Project Management

The envelope approach to project management

Fast, faster, fastest. This would be

the approach we have to take sometimes; paring down our methods and

our intentions so that we achieve the greatest possible results in

the shortest possible time frame. This kind of delivery looks good

even though we cannot sustain it for long. All that paperwork does

have a use, even if its not in the immediate delivery of a specific


When paring down, I take a page from

“The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” by

Carl Sagan. It's a good read, and a good bit more accessible than

the weighty tomes which inspired it. It also, unlike the later

texts, contains a number of purely practical techniques for dealing

with the extraneous stuff the world throws at us. In this case, an


The idea is simple. Take a small sheet

of paper (I use 4x6 note cards). Take a look at whatever strange and

complex problem presents itself. In my life, the problems mostly

have to deal with negotiating constrains in time, resources, and

scope while maintaining adequate focus on people, process, and

technology. Solve whatever problem you have in the space provided.

If you cannot, odds are good you don't have an answer yet.

For example, today I built a critical

path for a deployment project on a napkin. The small space forced me

to focus in on real, tangible milestones. Since I write in pen, it

forced me to ponder exactly what I put, where, and why. The first

unholy mess of a path suggested I probably needed to do some more

thinking. The second, on the back of co-worker's napkin which I

snatched when he turned away, looked like it might work.

This is not a communication technique.

Yes, project management's first, last, and strongest contributions

usually revolve around communication. Rather, this quick sanity

check provides us with a tool for checking our own reasoning before

we go out and make fools of ourselves.

You can, though, use this trick to

refine a message before sending it. We've all composed those long,

rambling emails which just go on, and on, and on without delivering

any real message. The next time you find yourself about to hit

“send” on a message taking up more than one screen, stop. Haul

out an envelope and see if you can express your idea to yourself in a

little more succinct fashion.

Oh, and one other thing. If you have a

chance, set aside your envelope for a day or two, then go back to it.

Ideas which seem brilliant and clear in the heat of the moment

sometimes grow a little fuzzy with some sober reflection.

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