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Managing Projects Of Any Size
By Steve Waddington

Over the years I have tried many different methods of keeping track of the actions required from meetings for different projects. I used the policy that when I find a new method better than the existing method I will abandon the old method an use the new one, until an even better one comes along.

And so, having done that for 23 years, I can say that the method I use now (and have found nothing better in the last seven years) is very efficient.

Everyone is different, and you may not find it to work as well for you as it does for me – but, by explaining it to you, you can start from a point with the benefit of 16 years more experience than I did 23 years ago. I would recommend that at the very least you adopt the method fully at first and then modify it in a way that you find works better than you (but I think you will find very little need for modification).

1. Actions

Any task or project than involves more than one person consists of the people involved agreeing what actions need to be done and in what time frame and then coordinating the completion of each action. The logical method of doing that is through meetings (which are mostly, but not necessarily, face to face).

Every project is therefore a series of discreet actions that are determined and coordinated by one or more meetings.

2. Meetings

See ‘Effective Meetings‘ on how meetings should be run.

3. Scheduling

Effective meetings set the scheduling. No extra scheduling process is needed.

4. Nothing else is needed

What? It can’t be that simple surely?

Yes it is (and don’t call me Shirley). I have not yet found a task or project of any size or complexity that can’t be, and isn’t more effectively controlled, than by this method. There are certainly many, many other methods in far, far more common use. These are my observations on two of them:

  • Project Management Software (MS Project etc) – overly complicated, takes to much time to maintain and inevitably causes project plans to be out of date and therefore useless.
  • Shared calenders/appointment (Exchange Server etc) – Everyone has to be responsible for their own scheduling, Centralized schedule control can only constrain the capabilities of capable people. Non capable people should not be in the project in the first place. The USSR had centralized control, look where it got them.

So how come people use those methods and others and their projects get completed? I am not saying they don’t work, just that, given competent, capable people, they don’t work as well. But in any event, if you deconstruct any project management method, you will find that they do nothing more than what is described here, except with bells and whistles – which just aren’t needed.

5. Completing actions on time

It is vitally important that actions are completed by the due date. The larger the project, the more critical future dependencies are on the completion of earlier tasks. One late task can impact and hold up the completion of many more.

The rule must me that you never, ever commit to a completion date for a task that you are not absolutely certain you can meet. But if, in the very unfortunate event that you are unable to meet it, email everyone in the project meeting as soon as it becomes apparent.

6. Excuses

You may have staff, contractors or other people who you are depending on to complete some task or action that you are responsible for. It is an absolute certainty that they will let you down. Even people you really trust and have full confidence in, will, at some point, one day, and usually when you need to most count on them, let you down.

You know, or can imagine, how bad that makes you feel. Really bad. It is the worst feeling in fact.

So you want to avoid it at all costs.

The best way, probably the only way, to avoid it is to keep close to the person/people doing the task. Make sure you get regular updates and take an active interest (as you should) in what they are doing. Check point their progress often.

Some people may say they prefer to be left alone and don’t like constant supervision of their work. Certainly no one likes their boss hanging over their should watching their every move. Nor should you do that. It is completely correct to leave people to get on with their work.

Regular updates and check points on progress is a courtesy any person reporting to you should extend – it is their opportunity to show you what a good job they are doing, or let you know of any problems they are having that you may need to have some input into. Some people, particularity junior staff, haven’t yet learned that, so if reports and updates aren’t forthcoming, just ask for them and explain what you want.

Taking an interest in the work they do is also correct. Short, professional conversations about the task at hand, offering input and advice you think helpful, and getting their views on issues, shows respect for the work the person is doing.

It is very wrong to have no communication about a task with the person assigned to it, in the belief (call it forlorn hope) that it will be completed perfectly and exactly on time. God may be a perfect communicator, but humans are very imperfect understanders and even with people who work very well together there will be many, many, small mis-communications that will need clarification the above methods provide. So even though you may think you are God, the people working for you aren’t and you still have to allow for their human imperfections. It is not their fault they didn’t understand, it is yours for not making sure they did.

However, one bleak day, the inevitable will happen, and someone you thought was on track will go completely off the rails. That’s all right, you understand, they are not to blame after all, other work can be found for them that better matches their abilities (maybe just not with this company).

So what are you going to do? Are you going to be the person who lets the whole team down with some ‘excuse’ that such-and-such didn’t complete their task? That’s all right, everyone will understand, you are not to blame after all, another project can be found for you that better matches your abilities.

On the other hand, if you have been paying attention and keeping track, their work is going to be 90% completed anyway (because if it isn’t you should have taken action much earlier). Then, you are going to have to do the worst thing imaginable that a manager can do to their staff. You are going to have to do their work for them. (There are far reaching consequences of that, but they will be discussed elsewhere).

The crux is; that whatever you need to do to make sure you don’t make people feel as bad as you feel when you are let down, you should do.

There are no excuses.

7. In Summary

  • Start a project only with competent people
  • Use the simplest methods and avoid complexity
  • Assign concise, clear actions with agreed due dates
  • Check point progress regularly and keep across any issues
  • Flag problems as early as possible and get whatever input is needed to resolve it
  • Do whatever you need to do to make sure there is no allowance for excuses
  • If there are no excuses and each task and action is completed on time, the project will be completed on time
  • Yes, it is that simple

Final Note

We all have complex and often difficult personal lives. A myriad of issues demand our attention and we all have dramas and disasters to contend with from time to time.

No one is any different to you. So why do you think that your particular personal issue should spill over and impact the people you work with?

Your personal problems are your personal problems. That is why they are called ‘personal’. It is no one else’s business but yours. Either they are more important than work, in which case, very rightly, you should leave work to attend to them. Or not, in which case you can get on with your work and deal with them later.

If you need to take time off to deal with it, then do that. Just say “I need to take a day off”, or if you really want to wear your heart on your sleeve “I need to take a day off for personal reasons”.

No one needs to hear anything else, it all sounds like “I need to ‘work from home’ tomorrow because my wifes third cousins gay friends cat is having kittens” anyway. We all grew out of “My dog ate my homework” excuses in junior high school.

If it is going to impact on your work, then the right thing to do is to arrange for someone to cover for you, or to replace yourself with someone who can competently do you tasks.

What is very bad is if you try to wing it, let people down, and force someone else to make a decision about your impacted performance.

It has happened with two people I have worked with – the only two people I have ever sacked in 23 years. It is a very, very unpleasant thing to do. The meeting I had to have after that with my manager to explain was even more unpleasant. I still resent both of those people for making me do that.

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