- it may take me a week alone on that one. It's larger than any of the other closets, extending over the stairwell. There is so much junk in there I think I might find fossils of alien life forms.

And why a cup of tea is so much nicer! :)

kimbofo said...

Aha!! Someone else who uses mindmaps -- and here I was thinking my Other Half (who also happens to be a project manager) was the only person on the planet who uses them. He has tried for years to get me to use this software, but I'm afraid my mind doesn't work that way. I'm a linear lists girl, at heart. I will have to make him read your post! ;)

Stefanie said...

Your carpet chart made me excited. I love stuff like that but I never go past making interlinking lists. This is a wonderful post and I especially loved the final paragraphs.

Brian S. Friedlander, Ph.D said...

I do enjoy using mindmapping for my projects and have written about them on my blog at:

(un)relaxeddad said...

Mindmapping is something I started using extensive when I was revising for two exams (the first in 15 years!) last summer. I started with A4 sheets. Then switched to A3. Then found I was mapping onto sheets of A3 stuck together.

I'm fairly good at assembling project plans but useless at seeing them through. Why on earth I've ever been put in charge of anything is quite beyond me!

Cam said...

Kimbofo - I used them for years not knowing what they were called or knowing that anyone else used similar techniques. My maps do drive crazy many of the linear thinkers I work with.

Stefanie - the most difficult thing for organizers to do, is to realize when to throw away the plan and just let things happen. I need to remind myself of this everyday. My biggest issue is that I am 100% at either end of the scale -- overplan or let chaos reign. Always striving for the balance.

Brian -- Welcome. Don't know much about adaptive tech, but I found your blog interesting. I'm learning all sorts of ways in which mindmapping can be used.

Unrelaxed -- I'm concerned that a similar comment is what I'll hear when I get my yearly performance appraisal this week :) There is so much difference between planning and managing. I can see them through when I am the only person responsible, but I don't think I'm very good at getting others to do their parts. But, UnRelaxed, from reading your blog I think you follow through with plans with Dudelet and will do same with new Dudelette -- and isn't that what really counts? Have a cup of tea, UnR, and kiss that beautiful new baby for me.

Dorothy W. said...

Okay, I'm impressed. I might have some fun creating a plan like the carpet-changing one, but following through would be another matter. I like putting together my training plans, but find it much harder to actually do the workouts ...

Anonymous said...

Cam, this is awesome. I _adore_ mindmaps and have used them often in school, but it has never occurred to me to use them for planning a schedule.

Cam said...

Dorothy -- I think creating them is more fun too!

Poloris -- I think they are useful in a pre-planning sort of way, because I don't think of all of the steps in a sequential order. The software I use, too, can be exported to project scheduling/management softrware to like MS Proj. The more I use mindmaps the more new uses I think of for them.

Emily Barton said...

I love making flow charts, too, but I'm always doing them for work. Never thought about doing them for home projects. Meanwhile, my plan isn't working too well at all, so I'm getting close to throwing it away as you might suggest and picking up yours (I don't have a Blackberry, but I can turn off my cell phone).

chiefbiscuit said...

I love lists!
Have a Merry Christmas and a happy new Year (or the other way around if you are so inclined!)