Understanding project management
When most people think of project management, words like “scheduling,” “progress updates,” or “information sharing” might come to mind. But that doesn’t really describe what project management is, nor does it give us a very good idea of what a Project Manager does day-to-day.
Let’s make the meaning of project management as clear as possible. For this guide, we will use the following definitions:
- Project: A plan to achieve an objective.
- Management: The act of creating and maintaining an environment in which objectives can be achieved.
Therefore, project management is the act of creating and maintaining an environment in which an objective can be achieved according to a plan.
Simple enough so far, right?
The responsibilities of a Project Manager can vary greatly from company to company. Some Project Managers stick strictly to task management and scheduling, while others are in control of financial planning and forecasting. Some even venture into certain elements of the creative process when they’re needed.
Generally speaking though, most Project Managers need to be able to:
- Understand the scope of the project and the current status of key deliverables at all times
- Create realistic timelines that meet objectives by delivery dates
- Allot appropriate amounts of work to team members who can perform that work
- Determine causes for delays, find solutions, and keep projects on track
- Propose realistic deadline extensions when forseen or unforeseen issues require the schedule to change
- Develop and apply appropriate work processes, best-practices, and methodologies that benefit the teams and productivity
The above skills are essential to all Project Managers. How you go about performing those skills, though, varies greatly depending on the teams you’re managing, the methodologies you’re using, and the tools at your disposal.
Elements of a project
Every project is different, but all projects will have a few things in common. When planning any project, you’ll need to determine the following.
There is no project without an objective.
The objectives determined at the beginning of each project will guide every decision moving forward.
As a Project Manager, you’ll often find yourself faced with tough decisions. Your answers will always come down to determining which scenario best ensures the achievement of the project objectives.
Pro Tip: Be precise.
When it comes to objectives, the last thing you want is room for ambiguity. When possible, use measurable numbers and values.
At the end of the project, you’ll look to these objectives to verify whether you and your teams were successful. If your objectives are ambiguous, so is your success.
Once you’ve set your objectives, you’ll need to determine what your deliverables are.
Deliverables are the specific components created to fulfill your objectives.
When determining deliverables, be sure that you and your teams clearly understand how these deliverables achieve the objectives set forth by the project.
Deliverables that don’t serve objectives are a waste of time.
Tasks make up the individual pieces of work that need to be done in order to produce each deliverable.
We’ll go into much more detail about task management in the next section of this guide. For now, you just need to know that every piece of work completed in a project will need to be tied to a task.
Pro Tip: Make your goals SMART.
Whether determining an objective, deliverable, or task, it’s best to follow the SMART model for any kind of goal creation.
SMART goals are:
- S – Specific
- M – Measurable
- A – Attainable
- R – Realistic/Resourced
- T – Timely/Time Bound
If each element of your project meets these five conditions, your project will be easy to understand, simple to track, and much more likely to be completed on time.
Project management isn’t a “set it and forget it” kind of job. It requires consistent, active monitoring.
Think back to the definition of project management we created in the beginning of this guide:
Project management is the act of creating and maintaining an environment in which an objective can be achieved according to a plan.
Once a project is underway, your role will be to recognize and predict problems, respond to changing conditions, and ultimately keep your project moving.
Your ability to accurately track your project’s progress will heavily influence your success in these areas. Luckily, establishing your own processes and adopting useful tracking tools like Backlog can help you spot and respond to problems more easily.
Your project existed to achieve the objectives set in the beginning.
If all tasks are complete, your deliverables should be fulfilled. If all deliverables are fulfilled, your objectives should be met.
If any one of these statements is not true, you have a problem.
Throughout the project, continuously reflect back on the objectives and deliverables set forth at the onset of the project to ensure that no matter what problems arise or conditions change, that you are still meeting those core elements of your project by the date of expected completion.
At the end of every project, reflect on what worked well and what needs improvement (perhaps with a post-mortem meeting) before moving onto your next project.
This type of continuous improvement will ensure that your work improves each time you and your teams take on a new project.
As you take on greater responsibilities, you’ll gain a growing appreciation for the number of moving parts that have to work together in order for a project to be successful.
Because Project Managers work across teams and stakeholders to deliver projects, the sheer variety of problems they address is unimaginable to the average individual team member.
Why do good projects go bad?
Projects can easily get off track, especially if you neglect them. Common problems projects face include:
- Inexperienced team members
- Ineffective work processes
- Unrealistic project objectives or deadlines
- Popular trends of the times being applied when they aren’t what’s best for the project
- Uncommunicative or inflexible stakeholders
- Poor team communication
Some of these problems can be traced back to poor project management; others have more to do with circumstance and or plain old bad luck.
Lucky for you, as a Project Manager, no matter what the reason is, it’s your responsibility to react and recover the project as best you can.
In project management, a variety of methodologies have been devised to meet the needs of the times and the technologies surrounding various projects.
You may think that if you simply adopt a widely-used methodology and use it correctly that your project will run smoothly. But there is no one-size-fits-all in project management.
Rather than becoming fixed to a single methodology and its strict application, learn from a variety of methods. Apply only those processes that are appropriate for your specific project.
Strictly speaking, PMBOK (i.e Project Management Body of Knowledge) is not a methodology. It is a body of knowledge in project management that describes a set of standard terminology and guidelines.
It describes common inputs, tools & techniques, and outputs involved in various processes of project management.
PMBOK recognizes 47 processes that fall into five basic process groups and ten knowledge areas.
