Monday Mornings with Madison

Keeping All the Plates Spinning

There is circus act in which a person starts a plate spinning on a stick.  Then next to it, he starts another plate spinning.  And then another and another until the person has dozens of plates all spinning on sticks at the same time.  Every so often, the person has to go back to the original plate and spin it some more as it loses momentum and starts to wobble before crashing to the ground.  In order to keep all the plates spinning, the person must race back and forth amongst the plates, adding some velocity as each plate, in its turn, begins to slow down.  The Guinness World Record for plate spinning was achieved in 1996 with 108 plates spinning simultaneously.  Anyone who has ever watched plate spinning feels the anxiety build as plates on the opposite ends look like they are about to teeter off their sticks, but the plate spinner races back and forth just in time to give each another spin.

Even those who have never seen the plate spinning act can probably relate to it.  For most people, life is a lot like a plate spinning act thanks to today’s fast-paced world.  There is a constant pressure to race back and forth between responsibilities to keep all the plates spinning.  Work.  Chores.  Honey-do lists.  Errands.  Family demands.  Children’s activities.  Doctor visits.  Dental checkups.  Tax prep.  With so much to do, there’s often a plate in the daily grind that is about to teeter off its stick and come crashing to the ground.  The race is on to give that plate another spin just in time to keep it from falling.  With so much to do, it is easy to lose track.  Thanks to technology, though, there are increasingly better tools to help track and keep all our proverbial plates spinning… especially the ones at work.

Project Management Systems

For anyone managing a lot of projects or tasks or a team of people, the art of multi-tasking is elevated to a whole new level.  It can sometimes be overwhelming… unless you have a system that tracks it all.  Some, who have tried project management systems in the past, may think that they are more work than they are worth.  That may have been true even just a few years ago, but not anymore.  Project management systems have come a long way and are easier to use and more intuitive than ever before.

The best systems provide comprehensive help, shared interactive timeline abilities and full customization.  Many also include social networking capability and have a wide range of tracking and monitoring abilities. Many have adopted easy-to-use interfaces that look similar to the navigation used for an email service such as Outlook.  Best of all, instead of downloading the application on a local computer or network, most systems run online so that as long as the users have internet access, they can stay on top of any project, anytime from anywhere.  Many also offer phone apps that enable users to track and monitor tasks on their phone.

“Project management” needs vary widely, and each person’s or department’s needs are likely to depend substantially on the project, team, and project-management style of the participants.  In order to know which system is best-suited for your specific needs, you must first define those needs.  Start by asking questions about the kind of help that is needed.  Here are six primary project management functions that many managers want and most systems offer.

1. Planning Projects

For many, no system can rightly call itself a project management tool if it doesn’t allow the users to map out a project’s tasks and visually display how they interconnect. This type of project plan provides a powerful way to define the project schedule, understand the critical path for a project, and assess and allocate staff resources. This generally includes:

  • A detailed breakdown of tasks to be completed.
  • Task assignments identifying who is responsible for which aspects of the project.
  • A time estimate for each task.
  • Links between dependent tasks

Some systems provide very elaborate charts and graphs to showcase the workflow.  Often, those charts are too complex for even the users to follow, much less upper management or outsiders.  For those who don’t need things such as Gantt Charts, they can be thought of as a fringe benefit that can be left on the fringe.

2. Managing Tasks

Task management – the ability to define a task, assign it to someone, create a deadline, and know when it’s complete – is generally the most desired and ubiquitous feature in project-management tools.  Team members can then see their task list, note the time they spend on each task, and mark task progress and completion.  Most project management systems do all this, as well as estimate hours for tasks.  This allows managers to keep a careful watch on the overall impact the numerous variables have on the project schedule and on individual team members’ workloads.

3. Sharing and Collaborating on Documents

Every project team has documents, and productivity can often be substantially increased by providing a central location to store and work on documents together.  Many systems offer strong, easy-to-use features for uploading and storing documents, collaborating on documents in real time, and creating wiki-like libraries of documentation. This is especially valuable for geographically remote teams, for whom collaborating and sharing documents can easily turn into a nightmare of email attachments and mixed up revisions.  The key here, though, is to get all the stakeholders to use the system.  Not surprisingly, collaboration functionalities make up the cornerstone many web-based project-management systems.

4. Sharing Calendars and Contact Lists

Well-managed calendars and contact lists can be important to productivity. If you need to schedule a meeting with several different team members, having access to each of their calendars can save a huge amount of time. For teams using Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Exchange, everything needed may already be available in terms of shared calendaring and contact-list functionality. Otherwise, project management systems provide a way to create a shared calendar.  Again, the key is buy-in from the team.  It may be hard to get your team members to keep the project management schedule up-to-date unless it’s the only calendar they’re maintaining. However, some online project management tools integrate calendaring into Google Calendar or Outlook – making it more likely to be used.

5. Managing Issues or Bugs

While a task is typically just a phrase with an owner, a status, and a deadline, many projects require a tool that will also track comments and conversations for line items, rate priorities or difficulties, email updates or other subscriptions to an issue, or attach additional documentation (such as a screenshot of a problem). For technical projects, this functionality is often used to track bugs – technical problems that require resolution – and store lengthy descriptions, comments, and resolutions for each. For other projects, this feature can be useful as an issue manager – to store open questions or issues that require resolution, as well as what was done about them.

6. Tracking Time

If you are tracking consultant time, or creating a process to be replicated in the future, you’ll need to understand how much time team members are devoting to each task. This is simple in concept, but hard to collect in a way that can be easily understood in the context of your tasks and plan. A number of project-management tools allow you to collect time in a way that more or less integrates with your task. Some systems can request and receive timesheets via email that then flow directly into your plan.

Systems That Do It All

Some of the best known project management systems today include most, if not all, of these desired features.  The most well-known include Microsoft Project, Basecamp, Central Desktop, DreamTeam, Tenrox, GoPlant, ProjectDesk, Zoho, DotProject, Microsoft Sharepoint, and LiveOffice.  Pricing for these systems vary considerably.  For small and mid-size companies, one web-based system that allows for unlimited users and unlimited tasks for under $1000 a year is Ace Project Management.  There are countless others that do some but not all of the tasks needed.

Depending on your company or department’s needs, you may not need all that functionality.  However, for the Olympic-level plate spinners, a system that provides the ability to keep all the plates spinning in one easy-to-use system means a lot less dashing from plate to plate… and that just may allow you to breathe a little easier.

Quote of the Week

“Anything that is wasted effort represents wasted time. The best management of our time thus becomes linked inseparably with the best utilization of our efforts.” Ted W. Engstrom



© 2012, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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