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Does Project Management Inaccurately Represent Work?

October 16, 2008

Working with so many different organizations, executives and line staff over the years, I increasingly wonder if project management represents an accurate, and therefore helpful model for how people work.  Does project management maturity model represent reality for most of us? 

I think not, at least in terms of how the majority of our time is structured.  In fact, I believe a todo or task management maturity model might better suit most organizations. There is a lot of excellent material written about project management maturity models, addressing the degree to which or how complete, how systematic and how comprehensively organizations utilize a project management system to organize and complete their work.

However, if you pulled the curtain back on most organizations, aside from formal schedule based production work, like you might see in construction or a production environment, the project management maturity model doesn’t seem to match up to how work gets organized 95% of the time.  Often it sounds like another universe.

Why? First of all I don’t think most people’s work gets organized into projects.  I think for most people it gets organized into a series of habits and tasks… You know, stuff you need to do as part of the job, which if it you’ve been working it very long, you know from experience (e.g. it’s a list in your head).  Secondly it’s stuff that comes in via various “channels”, e.g. email, meeting requests, phone calls, and deadlines of one sort or another, which may be written down somewhere or in multiple places, or it may be represented by folders stacked on your desktop, a collection of phone messages… maybe post-it notes stuck to your monitor.  Note that referencing a project plan is probably not one of the predominant input channels for most people.

Let’s face it, most of us spend relatively little time working a project plan, mostly our day would be better described or represented by a series of written and unwritten todos.

After facing the reality that most of work is organized around todos, not project plans and the supporting work breakdown or task structure, something else strikes me.    For the most part, we are not plan driven, we are “prompt” driven.  By that I mean we rely upon prompts (not a project plan) to get to the next todo.  The basic prompts we all use are:

  • A calendar (if its not in my calendar it doesn’t get done – some might say),
  • Email, (checking your inbox)
  • Visual reminders (stacked papers, stacked folders, a white board),
  • Verbal reminders (admins, phone calls, meeting communication),
  • Memory (internal reminders) and
  • Todo lists – whether in fragments or all in one place.

My observations are that most people we work with not only infrequently reference a project plan, but they also would generate more immediate benefits from improving on todo management than project management.  Better management of todos across an organization is the prime area to improve on for a majority of organizations, if not a precursor to improved project management.

Maybe instead of project management maturity model, we need to focus on a maturity model for todo management, e.g. to generate a “maturity of systematic approach” to the structure for managing todos to result in improved success rate at delivering on objectives, budgets and timelines. Here’s a couple of initial suggestions about what mature Todo Management system might look like:

1. Todos’ are visible and leveraged by tracking in one system.  Todos represent a fundamental work tracking system that needs to be formalized, not scattered across various systems.

2. The formal system provides a prompting for delivery of todo based requests and commitments (within a calendar, within a list, auditory and email prompts).

3. Most people profit from attaching todos to topical based outlines, as that seems to help secure memory associations and help avoid details slipping through the cracks.

4. Most people need a follow-up system when assigning todos to others, e.g. a vehicle for getting feedback on the request they made, without having to initiate the follow-up themselves.

5. Incoming email, including attachments, needs to be easily parsed and reformulated into todos that are frequently embedded in the content.

Un-abashed Plug.  If you are interested in improving todo and task management at your work place, we don’t think there is a better system for managing todos, attaching them to a concept based outline of departments and project listings, and assigning and tracking them across people than ManagePro.  In the upcoming next release we even provide a performance measurement based on each individuals’ ability to complete todos each day.

Bottom Line: The maturity of an organization’s system and process for managing todos may better predict an organized work flow and positive outcomes than a project management maturity model. Does it for the organization you work in?

4 Comments. Leave new

Gary Van Osdel
October 27, 2008 2:42 pm

The majority of your comments are addressed through the Agile and SCRUM process. The Agile process addresses the planning process of project planning without all the documentation for sake of documentation. Through Scrum, tasks are identified, progress tracked on a daily basis, impediments are identified early with the emphasis on team collaboration.


Hi Gary, thanks for the comment. Actually I think Agile and SCRUM do match up much better as a model that is more fluid and adaptive to the changing struture of a project or a changing pool of tasks.

I don’t think Agile or SCRUM are on the right track when it comes to documentation. But I do like the short, brief meeting as a structure for collaborating. See this blog, for some of why I think documentation is so important as a strategic management core – http://www.managepro.com/blog/index.php/working-and-managing-strategially-clean-up-the-missing-4th-step

Project Management and Music - In Search of an Adaptive Model
February 14, 2009 1:47 pm

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