The five process groups are:
- Initiating: processes that define new projects or phases of existing projects
- Planning: processes that establish the scope of a project, including defining objectives, deliverables, and a plan of action
- Executing: processes that help complete the work to be done
- Monitoring and Controlling: processes that track, review, and regulate progress and performance
- Closing: processes that formally close the project or phase
The ten knowledge areas are:
- Project Integration Management: coordinating of the various processes and project management activities within the project management process groups
- Project Scope Management: ensuring that all the work required, and only the work required, is completed
- Project Time Management: managing the timely completion of each stage of the project
- Project Cost Management: controlling costs to match the approved budget
- Project Quality Management: determining quality policies, objectives, and responsibilities so that the project meets expectations
- Project Human Resource Management: leading the project teams
- Project Communications Management: ensuring appropriate management of project information
- Project Risk Management: conducting risk management
- Project Procurement Management: purchasing or acquiring resources needed outside the project team
- Project Stakeholder Management: engaging all people or organizations impacted by the project
The five process groups and ten knowledge areas create a matrix structure so that every process is related to an area of knowledge, and every area of knowledge is related to a process.
It would take a long time to discuss PMBOK in it’s entirety, but these are the basic ideas behind the body of knowledge.
Waterfall entails following six phases sequentially:
- Requirements: capturing system and software requirements in a product requirements document
- Analysis: creating models, schema, and business rules to fit those requirements
- Design: creating the software’s architecture
- Coding: developing the software
- Testing: systematically debugging defects
- Operations: installing, migrating, supporting, and maintaining of the systems
Each phase is completed before moving onto the next, rarely returning to a previous phase. Like a waterfall, you cannot return upstream once you have descended to the next level.
The Waterfall method used to be standard practice in tech, but it’s become less popular in recent years.
This is due in part to its relative inflexibility when it comes to mid-project changes. The landscape of tech is evolving so quickly these days that teams need to be able to pivot their products to market needs at rates faster than the Waterfall method often allows.
New or adapted versions of the waterfall method have evolved to try to address these issues, but the success of those alternatives varies widely depending on who you ask.
This highly-structured method does have its advantages, especially in terms of organization, proper documentation, and ease of management.
Agile methodology has become a popular buzzword in the project management world, especially in tech.
Agile environments divide work into shorter stages, repeatedly cycling through implementation, testing, and release phases. The word “agile” was chosen purposefully to signify the quickness and adaptability of the method.
The key characteristic of this methodology, therefore, is to rapidly repeat a core cycle of processes in a project (planning, design, implementation, testing, and release) as many times as necessary.
The Agile Manifesto cites 12 core principles:
- Our highest priority is to satisfy the customer through early and continuous delivery of valuable software.
- Welcome changing requirements, even late in development. Agile processes harness change for the customer’s competitive advantage.
- Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.
- Business people and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
- Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.
- The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.
- Working software is the primary measure of progress.
- Agile processes promote sustainable development. The sponsors, developers, and users should be able to maintain a constant pace indefinitely.
- Continuous attention to technical excellence and good design enhances agility.
- Simplicity — the art of maximizing the amount of work not done — is essential.
- The best architectures, requirements, and designs emerge from self-organizing teams.
- At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.
The primary advantage of agile work environments is that they make it easy to respond to changes quickly. They keep projects and teams more flexible, and they encourage constant iteration.
The biggest disadvantage is that the role of the Project Manager is much more complex. It requires greater adaptability and quicker decision making to thrive in an environment of constant change.
There are a number of frameworks used to implement this methodology, including Scrum, Crystal Clear, Extreme Programming (XP), and Kanban (to name a few). These frameworks can provide more concrete rules and processes around how to apply the Agile methodology to your workplace.
Choosing a methodology
There are many more project management methodologies out there to explore, and chances are your teams will adopt a mixture of a few depending on the nature of your work, the skills of your teams, how your teams prefers to work, and even the popularity of certain methods at a given time.
Just remember, you cannot simply adopt an existing framework as-is; you must always be on the lookout for new methods that meet your team’s needs. If you run into certain types of problems frequently, see if there’s a methodology out there that specifically addresses that problem.
A Step-by-Step Guide to Task Management
Regardless of which methodology you ascribe to as a
Project Manager, there’s one thing in common with most: thinking about what
needs to be done in terms of individual tasks.
In this section of the guide, you’ll learn to manage
tasks, including how to:
- Create a task
- Set requirements
- Group work into tasks
- Assign tasks to your teams
- Set and adjust due dates
- Track progress and overcome obstacles
- Set milestones
- Check in with your teams
- Update tasks
What is a task?
First, we need to be clear about what a “task” is. In this guide, we will think of a task as a unit of work necessary to achieve a project’s objective.
For example, in web development, you’ll see common tasks like “code new homepage layout” and “fix sign-up form bug.”
Apart from describing the content of the work, tasks define parameters such as who’s working on the task and what the due date is for completion.
Note: Depending on the scale of your project and teams, you may need to establish further parameters such as milestones, start dates, and compatibility.
However, keep in mind that the more parameters you add, the more complex the act of adding a task becomes for you and your team.
A good rule of thumb is to only give a task as many parameters as is absolutely necessary.
What is task management?
You can think of a single task as a project on the smallest possible scale. For that reason, managing individual tasks resembles managing a small project.
As we’ve established earlier in this guide, project management is the act of creating and maintaining an environment in which an objective can be achieved according to a plan.
Similar to how you’re managing the project as a whole, for each task, you’ll be responsible for ensuring that objectives and requirements are clear, appropriate changes are made when necessary, and problems are solved swiftly.
Task management tools
Managing tasks can be as simple or complex as your project dictates. Some teams get by with tools as basic as sticky notes on a white board. Others use excel sheets. And others invest in task management software.
When you begin to manage tasks for your teams, there will be a number of tools available for this purpose. It’s up to you to choose the medium that’s right for you and your teams.
Investing in your process
While many teams initially avoid software and apps due to cost or fear of lost productivity while adapting to a new system, there are major advantages to consider before dismissing the use of technology to help manage your projects.
- Unlike a whiteboard with sticky notes, project management software keeps a living archive of every task completed, including a record of conversations and decisions that took place surrounding each task with features like commenting sections.
