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Using the Small Project Management Guide – Part III: Creating the Project Tasks

Welcome to Part Three of the five-week series on best using the Small Project Management Guide. In the previous weeks we talked about defining the project product and obtaining agreement on what the project will accomplish. Now it is time to plan the project work in detail so our team can begin their work. Here is Andy’s question to start the discussion:

Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One bite at a time. All too often, we neglect the break down of project tasks to smaller work packages…and projects stall or stagnate. Can you say more about the process you use to break down tasks into bite-size pieces?

In the guide I recommend that you list your project tasks into a simple to do list format and that individual tasks should be no more than eight hours in duration and can be accomplished by one person (two people at the most). I also advised that you order the tasks so that any tasks that depended on the completion of another task was listed later. The final piece of advice was to use traditional project planning methods if your task list contained more than 25 items.

The reason that I set the limit at 25 items was that the more tasks you have in a project, the more complicated it becomes to properly schedule, resource, and determine the interdependencies of the tasks. In initially creating this guide, I thought about introducing a mini Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) process because that is an effective way of breaking down the project product into more manageable tasks. The concept for creating a WBS is simple but the actual creation can be complicated as the project complexity grows. Building an effective WBS is both a science and an art.

Let’s take a common small project – putting on a half-day training event. Get a piece of paper or fire up your favorite diagramming program and put the project product (half-day training event) at the top. That is level one of your WBS. Now create level two by breaking down (“decomposing” in project speak) the major tasks: facilities, trainer, materials, and marketing. Under each of the level two topics break those down into level three tasks. For example, under facilities you might have: get a room, provide Internet, table and chairs setup, and get a projector, At this point, your task may be defined enough that your team member can accomplish the third level task. For other third-level tasks you may need further decomposing to establish a work package.

How many levels do you need? This depends on the complexity of the project but a good rule of thumb is no more than four levels for a traditional project. But rather than concentrate on the number of levels stop at the point when you and your team fully understand what the task is and how to accomplish the task. In fact it is best to have the entire team participate in creating the task list or WBS because they will be doing the work and should know best what is needed to create the project product.

On the Project Plan template I have you list the resources for the project tasks along with their associated costs. You will notice that before that I have you list your team and your stakeholders. That is because your team will actually do the work while the stakeholders can help or hinder completing the tasks. One common criticism about project management is that it seems to be “planning to plan to plan” and you will be under pressure to just go ahead and “get ‘er done!”

Resist that pressure to act quickly. One, because the more time you spend in thoroughly planning what you will do, the quicker that actual project work will be because the team knows exactly what to do when and how. Two, a thorough plan helps you avoid wasted work and rework. It is a lot cheaper to fix something in the planning stage (a simple push of the delete button) than later in the project (having to scrap several weeks of design work and starting over on the website programming for example).

If you decide to go on and learn about traditional project management and agile project management there are many tools and methods to help you better plan your tasks such as Gantt Charts, network diagrams, and user stories. Please feel free to contact me and I will be glad to provide pointers to resources on project task planning. A good beginning resource is Dr. Wysocki’s Effective Project Management: Traditional, Agile, and Extreme. For a good online tool to help you keep track of tasks try Cohuman. It allows you to set up several projects where you can assign tasks to team members based on dependencies and priorities. It is designed to integrate with Google Docs so you can keep all of your project documents in one shared space.

Next week we will discuss how to manage risks in your project. No matter how well you plan the unexpected will happen and I will show you strategies to manage risk so your project can still succeed. Thank you for using the Small Project Management Guide.

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