Monday, January 5, 2015

The practical day

Most talk about management, including project management, is at a level of generality that might frustrate some readers.

Here I seek to be practical in one small area: how do I organise my day and keep track of information, commitments and the multiple projects that I direct.

Unfortunately my employer gives us Microsoft Outlook as our group organising and communicating tool; we've recently started using Yammer and have HP TRIM for document management.

Yammer so far is a distraction; it has been useful for internal discussions across the organisation (which has offices across our state), but I'm not sure about the more structured communication needed for projects.

In one of my projects we are going to use it for the development of one deliverable, but that's a single topic activity, not trying to cover a multi-dimensional project with what is essentially a one dimensional tool, even with its 'groups' '@' tags, and document sharing, etc.

Thus, its a distraction. Yet another interface to have to manage. And that brings me to my daily organising.

The biggest efficiency in e-mail came to me when I made a rule to place all messages copied to me in a 'cc' folder. I check it a couple of times a week. From time to time people tell me they've 'cc-d' me with a matter that they need me to directly to respond to. I explain that if they want to get to me, address me directly, 'cc' tells me that its just for my reference, not action.

We add a prefix to our e-mail messages: Urgent, Action, Information. A drop down to choose these and project titles would be a helpful addition, as would chaining of conversations, as per G-mail.

I use topic folders as well, but tend to leave my in-box pretty full. If an e-mail relates to something that will absorb time, I move it to the calendar and give it a duration to do the work. E-mails that I want to attend to but not sure of the time commitment, I place a flag on. They then show up below by calendar as a list of follow-ups. I have search folders set up for un-read e-mails and flagged emails.

That seems to be pretty successful for my work pattern. I check my e-mails in the morning, but not first thing, late morning, after lunch and late afternoon. I tell people that e-mails are not for urgent matters. Use the phone or text me!

The calendar contains everything that has either a duration or date related to it. I manage this quite actively, moving time commitments around frequently: not meetings, of course, they are usually fixed.

I use the 'all-day' setting to keep track of staff absences and special commitments, and share my calendar with my entire staff ('team' as we like to say these days, as though its a game!)

I drag all the required documents into the meeting item. As Outlook copies documents into an appointment, there is a risk that we end up with multiple copies, even in one's own client. Definitely not good. Where I can I have the document's TRIM link instead.

After a meeting, I sort out tasks I need to do and allocate time for them in separate calendar entries. I also add notes directly into the meeting item, and add any documents distributed during the meeting (if necessary I scan them. The scanner e-mails them to me, then I drag the e-mail to the meeting item).

The Outlook 'tasks' function is not so useful for me because it doesn't provide for task lead times or durations. Nor does it allow tasks to be grouped (afaik) or linked in dependency relationships or sequences. This is a killer! There are third party apps that will do this job, but I'm not able to install them at work. The tasks time information is also in a separate interface to the calendar, so its yet another place to keep track of, so not efficient.

My ideal would be to have everything in one interface, but I've got to manage two: Outlook and TRIM; however they can connect.

It is impossible to link documents on the server to Outlook. They have to be copied into the particular Outlook item, and then are 'buried' in that item and not otherwise accessible or searchable. However, with TRIM one can e-mail the 'TRIM link', to facilitate communication. This keeps documents in a version controlled environment which is great.

The one function I'd like in TRIM is to be able to keep private notes on documents. Notes are public to all users, so one would not write 'notes to self'. They have to be kept in another place.

For documents that are important to my work I e-mail the TRIM link to myself and keep a consolidated folder for all TRIM links, and copy link e-mails to topic folders as well; again, copies and not pointers (Zoot is great for using pointers, as is Infoqube, and old Ecco...).

For random notes I use OneNote and link the entry to Outlook.

What I miss is a project orientated interface where I can easily keep a running log, manage project activities, attach documents to WBS elements, and tag for other project dimensions. For example in construction projects, the obvious dimensions are: location, building/structure element, material, discipline (e.g. mechanical, electrical, structural, architectural). Such an interface should also simplify linking all project records to the WBS structure; this would include meeting minutes, memos, informal e-mails, status notes, links to 'issues' and 'risks', budget and expenditure, etc.

My production meetings are short, sharp and stick to the agenda. I discourage 'AOB' (any other business) unless its pressing for the project's current position.

Items in meetings are numbered for the meeting series, meeting number (d-m-y), item number to create a unique and easily tracked reference.

Thus, for a sub-grade coordination meeting on 3 March 2014, first item: SGC-3-3-14-1 (I don't like leading zeros, unless the computer needs them for sorting). On a large project you need a lexicon for abbreviations and special terms. We would use the TRIM location for the project for that document, and place it in a relevant sub-folder.

I'm experimenting with Evernote, which is highly good! But, its yet another interface, so I'm reluctant, OneNote cloud service might work if it will link to my virtualised OneNote client.

Lots of Activity
As I am responsible for a number of projects, again, absent a proper project management interface, I am stuck with using Excel (how humiliating!) with a row for a project on a master sheet, and a sheet for each project. I maintain this manually which keeps me deep in each project. An automatic system would lead to complacency, I think and not keep them actively in mind. I use formulas to link the project sheet information to the summary sheet.

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