- Unlike excel spreadsheets, the information in software is always up-to-date and easily accessible to your entire dev and leadership teams. There are never five different versions of a product plan floating around in various people’s emails. There is one up-to-date version always accessible by all.
- Project management software is also useful for automating the process of tracking progress and presenting that progress visually with features like Gantt Charts and Burndown Charts. They allow for easy searching and filtering of tasks and projects. And if you find yourself frequently updating the details or parameters of your tasks, these tools can save you a lot of time avoiding any back and forth to communicate these changes to multiple people at once.
Note: We will go into more detail using our own project management tool Backlog, in the tutorial section of this guide. We offer a free 30-day trial (no credit card required), so you can easily follow along if you are interested.
The first step in task management is to create tasks. This might sound simple enough, but there are a number of important things to consider that will help set your teams up for more efficient collaboration.
With every task, describe what needs to be done as specifically as possible. If you assign ambiguous tasks, you run the risk of your team members interpreting the work in different ways.
For example, when running a project to develop an e-Commerce site, you might create a task to “build a login screen.” However, this task could refer to any number of steps necessary to creating a login screen for a website. Is this task referring to designing the actual layout, building the web page, implementing the functionality, or something else?
When a situation like this occurs, it may be several weeks before anyone realizes that your site does not have a functioning login.
Imagine yourself trying to perform a task
One way to avoid mistakes like this is to imagine performing the task yourself. If you were to read a task titled “create a login screen,” and then imagine physically going through each step, you would find that you’d need to make a login web page, think of the design, and add login functionality to the server. Really, this task has three separate requirements that need to be met before the task can be considered complete.
You can either be super detailed in your task description by including something like a checklist for your developer to follow, or you can split these parts up into separate tasks or subtasks.
Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
If you’re unfamiliar with a specific task, ask an experienced member of the associated team. Asking questions is an important part of being a Project Manager, and you should never shy away from getting clarity around something you’re unfamiliar with out of fear of looking inexperienced or unknowledgeable.
The advantages of specificity
The process of thinking about tasks in more detail helps you discover potential problems that can get overlooked when thinking in vague terms.
You also make the job of your teams much easier. They can spend their time completing the work rather than deciphering ambiguous instructions or asking questions.
Details also help your teams act as a second pair of eyes for spotting potential problems down the road. The more they know about the work being done, the more help they can be to you in return.
Above all, making work precise means each team member is able to complete their allotted tasks without confusion.
Requirements let your teams know exactly what conditions need to be met for a task to be considered done.
If you’re specific enough in your task description, you may already cover the requirements of that task.
However, always be sure to double check that each task lists exactly what completion looks like. There can be one requirement or several depending on the relative complexity of the task.
Why you should list requirements
When you set completion requirements, anyone can quickly look to see whether the job is done or not. This will help you avoid situations where your team members assume a job is done that actually isn’t totally complete.
Determine an ideal size
The size of a task can depend on:
- The amount of labor required
- The level of difficulty
- The length of time it takes to complete
You can measure the size of a task based on any of these components, but there are certain advantages to paying attention to time, which we’ll go over.
Consider the following when sizing up your tasks.
Aim for evenly sized tasks
Obviously, it will be impossible to make your tasks completely even from all perspectives, so it’s best to choose one form of measurement, and use that to dictate the size of your tasks.
If you choose the length of time required to complete a task, you’ll need to split all of your tasks into similarly sized time periods (e.g. 1/2 a day or 1 day’s worth of work.) To do this, you will need to split oversized tasks into smaller pieces and group smaller tasks into batches.
Dividing tasks into equal amounts of work by time makes it easier to:
- Forecast time estimates for your entire project, even when changes are made
- Divide work fairly amongst your team members
- Track the overall volume of work currently underway
Choose how to size your tasks
As with most recommendations we make in this guide, it will be up to you to decide what the best way of dividing your tasks up is.
There’s no “correct” size for tasks, but here are a few considerations to think about before making your decision:
- The scale of your project
- The skills your team members possess
- The type of industry you are in
- Your team’s individual preferences
Pro Tip: Think about how your team feels about their work.
Aside from the logistical advantages to grouping your tasks into 1/2 day or 1 day chunks, there’s also a psychological advantage.
When you make tasks that are achievable in a half a day or a day, your team members are able to check off at least one task per workday, giving them a sense of accomplishment each and every day they walk out of the office.
By setting an assignee to every task, you attach clear responsibility to every piece of work within your project.
Assigning every task is also important for transparency. Without an assignee, you — the Project Manager — might know the status of the task or perhaps a few members of one team, but other team members, teams, and stakeholders will not easily be able to tell the status of an unassigned task which compromises their ability to understand the progress of the project as a whole.
Pro Tip: Focus on what matters.
You can set a number of parameters for tasks, but the assignee and due date are the most important. As a rule of thumb, unless you have significant reason not to, always set an assignee and due date for every task.
Choosing an assignee
The assignee of a task acts as the point person for the work being done. Should someone have a question about that work, they should feel confident in turning to the assignee for answers.
When thinking of who would be best for a task, it’s important to get to know your team’s strengths, weaknesses, and skills. Over time, you’ll learn which types of tasks are done best by which team members, and your projects will run more efficiently.
Pro Tip: Don’t leave anything unassigned.
If there is no appropriate person to assign a task yet, or you are the only person fully aware of every aspect of the task, assign it to yourself temporarily.
What if there are several people working on a single task?
There may be projects where tasks require two or more team members to collaborate. It’s still best to select one assignee who will act as the supervisor to that task.
When multiple people are assigned to the same task, one of two mistakes can easily happen: (1) multiple people do some of the same work or (2) multiple people neglect a piece of the same work.
When collaborating on tasks, there are a few ways to ensure alignment.
