Project Practitioners > Project Management Survival Tools - Part A

Project Management Survival Tools - Part A

By Matt Glei

Tools can save your life (as a project manager)!  But one tool cannot do everything you will want to do to manage the project --there is no “Swiss Army Knife” [® Victorinox] for project management, yet.

A project manager faces many challenges on a daily basis.  Each of us can use all the help we can get.  Underlying a project manager’s work are processes, methods and tools.  For this post I’d like to focus on tools, because there’s more to tools than Microsoft Project.  The processes and methods are also important, but I will discuss those in another blog …

In addition to Project, some of the types of tools I’ve used to advantage are for:
• Brainstorming and mind-mapping
• Documentation control and access
• Collaboration – communication and document-sharing

Brainstorming and mind-mapping

One of the hardest things to do as a project manager is to capture the rapid flow of ideas in a brainstorming session, then organize the output in a way that is meaningful and ready for the next phase of analysis.  Another challenge is to analyze and document key decisions being made by the team.  A tool I have found helpful for these and other tasks is a mind-mapping tool.  There are a number of them available, both free and for purchase.  I will not describe them in detail or make a specific recommendation, but they have many uses. 

For brainstorming I use a PC with a projector so everyone can see the output.  As I write thongs down, the tool makes the ideas readable and also allow for easy and rapid organization of ideas that are related or at different levels of detail.  These relationships appear spontaneously as the ideas flow.  In addition, after the ideas are documented, many people do an affinity [or K-J] process that allows more structure based on obvious relationships.  One example might be “these ideas all relate to how the customer FEELS about the product.”

Another great use for this tool is to document how a key decision was made – these can be architectural, choice between different features, etc.  To document this, the map documents the following items: 

1. the issue – a brief statement of the problem or goal
2. a brief history and background of the issue
3. the criteria by which the options will be measured or judged and any known constraints
4. the options – several possible options, and for each option the pros and cons
5. the final decision – the option chosen and why
6. the participants – who participated in the decision

I cannot tell you how many times this process saved time and revisiting decisions, either when the team changed (new people added) or when additional options appeared later in the project.  This documentation allowed us to quickly add it in and evaluate whether the new option made a difference in the desired decision or not.

Documentation control and access

Project managers spend more time than we’d like to, doing documentation – either making sure that they have the latest version or making sure that everyone who needs it has the latest version and can get to it easily.  Another factor is if it is officially approved or is the latest working copy.  In some businesses the only useful document is the officially approved one.  A good electronic documentation control system can save the PM from tearing their hair out on any given day.  First, the system keeps track of the last approved version and makes it available to whoever has need. Secondly, it tracks the workflow when a new version is being routed for approval, so you can find out who has not approved it (where the bottleneck is) and also when the new version is available.  This electronic routing and access system saves valuable time searching people out or not losing the engineering change material.  This is especially useful when approvers are at different locations and time zones.  A good system can more than pay for itself in staffing and effort. 

Collaboration – communication and document-sharing

Many project managers work with distant offices, teams or customers.  There are a number of collaboration tools that can help makes this process more seamless and effective.  Obviously voice conferencing is mandatory and video conferencing can be helpful.  In addition, collaboration tools such as WebEx or GoToMeeting (and many more) help keep participants on the same page by allowing everyone to view the same materials in real time.  The presenter can walk people through a presentation or demonstration. 

Another helpful tool is what I call collaboration space – there are a number of solutions available, with examples of SharePoint and eRoom.  These spaces allow a secure, web-accessible common area for participants to share documents, discussions, web links, etc.  There are a number of supporting tools available as well.  The advantage of these tools is that the PM can provide secure web access to project members regardless of location for needed documents.  Most of these also provide per-person security features, basic version control, etc.  I’ve used these tools to work with outside vendors, even competitors, allowing them common access to RFP requirements, but shielding the competitors from seeing each other’s material.  It solved getting documents out and back and the intricacies of each company’s IT setup.  These spaces can even be rented by the month and are simple to set up.  These tools can also be hosted inside a company if desired.
These tools are worth a lot to the beleaguered project manager.  They can make a big difference in keeping the team in the know, on the right track and in solid communication.  There are dozens of these tools and each team can decide which will meet their needs.  But remember – tools are just tools.  They need processes and methods to be truly effective.    For example, a poorly-planned meeting will still be poorly-executed even when audio, video and web-conferencing tools are used.  In this case, the basics still apply:  are the right people invited and what is their role?  Do they know what is going to be discussed and presented?  Have you provided any reference material in advance so they have time to prepare for the meeting?  We’ll talk more about methods and processes in my next blog. 

Matt Glei,

Related Links
Get the ideas flowing with these brainstorming meeting techniques. Plan better meetings—virtual or otherwise—with our Effective Meetings Checklist. Agreeing to a team communication plan can help keep the documentation needs under control (so to speak).

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