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Effective Time Management for Project Teams

“Time is the scarcest resource, and unless it is managed, nothing else can be managed.”  Peter Drucker 

Time is our only finite resource.  We cannot buy it or create it.  Therefore, we must spend it wisely.  Effective time management is a critical project management competency.  Regrettably, many teams lack these skills or discipline and consequently fritter away their time.  

There is not a silver bullet to managing time more effectively.  Many skills and practices can be learned, and success is achieved through discipline and a commitment to better ways of working.  It is like adopting a healthier lifestyle.  Joining the gym is the beginning; success is achieved through regular exercise.  

Start with “The Why”

When starting a project, start with “The Why?”  Why are we doing this project?  What is the desired outcome or objective?  What are the expected benefits?  How can we measure them?

After the objectives have been defined, ensure the project is aligned with the strategy.  In other words, will the project meet the objectives?  Is there a better option?

The Betsey Ross Bridge was nicknamed the “bridge to nowhere.”  The goal was to reduce the congestion on the nearby Tacony‐Palmyra Bridge.  Unfortunately, the Betsey Ross had poor access, and its tolls were too high.  Consequently, it was underutilized.  Good objectives. Good execution. Poor alignment. Failed project.  

Defining the objectives and key results (OKRs) is a popular tool for determining the strategic intent (objectives) and measurable outcomes (key results).  Tactical outcomes are frequently confused with strategy.  Describing the strategy often requires asking “why” many times.  Building a bridge is the outcome; the strategy is to improve mobility.  

Build a Usable Project Schedule

Traditional project scheduling practices—such as Gantt Charts—are ineffective.  Durations are dictated to conform to externally mandated timelines.  The plans are hard to maintain and abandoned after the project begins.  Chaos ensues.

The Milestone-Kanban Scheduling Technique leverages traditional and agile best practices.  It is optimized for work where milestones are known, but durations are hard to estimate, and dependencies are fluid.  It was designed for knowledge-work projects and can improve the execution of effort-based projects such as construction. 

The technique is a lightweight approach to planning and managing project execution effectively.  

Step 1:  Define the Deliverables

Start by defining the project deliverables.  Deliverables are project outputs, including items created for internal team consumption (e.g., plans, specifications, reports, etc.) and customer-facing.  This establishes the project’s scope.  Scope clearly defines what is required to be delivered and sets the project boundaries.  

Step 2:  Create a Roadmap

The roadmap provides a clear, visual representation of significant milestones or deliverables by month or quarter.  It allows us to outline what needs to be delivered and when.  Roadmaps are flexible and can be adapted to the project’s needs.  Lines can show relationships.  Items can be color-coded to indicate status or responsible organization.

Step 3:  Create a Kanban

Kanban boards are visual tools for managing the flow of work.  A basic board has three columns: backlog, doing, and done.  The backlog is the prioritized list of work to be completed.  Doing are the items in process, and Done are the finished items.  Work items should be small.  Smaller items go through the process more quickly and reduce multitasking.  

Step 4:  Monitor Progress

The daily stand-up is a 15-minute, time-boxed meeting for the team to coordinate work and resolve issues.  

Step 5: Plan Iteratively

Iterative planning creates several opportunities:

  • Effort is not wasted on over-planning;
  • We can make decisions at the latest responsible moment, enabling flexibility and 
  • We can adjust to changes in the project or external business events.

Stop Multitasking

Multitasking is a myth!  The notion we can do two things at once is a lie.  Context-switching saps 20-80% of our productivity.   Multitasking is both a macro and micro-level problem.  Kanban boards are an excellent tool for helping be focused.  

At the macro level, organizations attempt to do more than they can support.  People are spread too thin.  They are spread across too many efforts. So, everyone is busy, but little is accomplished.  

We can use an organizational-level Kanban to match the projects being executed to the team’s delivery capacity.  This creates flow and a focus on finishing.  Teams do not start new work until they can support it.  The work is pulled by the team, not pushed on them.  

At a micro level, we are constantly distracted.  We jump from one thing to the next.  Emails and messaging are our biggest enemies.  We are constantly interrupted.  We check our inboxes an average of 20 times per day.  To regain control, we need to:

  • Turn off audible and visual notifications.  In addition to distracting us, they increase our stress levels.  Better yet, close our messaging apps and only check them when we choose.  
  • Use concentrated blocks of time to get things done.  These blocks of time can be relatively short (15 minutes to an hour).  You will be surprised by how much you accomplish.
  •  Focus on finishing!  Finish one thing before moving to the next.  Don’t open that next email until you respond to the first one.  

Have Better Meetings

Time spent in meetings is increasing, and most meetings are ineffective.  We can have better meetings by consistently following some basic guidelines and practices:

  • Create ground rules to establish expected behaviors and norms.  
  • Every meeting should have an objective.  If the purpose is not clear, then don’t meet.
  • Have an agenda. The agenda should identify the topics, start and end time, and an owner.
  • Use the timebox.  Set time limits on the length of meetings, topics, updates, and debates.  It works amazingly well.  
  • The meeting facilitator or owner should stick to the agenda and use a parking lot for off-topic conversations. 
  • Meetings should be limited to those that need to attend.  This is not to exclude people but to free them from unnecessary meetings.
  • Use “meet after” meetings to address items that require a subset of the group.  

Make Decisions Quickly 

Time and momentum are lost waiting for decisions to be made.  Shortening the time between an issue being raised and a decision being made has an exponential impact.  Too often weeks and months are lost waiting.  

To speed up decision-making: 

  • Empower the team and push decision-making to the lowest responsible level in the organization. Keep strategic decisions centralized and decentralize everything else.
  • Reduce the cycle time for decision-making.  Resolve the issue quickly.  Engage the right people to solve the problem.
  • Use a process to identify the root cause of the problem and options and implement the changes. 
  •  Don’t punish people for bad decisions.  If you want people to make decisions, do not create an environment of fear.  You will not eliminate mistakes.  They will just be hidden.  

© 2024, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

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