- Create subtasks. If you create subtasks that make up a larger task, you can assign individual parts to different team members while still keeping each part under the larger branch of the parent task. This creates clear responsibility and accountability for each piece of the task while sticking to the single assignee rule.
- Designate a supervisor to the task. Alternatively, you can assign the task based on which team member has the most involvement in or oversight of the work. The member you assign as the supervisor will then manage both the additional team members involved and the task itself.
- Alternate supervisors. You can also create a rotational system for assigning tasks where the task supervisor changes as the task progresses. Think of it as a relay race style of task management. Each assignee hands off the baton to the next when their part is complete.
Pro Tip: Distribute tasks fairly, and play to your team’s strengths.
You’ll want to ensure that each member of your teams have realistic and fair workloads. Additionally, if you assign tasks based on people’s strengths and interests, you’ll inspire more engagement and productivity.
Setting a due date
Setting due dates for every task is crucial for driving progress forward.
A task without a deadline will never end
Without clear deadlines and priorities, it’s easy for tasks to sit around untouched or partially finished forever. Setting due dates is about creating a clear path to your project’s success. Not to mention that without them, you can’t accurately forecast delivery dates, spot bottlenecks, or resolve issues quickly.
For your teams, deadlines are also an important motivational tool. They help people prioritize their work and coordinate with others.
Deadlines ensure people don’t over-work a task
When you have an especially meticulous team member, they often spend an unnecessary amount of time correcting minor issues. This extra time often has little impact on the end product but can have significant impact on your overall project schedule.
There are certain types of tasks that tend to get workers caught up in details. With these kinds of tasks, use deadlines to limit this behavior.
Recommend to your team members that they work hard on improving quality until the due date and then decisively move on to the next task once that deadline comes.
In order to track changes over time, you need to have a solid foundation of the conditions of work at all points along the project timeline. This requires continuous monitoring and adjustments to changes in conditions.
Highest on your priority list of tasks to attend to are ones whose deadlines have passed.
A task can become overdue because of a number of reasons. A few examples would be:
- The task may be larger or more complicated than you originally thought
- Other parts of the project that precede the task may be holding up its completion
- A team member may have too much work on their plate due to an illness or other absence
When you’ve spotted a task that has gone overdue, follow these steps:
- Check in with the assignee for a detailed update.
- Together, come up with a plan of action for completing the task as soon as possible.
- See if there are other team members you can pull in to help speed up the completion of the task.
- Explore simpler means of meeting the basic requirements of the task as quickly as possible, leaving the more complex details for later on in the project.
- If the task impacts other work that is scheduled to be done, adjust those deadlines accordingly.
In progress tasks
Keep an eye on tasks actively in progress, so you can address issues as they arise, rather than waiting until after they’ve missed their deadline.
Check in with your teams daily to see how their work is going. Find out if they are running into any roadblocks or difficulties, and ask if they think they will be able to finish in time.
If you find out that one of your teams are starting to doubt their ability to finish a task on time, get to brainstorming solutions. Find out what you can do to remove roadblocks or provide more resources to that team.
Note: Many workplaces attempt to use percentages as a way of tracking progress; however, there are actually very few types of tasks for which a percentage is an accurate reflection of progress.
As a result, this completion percentage becomes a meaningless parameter whose only significance is the effort wasted on calculating it from one day to the next.
Rather than trying to calculate an inaccurate percentage, simply focus on whether your teams will finish each task by the due date or not.
It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on your project’s horizon. As you work through overdue and in progress tasks, they will inevitably affect what’s to come.
The more informed you are about what’s next in the project plan, the better you will be at assessing potential conflicts in the future.
As the conditions surrounding your project change day-to-day, ask yourself:
- Are there any future tasks that now look unnecessary?
- Is there any work that needs to be added to fully meet the project’s objectives?
In the field of project management, we use the term “milestone” to refer to major checkpoints throughout a project. It could mark the end of a project phase, the completion of a new version, or some other important culmination of tasks.
Breaking your projects up into milestones helps everyone understand the meaning behind certain groups of tasks. And they’re a great tool for communicating a high-level summary of where you’re at in a project, especially to outsiders or superiors who may not be as familiar with the day-to-day workings of the project.
For example, many design teams follow certain phases (like Discovery, Definition, Design, Development, Deployment). These could be turned into milestones that help both your teams and leadership better understand where the project is at without having to decipher hundreds of tasks.
Fun Fact: The word “milestone” comes from the rocks or signs posted at fixed intervals on a trail to mark off distance.
Using Milestones to adjust tasks
Milestones make progress easier to understand by providing context to everyone’s work. Using this context, you can more easily adjust the due dates and details of tasks to reflect important milestones.
One more benefit to milestones is psychological. Milestones create small moments of accomplishment within the grander scheme of the project.
People often become less motivated over time, especially if they feel they are working on the same things day in and day out. When you divide work up into milestones, you help distinguish work through different phases of the project and emphasize progress.
Prevent overlooking incomplete tasks
Milestones mark turning points in projects and serve as estimates of the conclusion of phases. When you know what milestone you have achieved, you also know what tasks you’ve completed.
Use milestones as key moments for reviewing the state of all your tasks to determine which tasks have not been completed, which ones have but were never updated properly, and which can’t be completed in line with the milestone.
This will give you a good gauge of areas of your project management that you need to work on. Perhaps you need to update your tasks more often. Or maybe you underestimated how long certain tasks would take. Find takeaways from each milestone that you can apply to the next phase of your project to improve your skills.
Deciding how frequently to check on everyone’s progress can be tricky. On the one hand, staying up-to-date more frequently allows you to respond to problems faster. On the other, you’re taking time away from yourself and your teams every time you ask for an update.
Pro Tip: Reduce check-ins with project management tools.
Tools like Backlog give you an up-to-date view of your projects in real-time as tasks are completed (as long as your teams are diligent about closing completed work, that is).
One technique that has become popular in recent years is the Daily Stand-up Meeting.
