Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Getting To Done

200812240828.jpgSooner or later, every programme drowns in its own do lists (known by at least one chap I know as do-do lists). There are lists of lists, summaries of lists, lists of summaries of lists and everything in between.

Every meeting takes hours, produces minutes, and weeks go by before the actions are checked.

Every task on the plan produces another task for someone to check that the task was done, and to figure out what went wrong with the task, and then a task is created to fix what went wrong.

Most of these actions or tasks are never added to a plan - they're too small, too short-lived, don't really "fit" anywhere or simply no one thinks to add them to the plan; or the plan is too cumbersome so people keep them on a sheet, in a word document, in Excel or - heaven help us - in a "tool" that was never designed for them but was the nearest thing.

As a result, no one knows the dependencies between them all and even fewer still (if that's even possible) would understand those dependencies if they had them explained to them.

How, in nearly 2009, after arguably 5,000 years of large scale project management (from the Pyramids in 2600BC via the Pantheon in Rome to the Channel Tunnel and now the Burj Dubai) and certainly 30 years of large scale IT projects in public and private sector, have we continued to be in a place where the default boot option on a project management PC or Mac lacks the toolset that would help make this problem go away?

The organisation chart of a programme says who is responsible, sometimes even who is accountable, for what. It doesn't say what they do. Their job descriptions don't say what they're doing now, only what areas someone might generally cover. In a project or a programme, work moves from person to person based on skills, availability, initiative, ambition, nearness to the person with the problem or maybe even just wrong place, right time ... and many other difficult to pin down factors.

In day to day project management, across a large team, I find myself asking a lot of the same kind of questions most days. These are mostly obvious things that you can find out quickly when the team is within a few yards of you, but as you span floors, buildings, campuses, towns, timezones and countries, they get harder and harder to find out. These are all made up but doubtless any project manager has wondered something similar to these at some stage:

  • Who is covering the actions from the customer meeting last Monday?
  • Did we ever figure out who needed to talk to Bill to sort the problem with the server?
  • What happened to that action that I gave someone to figure out how to connect the widget to the whatsit?
  • When was the last time we spoke to our key customer, Mary, and what was said?
  • Where is Bill right now?
  • If I get my whole team together now, what will it disrupt? Can I live with that?
  • What are all the tasks we're doing now, across the team, that relate to going live?
  • Do we have any tasks in the team about disaster recovery? Have we even thought about it?
  • Have we filed the monthly report that was due yesterday?
  • Who is working the issues that came from the security audit?
  • When will those security issues be fixed?
  • What am I supposed to be doing today?
  • What is Bill supposed to be doing today?
  • Bill's sick ... who can I give his work to?
  • Who has the job of producing the new plan? When will it be ready?

And then, more generally

  • Are we closing down actions? Or leaving them dragging for weeks?
  • Who is overloaded? Who is underloaded?
  • Who is closing their actions? And who isn't?
  • Are there any specific areas where we're not doing what we should?

And of course it's not just "me" (and people like me) tracking these kinds of things in a programme, but my peers, subordinates, bosses, supplier opposite numbers and all of the people in the supplier organisation. Thousands of do lists being tracked across every meeting and every individual.

Let's face it - in every meeting you go to, you see everyone writing notes. Notes of notes of notes. Notes noting the same notes. And yet few notable notes.

I have a hard enough time tracking my own task lists - which I do pretty religiously in a 3 column A4 page. I have tried endless productivity tools on every computer I've ever owned, from ZX81s, to a Psion 5 to my current Mac. And nothing has ever really settled.

I'd really like a tool that:
  • Everyone has access to. That means it needs to be on the Internet, not the Intranet. And it needs some kind of security around it that is better than mother's maiden name.
  • Seamlessly moves between 'net and mobile phones. So it needs clients for iPhone, Blackberry, Windows Mobile and maybe even the new Palm Tre. Tasks could be entered on any device and would be replicated.
  • Allows sharing of do lists within teams, across teams, up, down and sideways in an organisation. The default might even be "share all with everyone"
  • Enforces some kind of tagging and sub-lists so that tasks related to specific areas could be pulled together
  • Has a generic reporting engine that would allow the questions above to be answered quickly and easily
  • Would allow me to assign a task to someone else - that they could accept or reject - and where status of the task (e.g. drifting completion date) would be reported back to me
  • Sends email reminders about tasks needing to be done
  • Might even have role based do lists so that, say, "architects" could be given tasks at a group level that would appear in the lists of all those with architect in their title
  • Accepts emails of tasks - and, most importantly in this context, would have the ability to parse a set of minutes from a meeting (ok, they can be in a template) and update the do lists of all those referred to in the actions

That doesn't seem like an extravagant feature list, does it? Have I missed anything? Does it exist now?

Until then, to help keep me sane, I'm using an application called "RTM", as opposed to the more expected "RTFM." It's called "Remember the Milk".

It's not as comprehensive as I'd like - and it doesn't match all of the requirements above. But it does sit on the Internet, sync to my iPhone, allowing sharing of do lists, tagging and emailing of updates and reminders. It doesn't parse the minutes of a meeting and it doesn't have a reporting engine that would let me see what everyone across a programme or project was doing.

RTM is by far the best task management app I've come across that sits on both the web and my mobile device - the iPhone in this case. So far it's been rock solid, despite apparently being in beta (or perhaps they're just following the google trend of infinite beta). It costs a few pounds a year, but nothing is for free really. Least of all good task management software.

But if anyone wanted to work on the big pan-project task management app I'm talking about above, or even knows that one already exists, I'm interested.


5 comments:

  1. Anonymous9:14 pm

    It's why all good PM's are control freaks ;-)

    BTW - and I hate to say this - some of the stuff you want like remote task assignment and update, reminders and such like can be done in MS-Project if it's set up right. No-one I know uses it though, and some people get the right hump when you remotely assign them tasks!

    Cheers
    Ade

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  2. Ade ... dude ... i know you use the internet ... msp doesn't work on Macs and it has no iphone or other mobile hook and it doesn't sync from computer to computer; and putting all the actions from a meeting into msp would kill everyone (kill bob, kill yourself, kill everyone)- and who would put all the dependency links?!

    next you'll be telling me it will all be ok in sharepoint

    but you're right .. got to be a control freak ... want to work down south?

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  3. Anonymous9:33 pm

    If you ever need an incredibly diplomatic mad techie, you only have to post an ad. But beware what you wish for.

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  4. Bad day in the office on Tuesday???

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  5. Anonymous1:43 pm

    Knowing what a stickler you are I was careful to caveat what MSP could do. The other stuff you describe is basically a secretary ;-O

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