6 key elements for better Task Management

If you build your Project Management house on a Task Management foundation, you've got a rock-solid approach to boosting your organization's productivity and completing strategic projects on time.

Project Management is a valuable tool for helping organizations plan their projects and key initiatives. However, when built without a solid foundation of Task Management, your project management "'house" is built on sand -- susceptible to the "elements" and easily destroyed by changes in the landscape. However, if you build your Project Management house on a Task Management foundation, you've got a rock-solid approach to boosting your organization’s productivity and completing strategic projects on time.

Projects begin with a plan, but without a sound approach to managing the tasks needed to complete the project, success is unlikely. Basically, even if you have a great strategy, if you can’t make it happen, your project will falter and fail to meet its goals.

So what is Task Management?  In a nutshell, Task Management is a systematic approach to recording, assigning and prioritizing the detailed tasks that must be completed so that your team members can answer the million dollar question:  "What are the most important tasks that I need to work on today?" Sounds good, but how does it work?

They’re off!

Let’s take a typical project. The parties are brought together: Marketing, Project Managers, Development Managers, and Team Leaders. A solid plan is put in place, a budget is created and you are off. So why does it seem that the plan’s best day is its first?

The answer is that reality and the plan quickly diverge. With the best intentions for solving this problem, Project Managers try to increase the detail of the plan, hoping to get a better handle on what is going on and how to get the job done thinking, "Surely, adding detail will give me a better idea of what is going on!" Not necessarily.

Adding hundreds of tasks to the project plan does not help individual contributors get their work done, and it can actually hurt the productivity of the entire team. Why? Because it takes a lot of effort and still fails to answer the fundamental question team members ask (or should ask): "What are the most important tasks that I need to work on today?"

Task management leads to team management

So what is the best approach to actually getting a project done?  Integrate Task Management with Project Management.

As projects progress, planned tasks spawn many other unforeseen tasks: defects, design changes, enhancements and action items abound. However, the project plan is not the proper place for this information and easily bogs down with this level of detail. Tasks must be tracked, assigned and measured for completion separately from the project plan. Using a separate task management system allows Project Managers to identify bottlenecks, tweak workloads of team members and provide management with a real-world glimpse of how much work has been done -- including those unforeseeable issues that crop up and need to be resolved.

Ultimately putting Task Management in place gives organizations the tools and information necessary to collaborate and manage their workload as a team.

Here are 6 key elements for better Task Management:

Classify -- Define the type of work: New Feature, Action Item, Defect, etc. It helps everyone understand what needs to be done.

Target -- Target tasks to your plans' milestones. Measuring progress is easier with metrics when remaining tasks and issues can be related back to the plan, keeping team members focused and working toward a common goal.

Prioritize -- All team members should understand the priority system. Practice priority diversity: if priority 1 is critical and 3 the least critical, it makes no sense to make all tasks priority 1.

Collaborate -- Get the right tasks assigned to the right people. Make sure that ownership is clear and reasonable. Workloads have to be balanced and fair and it should be easy for people to get the help they need from other team members.

Check status -- Regularly track task status. It should be easy to see what is completed, what remains to be completed, and what issues exist. It is never a good idea to spend hours with managers and team members to get this information.

Track compliance -- Keep a complete work history for each task. This is a good idea for many reasons. It helps you understand what issues remain, how to improve your plans, understand and correct process issues, and comply with appropriate industry standards like Sarbanes-Oxley, ISO9000, SEI, FDA, FAA, etc.

The Cogs are Turning, Now what about the Plan?

The team is cranking along, what about the plan? Is the plan correct?  Are we on target?  Do corrections need to be made?  Resources re-assigned? None of these questions can be answered with any accuracy unless you understand the tasks, workload, and issues and how they relate to the project plan milestones. When a good Task Management foundation is in place, teams can collaborate, focus and be productive. Management can quickly and easily make better-informed decisions along the way. Project Managers understand the status and issues as they occur, so they can deal with obstacles and delays as early as possible while there is still time to recover.

So which is it Project Management, Team Management, or Task Management?

The answer is simple: all three. Projects begin with the plan. Once it gets going, many tasks, planned and unplanned, ensue. Team members must continuously balance workloads, target, prioritize, and collaborate to complete their work. Project Mangers need to keep the plan up to date and help address issues to keep the project on track. Project Management built on a solid foundation of Task Management brings your organization together as a team that stays focused and completes strategic projects on time and on budget.

About the Author

Rich Bianchi is President and Founder of Alexsys Corporation, an innovative provider of team project management software. Prior to founding Alexsys Corporation, Rich spent 10 years leading critical projects for large organizations like Bull and Honeywell. He has several patents to his credit for the Honeywell mini-computer emulator on UNIX.