This meeting takes place each morning for about 15 minutes. It’s a highly-focused status meeting that engages a team.
Each member provides updates on three things:
- What they accomplished yesterday
- What they’re working on today
- What, if any, roadblocks stand in their way.
It’s important to keep these meetings as short and concise as possible. If any problems come to light that cannot be resolved within the 15-minute meeting limit, wait to address them until after the meeting. Set aside time with the relevant team members involved in the problem, and work out solutions then. Don’t waste the time of the entire team for tasks that only pertain to a few.
With the daily stand-up, you can be sure that you’re responding to problems each and every day, and that no longer than 24 hours ever passes before you’ve been made aware of an issue and begun to address it.
The frequency and form of your check-ins will vary depending on your teams. For example, if one team’s work is highly predictable, you may not need to check up on their progress more than once a day. Conversely, if another team has a lot of new or inexperienced people, you’ll likely want to talk to them more frequently about how things are going.
Your culture will also affect how you interact with your teams. If you’ve built a strong culture around sharing information as soon as problems arise, you may not need to check in outside of your daily stand-ups. However, if certain teams tend to delay raising issues unless directly asked for an update, you’ll likely need to check in more and strictly enforce your daily stand-ups.
Project Managers sometimes underestimate the importance of creating an atmosphere in which team members can freely bring up problems. When team members discuss mistakes openly and collaborate together to fix problems, it makes a Project Manager’s job much easier.
If a problem does arise, you’ll need to revise the associated task.
For example, if a task gets delayed, you may need to ask another team member to step in and help, rethink a simpler way to accomplish the task itself, or, if all else fails, extend the deadline for it.
These changes must be considered in light of the rest of the project to ensure that changes to one task don’t mess up the conditions necessary for future tasks to be completed properly.
There may also be cases in which you need to set up a new task. If you need to add a new task, and that task affects the long-term schedule of the project, you’ll have to consider whether to revise the overall schedule or add members to your team (if possible).
What kind of tasks need updating?
Tasks are never set in stone. They’re organic; they
change, they evolve, and sometimes they become irrelevant.
As project conditions change, tasks will become outdated unless you attend to them regularly. Here are the tasks to look out
- Tasks whose due dates have passed. We’ve already discussed this, but tasks whose due dates have already passed are your top priority for updating. If the task isn’t complete, set a new due date. When you do this, you will also have to update the deadlines of other tasks and adjust the overall schedule of the project.
- Tasks with unsuitable assignees. Many tasks will require different assignees as they proceed. If the current assignee is no longer suited to the situation, switch to a more appropriate team member.
- Tasks with ambiguous details. As hard as we try to avoid it, sometimes it’s necessary to create tasks without much detail to them because it’s simply not available yet. Fill in those details as they become available.
- Tasks without due dates. Similar to the point above, there will be exceptions where you do have to create a task without a due date. Again, it’s your job to fill in those details as soon as they become available.
- Tasks team members neglect to mark complete. As you manage your project, you’ll sometimes find that open tasks you thought were incomplete are in fact done. This problem usually stems from a lack of commitment by a team or individual team member to keep all task information up to date. What may seem tedious or time-wasting to them is obviously invaluable to you and the success of your project. Be proactive about closing tasks as soon as they’re complete, so a culture of keeping things up-to-date takes root across the board.
Pro Tip: Keep morale high.
Incomplete, unassigned, or abandoned tasks aren’t good for the morale of teams. It’s much easier to see progress and feel a sense of accomplishment when all tasks are accounted for.
When to update
It gets more complicated to update your arsenal of tasks the longer you put it off. But it’s impossible (and probably pretty boring) to try to pay round-the-clock attention to updating tasks. It’s easier if you establish guidelines concerning the timing of updating tasks.
- When problems arise. Whenever a problem arises, you’ll likely need to update the information within a task to account for the solution you come to. This may mean changing one of the parameters or the content of the work to be done.
- When you update other tasks. Whenever you update one task, always look to any related tasks that might also need updating in light of whatever changes are made. If you change an assignee, deadline, or other feature of a task, it will likely have an impact on other tasks handled by that team member.
Follow these simple guidelines, and you’ll be sure that your project tasks change and adapt together, avoiding future conflict and confusion for your teams.
Choosing your tools
The kind of projects you work on, your industry, and
your work methodology will greatly influence the kind of tools you use.
However, there are similar factors to consider regardless of the type of tool
you’re looking for.
Every tool can be evaluated based on:
- Ease of implementation
- Ease of use
- Feature set
- Quality of support
- And most importantly: how effectively it helps you achieve your project management goals.
Advantages to project management software
There are many reasons modern teams choose project management software to help them deliver their best work.
Automation breeds organization
As projects proceed, they tend to get more difficult to keep track of.
Whiteboards get overtaken by sticky notes with various lines crossed out and new, tiny notes written in. Different versions of the same excel spreadsheet disperse across the office, causing confusion and misinformation.
Digitizing and centralizing your task management into a project management app helps keep your projects organized and your teams on the same page with the most up-to-date information available. Plus, automated tracking gives you easy access to the latest data and visuals representing how your project is progressing.
Update info from anywhere
Cloud-based and mobile friendly project management apps allow you to update information no matter where it’s coming from or where you are. Easily import important documents, feedback, and requests from your email, chat app, or even a real conversation.
You’re no longer dependent on having your whiteboard or the latest version of the excel sheet in front of you.
More frequent updates are easier to manage
Because tasks need to be updated frequently, the easier they are to update, the less burdensome the process is.
With project management tools, you won’t need to put dates in your filenames or compose lengthy emails to notify people about changes. Everything is recorded right in each task, and everyone who accesses a task from the moment it’s updated onward will be able to reference the latest information.
Multiple people can update tasks at once
As a Project Manager, you are not the only person thinking about updating task information. The team members in charge of the task, as well as managers and collaborators, may at some point or another need to update a task they’re working on.
