04 April 2012

How do you: Manage Projects?

This topic was discussed in one of our Free For All Tuesdays/Fridays. David P, one of our readers has been trying to improve the system he uses for handling a large number of projects but as a single person business.

David reader wants to be able to do project tracking with dependencies, with the option to update the dates as you go along.

So last week, a small group of Philofaxy readers (Tim, Alison R, David, Ray and myself) set about exchanging emails to see if we could help out and suggest possible Filofax solutions to this problem.

In my own experience in my previous jobs trying to use project management software to tackle this sort of issue doesn't really work when you have many projects but only small teams to tackle these many projects/deadlines. The software keeps trying to drive you in a particular direction and keeps telling you that you don't have enough resources (people) to complete the task on time.  So you spend far too many hours fighting the software to get it to tell the truth and not enough time on the really issues about managing the project.

So we didn't quite come to any wonderful instant solutions in discussions. It would have been great to have come up with an all paper solution, does one exist? But we tended towards a part paper, part electronic solution.

Mainly because if you have a chart of some description it is quicker to amend the chart on your PC in say Excel and then print it off again than to redraw your chart showing tasks and deadlines only on paper.

But did we miss anything obvious?

Please add your thoughts and comments, if you have any pictures you can share may be include a link to Flickr in your comments.


  1. Update - since last weekend I've prepared a draft project management sheet in Excel....I don't know best how to upload this to the website for people to critique, but maybe someone can advise me.

    Basically, my projects (broadly speaking) follow the pattern of an identical series of tasks, each of which is dependent upon the completion of the previous task. So a project, called, for example, 'Company A accounts' would comprise seven or eight steps from beginning to end. because each of these projects (but not the individual steps) are deadlined, I need to be able to set 'interim' deadlines for the various tasks within the 'set', and make sure they are all pushed through to completion before the final, 'real' due date.

    I think my A5 checklist will provide a basis for this, but I'd be very interested to know how other readers'do' project management, especially if you're working from within a paper-based system of GTD, because this seems to be an area which GTD doesn't really carer for (there'a another, but I'll leave that for another day!)

  2. David - you could put the s/sheet on google docs and post the link here for us all to be able to see.

    Sounds like an interesting concept. It's something I'll need to definitely look at when I return to the working world!

    1. hi Babs

      Sorry I don't know how to do that! (This is why I prefer paper-based solutions!)I'm happy to email it if you drop me a line.....davidpopely (at) googlemail (dot) com

  3. (Sorry if my idea is obvious or has already been discarded!)

    Could you use a Gantt chart? You could print out a chart, where the first column would be the list of tasks (with the sub-tasks) in the order in which they need to be completed.
    The rest of the columns would be for dates (one column per day, or week, depending on your time frame). These date columns can be very narrow. The last date in these has to be the 'real' due date. The first date has to be the day you start the project.
    Now when you start your first task, you can color the first day. If you end up spending 10 days to complete the first task, 10 boxes will be colored on the first line. You can easily see exactly how much time is left (uncolored boxes towards the right) to tackle the other tasks before the end of the project.
    This can help you analyze which are the most time-consuming tasks. If you have employees to which you assign these tasks, you could also create a line for each of them under each main task...
    If all your projects follow the same pattern you could have an excel chart with the list of tasks ready to print, you would just need to adjust the dates according to the deadline given.

    What do you think?

    1. Hi HM

      Gantt charts were one of the first solutions to come up, naturally, and Steve even ran me up a quick spreadsheet which effectively looked like a Gantt chart. I've also played with MS Project, but neither is really giving me the 'feel' of the solution I can work comfortably with. I've worked up a paper-based activity sheet (one per client) which might do the trick.....I'm more aware than ever of the possibility of 'technological overkill' at the moment.....

    2. I have not found (yet) a technological tool (either soft, web-based, or Excel doc) that helped me in Project Management. Could you tell us more about the activity sheet you designed? Sounds like something i could use :)
      Also, do you need a tool to plan the project implementation/completion, or something to control your resources or the results?

    3. Happy to send you a copy of the paper-based draft solution if you'll email me via davidpopely (at) googlemail (dot) com

    4. Email sent!! Thanks a lot David!

  4. Steve, Alison, Mr P, Ray, Tim, hi.

    You may want to look into http://store.franklinplanner.com/store/category/prod1110021/US-Business-Forms/Project-Management-Forms?skuId=31663

    Similar concept to what was used back in the 80's for project planning before PC's.
    For Mr. P's purposes, needs simplifying, I suppose.

    1. Well that looks like a fairly big sledgehammer to crack a fairly small (relatively speaking) nut! The last sheet looked interesting though.

      FF Time Maagement range also has a 'project management' form which closely resembles one of the old TMI forms, but i think it would take a *lot* of filling in - and maintenance, when the dates start to slip./.....