Instead of opening up a series of emails or messages to get the correct information updated and the right people notified about the change, your team members can feel empowered to update information themselves and notify you automatically of those changes.
Tasks become a living archive of every change and decision
People often want to go back and revisit a decision they made to provide greater context to the work in front of them. With simpler tools, it’s difficult to track what changes were made when, by whom, and why.
With project management software, all of that information is stored automatically.
Searching for and checking up on tasks is a breeze
Again, whiteboards and excel sheets come with obvious limitations when it comes to getting real-time information on where a task is in terms of progress.
When everyone’s work is consolidated into a project management app and meticulously organized with parameters, anyone can search for and find any task, see the work that’s been done on it, and ask questions directly to the assignee.
Auto-generated charts and graphs visualize your progress
Forget manually collecting data from each team member or coming up with complex formulas to generate useful visuals.
Quality project management software provides various types of charts and graphs to visually summarize information, and the information represented matches the real-time state of every task.
Tutorial: Using What you’ve learned in Backlog
For this tutorial, we’ll walk you through the
practical application of everything we’ve discussed so far using our own project
management app Backlog.
To follow along, you can start a 30-day
free trial, no credit card required.
During this tutorial, we’ll create a sample project
and walk through some basic task management processes.
First, we need a project to work in. (You can’t create a task that isn’t tied to a project in Backlog.)
It’s time to create your first project.
Note: In Backlog, your user account needs to have Manager privileges in order to create a project.
If you’re practicing this tutorial logged in as a member of an organization, your user privileges may not be set to this level. If this is the case, you’ll have to ask someone to create the project for you.
Alternatively, you can register for your own free trial just for the purposes of this tutorial where you’ll have full administrative rights.
Create a task
Within your project, use the “Add Issue” button to create your first task.
Enter a Subject and Description
We’re going to make the subject of our example task “Design homepage.” (You can make yours whatever you’d like.)
Next, enter in a description of the task. Even though this isn’t a ‘real’ task, seeing what these parameters look like in Backlog after you complete them will give you a better idea of the options available to you when you go to set up your first real task.
Add an assignee
Remember, the two most important parameters of any task are the assignee and due date.
Choose an assignee. In this case, you probably want to choose yourself.
Enter a due date
Now for the second most important parameter: the due date. Enter a date in the future that’s about a week out.
Feel free to add a document or image if you think it would clarify the task.
You also have the option to notify people of your task creation, but since this isn’t a real task, you don’t need to do that for now.
Note: Backlog offers a variety of parameters, but here we are only setting the most necessary. If you want to know more about the other parameters available, please consult our Getting Started user guide.
Save the task
Click the “Add” button in the lower right hand corner of your screen.
Congratulations! You’ve added your first task to Backlog!
For more practice, continue adding in tasks following these same instructions.
Updating and completing tasks
Following the creation of a task, you’ll likely need to update it. You or a team member will work on the task, and then once the task was completed, the task needs to be closed.
Let’s walk through each of these steps.
Select a task
You can find a list of all tasks assigned to you or created by you on your Backlog dashboard in the lower left module.
Select the task you want to edit, and you’ll be brought into the issues main page.
Edit a task
Select the “Edit” button in the upper-right hand corner of your issue page.
Change any parameter you want to update. Here, we’ll change the status of the task to “In Progress” instead of “Open” to signal to other team members that we have begun working on the task.
Once you’re done editing any other parameters you may wish to alter, click the “Save” button to commit the changes.
Now, anyone searching for this task will see that it is currently being executed thanks to the “In Progress” status marker.
Once you have completed the execution of a task, you’ll follow the same steps we just did to change the status this time to “Closed.”
The task will then exist as an archive of your work. Others can search for and review it, but it will be regarded as complete.
Searching for tasks
You can search for tasks a few different ways in Backlog.
You can use the search bar in the upper-right hand corner of your dashboard.
Simple and advanced searches
You can also perform a search from the Issues page of any project where you can narrow down tasks by parameters.
First, enter the project you would like to search for tasks within.
Using your left-hand menu, select the Issues page. You’ll notice that all tasks within that project are listed in descending order from which they were last updated.
From here, you can narrow down tasks by Category, Milestone, Assignee, or Keyword.
Using the Advanced Search slider, you can further narrow down tasks by any parameter available in Backlog including Status, Issue Type, Priority, Registered by, and more.
Note: Gantt charts are only available in Backlog on our Standard and Premium plans.
Using Gantt charts
A Gantt chart is a series of horizontal lines showing the amount of work done over periods of time in relation to the amount planned for those periods.
Gantt charts in Backlog are automatically generated for your projects for any tasks with a due date. So all you need to do to start properly using Gantt charts is ensure that each and every one of your tasks has a due date.
To view a Gantt chart for a particular project, enter the project and select “Gantt Chart” from the left-hand menu.
Pro Tip: Get the most out of your Gantt charts.
To make these Gantt charts even more visually accurate, you’ll want to get in the habit of setting start dates for your work. This way, you can see how tasks overlap with one another.
To add milestones, create and attach them to a task within the task editing page. Apply the milestone to all relevant tasks to ensure they’re properly grouped.
Pro Tip: Combine tools for deeper insights.
If you use Milestones alongside Gantt charts, you can confirm progress at a glance. We recommend you do this regularly.
As you have seen throughout this guide, there are many considerations to make when putting together tasks for a team. If you create tasks without first coming up with set of best practices, your project can quickly fall apart.
Before you start any project, decide on what the rules for task creation are going to be. When coming up with a set of best practices, you want to make sure your rules are:
- Simple to understand
- Simple to implement
- Take as little time away from work as possible
There are a few common ways to do this.
The Project Manager registers all tasks
Depending on the size of your teams and how they work together, it may be easiest to leave all task creation up to the Project Manager, since they have the greatest perspective of the project from every angle.