  5. Hi HM, I handle a lot of projects. For me Gantt charts are confusing though my company believes in using them all the time. At the beginning of a project we have the entire CPS mapped out in Gantt. Over the course of the project, the dates change depending on the previous tasks that needed to be completed. By the end of the project the Gantt chart is completely different from what you had mapped out earlier. Unless you save a version of every change you made, one does not really have an idea of what the original looked like. Also the Gantt does not really tell you why the CPS went beyond the specified date. This is my experience, do you do it different?

    1. I've totally seen what you're talking about when implementing very new projects in my company. The first layout of tasks, with individual time frames assigned to each task, was usually totally off, and like you said, by the end, it look nothing like the first draft. Thanks for sharing your experience!!
      Traditionally a Gantt chart would say 'task one: from Jan.1st to Jan.15th', 'task two: from Jan.10th to Feb.1st' and so on, right? Here my idea was to black out each day as they pass, so that you can see where you are relatively to the project's deadline and remaining tasks. I use that in my job, it allows me to keep a more general view on where we are. I'm not using it for 'budgeting' or planning reasons, more for control. I think that's key, what tool do you exactly need?

    2. Hi HM, the process / tool should help me with complete project management - securing resources - money and people for the project, develop work processes, product development, introduction to markets, etc etc. Some of these projects stretch over years and during that time even the people who handle the projects change. Over the years what has worked best for me is the simple excel file with columns -1)Task #, 2)Task, 3) Task owner, 4) Due Date, 5) Status - In Progress, Completed, Critical etc 6)Comments. I would break up the rows into sections like Project Establishment, Technical Developments, Product Plan etc with various sub-tasks under each and assign respective owners. I also keep another sheet in the same file called decisions taken - sometimes decisions are taken and after a period of 6 months, no one really knows why a particular decision was taken and this exercise sort of helps in having all aspects of the project under the same file. Of course the problem that we face in the dept is that each project leader has their own way of handling projects and the paper work involved looks completely different.

    3. Apparently we manage the same sort of project :)
      I have been doing something similar. For each project I have a sort of 'summary' of every aspect of the project, chronologically ordered, with only the main info. Each item also links to another doc in the same folder. This other doc has everything concerning this aspect of the project. As you say every change in management results in a change in the organization, but I figure I should leave as many details as possible for the next person, it's better than not giving enough. I also did that a posteriori for projects I took over, which was helpful but hard.

  6. David, I plan projects on index cards. As I plan, all the action items for the project get jotted on individual cards. I then sort the cards into the order that the actions need to be completed, lay them across my desk to see the big picture and get an idea of how much time each will take, what can be delegated to whom, what needs to be discussed with colleagues, etc. The cards can be resorted as things change. I then transfer the action items to my planner. The cards live in a box on my desk, each project tabbed and in action order. I put an avery flag on the next item to do and move it as the project moves forward. I like the cards because it is easy to change individual steps or resort the order without needing to start from scratch.

    1. Sounds interesting...I'm having a hard job picturing how this actually works (despite your excellent explanation).....could you email me? Address in one of my comments above!

  7. How about this?


    1. That looks interesting.....although again it's not paper-based.

      Might have a play though......:)

  8. I took a Project Management unit in uni last year - I know the theory but don't have real world experience.
    Like what HM said:

    Will a four or five-fold page (or an A3 sheet inside an A5 Filofax) work? And colour in the bars with Frixon pens so that they can be erased when they update/change?

  9. Everyone is different, but I prefer a Filofax based GTD system, and I thought I'd share with you two or three points.

    Firstly, using Filofax binders can be a real pleasure, so think about how you can maximise the tactile experience. I use personal sized binders, simply because they are easier to manipulate one handed when talking on the phone, and I accept the requirement to have more than one because the amount of paper exceeds the capacity of an individual binder. Remember that a "stuffed" 5/4 ringed binder may be much slower to thumb through than two moderately filled 7/8 binders, especially if you're in the office and doing it one handed. I go for English vintage binders because many are supple enough to lay flat, an essential requirement in my humble opinion, but there may be some modern binders that lay flat too. You wouldn't try and fit everything into one lever arch file, so why would you restrict yourself to one filofax?

    Secondly, I find that plain paper allows me a free hand in the way I write things down. No template will cover every eventuality, so you end up with some sheets with just a few words and others with post-it notes plasted all over them.

    Thirdly, and this is for people who want use their minds for thinking of ideas instead of storing them, but don't want to become a GTD geek, why not consider my own "GTD lite" system:

    When you start a "project", whether that be a new advertising campaign or a birthday treat for your mum, take a single plain sheet of paper, file it alpabetically in your office filofax, and subsequently use that sheet to note important information as you receive it (contact numbers, data, and the brief one line description of each inbound document that gets placed in your filing cabinet). Then, in a seperate "master filofax" (one that you take with you when you're both in and out of the office), keep a "next action" sheet for each project. Any date dependant actions can be highlighted simply by entering the project name in your diary, prompting you to refer to the relevent "next action" sheet, and thus allowing you to use a slimline "week on one page" diary (because you don't have to write out a full description of the action as a diary entry - just the project reference is enough). A week on one page diary, plus a single "next action" sheet for each project, and some contacts, will all fit comfortably into a single filofax, and three or four "office based" filofaxes could easily be accomodated in your luggage if you have to work away for longer periods, although personally I just take a picture on my iphone of each filed ff page and upload to "dropbox".