If this rule works for your projects, there are many advantages.
- It allows the other members to focus on their tasks. Under this rule, there is a clear distinction between the person who creates and assigns tasks and the people who handle the tasks. While this allows each side to focus on their specific role, team members will have few opportunities to interact with tasks they’re not in charge of and may have difficulties understanding situations outside of their own corner of the project.
- Each task is consistent. What you often find with multiple task creators is that each develops their own “style” that can at times contradict others. When there is a single task creator, you can guarantee that tasks will be created consistently.
- The Project Manager is fully aware of every piece of the project. Sometimes, team members can slip in extra tasks without the Project Manager noticing. While their intentions are usually pure, this can easily lead to wasted efforts if the tasks aren’t properly vetted in light of the project objectives. When the Project Manager registers all tasks, they get a reliable sense of the scope and status of the entire project.
The biggest disadvantage to this method is the burden that gets concentrated on the Project Manager. If the responsibility becomes overwhelming or too much to handle for one person, delays can directly impact the progress of the project in a negative way. This is when making tasks as simple to create as possible becomes especially important.
Each member registers tasks
Using this rule, all members are given the ability to register, and therefore manage, tasks in a project. This rule makes every team member act like their own lower-level manager.
This rule comes with its own set of advantages as well.
- Rapid cooperation becomes easier. Because each team member can freely register tasks and assign them to other team members, your teams are empowered to self-organize. This makes cooperation a more fundamental part of your team’s day-to-day work.
- The Project Manager has more time for other priorities. It’s easy for Project Managers to get tied down in task creation and management if they’re the only one’s responsible for it. If your teams are able to add and manage tasks in a productive way, your workload lightens, and you can take on more high-level management responsibilities.
- Overlooked tasks are quickly added. Even the most organized Project Managers will neglect to add minor aspects of a task into their project management tool. When every project member is able to add/edit tasks, they can help pick up any overlooked work and put it into the system, notifying you of its creation.
The biggest drawback to this method is the inevitable lack of consistency you’ll find across tasks. Try as you might, some members of your teams will pay strict attention to detail and others simply won’t. You can work with the ones who struggle, but when you have groups of people entering in tasks, you’re likely going to see a wide variety of ways people organize their thoughts about a given task.
Pro Tip: Set expectations for your team.
If you choose this method, try to write out a set of guidelines for creating tasks that you share with your teams and regularly remind them to follow.
Document important information
Over time, your teams will accumulate a lot of knowledge about your projects. And unfortunately, people come and people go. We’ve all been in a position before where one individual held a crucial piece of information, but that person had left the company.
If you sort important information into formal documentation, it will protect your projects against these kinds of problems.
Using the Wiki function in Backlog, you and your teams can collaboratively document and organize crucial information.
Pro Tip: Don’t skimp on the detail.
Use Wikis to document even minor information that wouldn’t make it into serious documentation. What might seem like a silly detail to one team member can mean hours of confusion and extra work for the rest of a team should that person leave.
Make an onboarding document for new team members
One useful Wiki to incorporate into every project is an onboarding document.
A new team member will obviously be less familiar with the project than someone already working on it and require time to ramp up. Until that person catches up with everyone else, they won’t be able to do their best work.
You can make it easier for new people to join your project by putting together something they can read over when they join, including basic information about the project, progress so far, and any preparation they’ll need before they can begin working.
Pro Tip: Keep things up-to-date.
Revise the content of your onboarding docs frequently. Especially with tech-related projects, introductory information tends to become outdated quickly. Revise this document any time you expect a new member to join.
Encourage active editing of your Wiki
The most common problem teams run into with Wikis is the relatively small number of team members who actually contribute to them. When those people leave a project, the Wiki stagnates.
How can you ensure that all members of your teams regularly edit the Wiki?
- Don’t worry about the appearance of the text. The more time-consuming you make editing, the less motivated people will be to contribute. As a rule of thumb: Wiki’s don’t have to be “pretty.” What’s important about a Wiki is the information contained in it.
- Don’t worry about whether the information is necessary or not. The value of a piece of information is entirely up to the recipient. If you split your Wiki into easily skimmable pages, even a large volume of information won’t be overwhelming. Team members can feel free to add all kinds of information, without worrying whether it’s “necessary” or not.
- Don’t worry about whether it’s okay to edit or not. Wikis keep a record of prior edits, so you can always restore one to its previous state if necessary. Worry more about the information getting old than making a mistake in your edits.
Pro Tip: Notifications can act as reminders.
Backlog’s Wiki feature can send notifications about updates. If you use this functionality, you can subtly encourage people to continue to edit and revise the Wiki.
Flow vs stock
It’s good to have as much information as possible posted on a project’s Wiki. But it’s even better if you can quickly determine what information belongs in a Wiki and what information should be posted elsewhere.
Using the principles of “flow” and “stock,” you can determine whether information is appropriate for your Wiki, helping you keep even the most robust Wiki organized and focused.
“Flow” is any information that is time-sensitive.
Flow information has its highest value at the moment of its creation. As time passess and the project progresses, its value drops.
Examples of flow information would be:
- Minutes from meetings
- Messages between team members
- Notices to users
- Diagrams of progress
Flow is the pieces of your project in action. You can use this information to track progress and revisit important decisions, so it’s still important.
However, because this type of information becomes quickly outdated, it’s usually better suited for the comments section of a related task rather than your Wiki.
When you’re unsure, ask yourself this: Is this information only relevant to the progress of this particular task or will others need it later? If you answered the former, put it in the comments section of that task.
“Stock” is information that is less likely to change throughout your project.
Stock is basically the information that results from your flow. This kind of information will continue to have value through the end of the project.
Examples of stock information would be:
Your Wiki is an excellent place to record your stock. Keeping your stock updated regularly as your flow work is completed will help each team stay up-to-date and on the same page.