    My system is very fast, very light if you have just your master filofax plus project photos on your iphone or dropbox, easy to understand even if you're not a GTD geek, guarantees that things are done at the right time and, most imortantly, accomodates any number of projects of any size, just by adding plain paper and binders as required.

    1. hi Neil

      This is a really interesting post...thank you. Like you, I very much prefer a paper (read Filofax)-based solution but I'm not a committed to multi-binder solutions as you are. All the same, I definitely think plain or lined paper is a good way forward - in fact, everything that GTD entails can be maintained on lined paper. I use cotton cream paper throughout my binder, so plain is one of the few options available, but amazingly, it seems to work fine.

      I find my Personal Malden lays completely flat, without any 'training'.

      I'm interested in your 'GTD lite' system - presumably therre is a link for this? You don't give it, but if you could post it I'd be grateful.

      re your comment concerning entering next action dates in your diary, presumably you use some kind of day-per-page setup for this? I find this to be a constant issue with GTD...the next action dates need to go in the diary, but the Personal Filofax diaries rarely have the capacity to hold a full day-per-page diary, let alone the backup lists. Additionally, the only diary format available in cotton cream is week-per-two-pages traditional format (thanks, Filofax?. So far as I know there is no answer to this. I appreciate that the info you're entering on the diary page is merely a reference to the project page (I'm used to a similar system using TMI's key area references), but even so I can't see them all fitting.....I'd really like to talk to you about this....you're not in London by any chance? :)

      Otherwise, I think this system has the 'seeds of greatness'!

    2. David, many thanks for your kind comments. Unfortunately, I'm not based in London, and neither do I have a link to my system, but I think I'll produce a a quick Youtube video within, say, a week or so, and post the link on this page in a few days time.

      The key to my system is to separate the "data" from the next action - it isn't everyone's cup of tea to use more than one storage device (2 filofaxes, for instance) but, for those like me who have difficulty getting everything in one fax, having one main binder that contains a diary, my contacts and an action sheet for each project, and all my actual "data" for each project in another fax (or faxes) is, in my opinion, and better solution than trying to divide work projects and "home" projects, for instance, especially if one has to fit work around home life, or vice versa. My one master fax shows me my current situation, a bit like your life in one place philosophy, but with the data effectively stored as an annexe to the main filofax.

      David, although my system consists of more than one fax, I really do use it to organise my entire life because it has unlimited flexibility. I suspect that most people have some stuff in their one filofax, and then other stuff shoved in a drawer, plus a wall planner, plus another folder or three at work, and so the list goes on. I literally don't have ANY paperwork anywhere other than my filofax based system, because literally every project, from business projects all the way down to mundane things like grocery shopping, can be accomodated in a plain paper system.

      With regards to the diary, and addressing the usual dilema of what diary format to choose, my system copes with both date dependent and non date dependent tasks in the following way:

      Take, as an example, a project called "valentine's day". On your valentine's day data sheet, in your office, you would have the phone numbers of resturants, what you did last year (to avoid repetition) and some ideas for a special surprise that you've thought of during the course of the year. On your "next action" sheet, in your main fax, you might have "book resturant", or "book plane tickets to Venice and ensure delivery address is office (cos it's a surprise, see?). Then, in your "week to a page" diary, all you have to write is "valentine", which will prompt you to turn to the approriate "next action" page to see what you're being reminded to do. The beauty of this method is that you hardly need any space at all for each day in your diary, because everything is there for you to see on your project "next action" pages, just a few page turns away from the diary prompt.

      However, if a "next action" on one of your projects isn't time dependent, there is no need to enter anything in your diary because it is easy to just review your project "next action" pages periodically when you have a moment or two, as part of your normal review.

      I really like the cotton cream pages, lovely to write on. Even though a "week on two pages" diary in cotton creme takes up 52 sheets of space, there's still plenty of space left to have an action sheet for each project, if the data is stored in another filofax as described in my system.

      David, I must be a bit of a geek because I'm not only into refining the GTD process into something more beneficial for me, but I also analyse hand movements to speed up desk work, but I will post a vid or two on Youtube some time in the next week or so and post the link here.

  10. Hi David,

    I guess, I have followed your plight. (and I'll throw an idea in the hat). I understand Gantt has been suggested, tried.

    You might consider David Seah's downloadable forms (Productivity forms). davidseah dot com. I have found some of his forms elegant.

    Perhaps a series of Gantts - that can used separately and 1)Modified to fit several larger domains, 2) Representing the many smaller tasks with differing leaders/directors and printed for an A5 might be a Mac-Meets-Filofax solution.

    Bonus - the files are in color already, and that could be color-coded in your Filo - making it form, function, FILOPALOOZA.

    1. Looks like a *really* interesting site....this should *definitely* go on the web finds post for next week.....I hope someone i listening! There's such a lot of content here, I'll have to take a good look.....thank you