Pro Tip: Pay attention to date stamps.
For both flow and stock, it’s important to note the date that information was created. Your Wiki will automatically attach date stamps when information is added and updated. You can also see exactly which part of the Wiki was changed.
If you’re wondering whether a piece of information is still relevant, trying checking its date stamp. If it’s something you think has probably changed since that date, encourage the team member in charge of that info to verify that it’s still correct, or update it if it’s changed.
Want to learn more about Wikis? Check out our Wiki Guide.
Communicating with your teams
We’ve talked about a lot of the logistics of project management, but there is a key element to every Project Manager’s success that is equally, if not more important, to ensuring successful collaboration: your communication skills.
Creating a culture where team members readily bring up issues, contribute actively to all parts of the project, and help each other out when in need all starts with your communication skills as a manager.
Communication comes down to your ability to:
- Communicate the project’s requirements clearly
- Explain complex concepts concisely
- Actively listen to your team’s input
- Respond appropriately to feedback
- Empathize with those around you
- Overcome barriers to communication
When communicating with your teams, there are a few rules you should always follow.
Understanding why you’re working on something is important for motivation. People don’t necessarily need a reason to work, but they’re more likely to care about what they’re doing and think critically about how their work affects the rest of the project if they have one. Context plays a dual role in communication: it motivates and informs.
Your role as a Project Manager is not just to tell others what to do and why; it’s also to listen to what your teams need and respond. That’s not to say that you have to accept every suggestion or request your team members make. It simply means that if you do refuse something, that you explain why and how it will negatively impact the project.
If you can’t explain your decisions, your teams likely won’t respect them.
Treat your team members as individuals
Never forget: your team members aren’t robots; they’re human beings. Each one has their own personality and work preferences. If you treat everyone exactly the same way, we can guarantee that you won’t get the same response from each.
Being a good manager isn’t about establishing a singular management style that your team members have to adapt to. It’s about using various management styles to adapt to your teams.
Figure out who works well independently, who prefers to collaborate, who’s a morning person, who’s more on top of their game in the afternoon, who likes feedback given to them straight, and who prefers messages delivered with some sensitivity.
You’re going to run into an endless variety of people. Get used to getting to know and adapting to them.
Don’t depend on your PM tool for everything
Project management tools are convenient, but if you rely on them completely for communication, you’re going to lose out on some of the benefits of real human connection. Some of the best ideas and most creative solutions arise during informal meetings and face-to-face interactions.
Chat applications can also help keep conversations going throughout the day, even outside meetings and tasks. Again, these more organic flows of communication can spawn great ideas and solutions.
Keep your teams talking if you want to keep them collaborating.
Barriers to communication
There are seven
main barriers to communication:
- Physical barriers
- Cultural barriers
- Language barriers
- Perceptual barriers
- Interpersonal barriers
- Gender barriers
- Emotional barriers
Communication is complex, and mastering it as a skill that requires years of practice — and still, no one is ever perfect. Get to know the most common reasons for communication breakdowns, and how to address them.
As a manager, one of the biggest red flags to watch out for is when your team members stop trying to talk to you.
You may have personally experienced a situation in which you stopped talking to your own superior because they always seemed too busy, in a bad mood, or never provided any real solutions or guidance.
Your teams cannot sustain a culture where team members readily share important information and collaborate to find solutions amongst themselves if that tone is not set from the top down.
If your team members speak with you easily and willingly, chances are you’re doing a great job setting a positive example for effective communication.
Delivering negative feedback
As a manager, you’ll inevitably have to deliver negative feedback about a team member’s work, methods, or results. How you frame this kind of information can make all the difference.
When communicating difficult feedback:
- Be clear about what you are asking for. When someone isn’t meeting your expectations, it means that there is a gap in awareness between what you’re expecting and what the other party intends to deliver. Unifying your understanding of the situation will help you find out where that gap exists and how it came about.
- Explain why they need to do things differently. People often don’t respond well to strict demands without understanding the reasoning behind what they’re doing and why they’re doing it that way. Instead of simply pointing out what’s unsatisfying about their work, explain why it’s important they do things differently and how it effects the project overall. This will make it easier for them to accept the feedback and more likely to change their ways.
Communicating via text
One fact to be aware of when depending heavily on text based communication is how people interpret words differently when they read them vs when they hear them.
Text can’t communicate tone, emphasis, or sarcasm. People can quickly get defensive because of a harshly emphasized period.
You have to take a slightly different approach to communication over text than you do with face-to-face communication, otherwise your commenting sections and chat rooms could start to get a bit chilly.
Emojis aren’t necessarily appropriate for external email exchanges, but internally, they should be welcomed as a way to keep the mood light. Emojis naturally set a less formal tone, and they can help people understand how a piece of text was intended to be read.
As a manager, using emojis can help make others more comfortable communicating with you and in front of you. When you make internal communication easy and free-flowing, the project benefits.
We underestimate how much our facial expressions and gestures — the nonverbal aspects of communication — can add to a face-to-face conversation. When you can’t depend on a smile or a casual shrug to demonstrate that what you’re saying should be taken lightly, it’s all too easy for people to take messages much more seriously than they were ever intended to be delivered.
Think twice before you hit send on any message. Try re-reading it in a different tone in your head or imagine how it might be misinterpreted. Often times in text, we have to put things a bit softer to make up for those nonverbal queues we can’t include in our message.
Above all, it’s important that you are clear. Ambiguity can leave your recipient spinning their wheels trying to figure out whether they’re in trouble or were just given a kindly piece of feedback.
With the skills you’ve learned throughout this guide, you’re ready to take your project management career to new heights.
Now it’s time to choose your project management software, establish a workflow that’s right for your team, and start creating projects that matter.
Return to this guide anytime you need a refresher or want to introduce someone new to the trade.
Happy project managing!