Physical Project Management System
May 22, 2013 9:26 AM   Subscribe

I direct a research center at a policy institute and I'm also an analyst. I need a project management system and I want a physical system, not software or an application. Other than whiteboards, what are my options? Among whiteboards, which are really useful? Right now I have an electronic calendar and various notes/lists to remind me to do things and frankly, it's not working. In the past, I've tried various to-do list applications, as well as Basecamp, and they did not work for me either.

I have, basically, three types of workflows. Type 1 is typically an 18-24 month project, front loaded with administrative tasks (getting data sets, securing pro bono work, setting timelines, defining tasks, assembling working groups) that I am either wholly responsible for or wholly responsible for nagging into completion. Type 1 usually has a middle part that has me doing some research, interviewing, and checking in with pro bono workers to make sure they are competing their tasks. The end part of Type 1 projects have me drafting preliminary reports, meeting with working groups to discuss preliminary reports, revising and releasing reports, debriefing the project. Press releases and blog posts figure into all stages of Type 1 projects.

Type 2 projects usually track Type 1, but without all the front end admin tasks, although I am generally responsible for setting timelines and goading people into meeting deadlines. In these projects, I do research, make sure pro bono professionals are doing their research, coordinate the drafting, revising, and releasing of reports, but do not do as much writing as in Type 1 projects. Then I debrief the project for our board. Press releases and blog posts figure into some stages of Type 2 projects, which usually last 6-18 months.

Type 3 projects are managed by someone else entirely and I am generally only expected to know the timeline, do some research and writing, and other discrete tasks as needed.

At any given time, I have 5-9 projects of varying types to track and everything I'm doing now (electronic and printed calendars, electronic to-do lists, post-its on my monitor) don't allow me to visualize the entire workload simultaneously. <---- That's the most salient point: I want a physical project management board or system that helps me visualize my entire 6-18 month workload for 5-9 projects simultaneously.

posted by crush-onastick to Work & Money (6 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Have you looked into Kanban boards? They combine whiteboards with sticky notes and column-based organization that seems like it might suit your 3 project types fairly well.
posted by smoq at 9:47 AM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

Kanban definitely fits your needs. And you can go crazy with the Post-It colors! Bonus!
posted by xingcat at 10:01 AM on May 22, 2013

A wall painted in shiny vinyl emulsion, a marker pen and post it notes.
posted by BenPens at 11:27 AM on May 22, 2013

For managing one particular work project my team uses a cork board, pushpins, and index cards of many colors. Card color and position on the board show a surprising amount of high-level information very quickly. We use the front of the card for the relevant sub-project summary information and the back accepts lots of free-form comments. Unlike Post-Its or whiteboard writing, when the sub-project is complete the card can be filed for future reference. Although I feel like we've reinvented the 1930s, this system works well for our needs and since the implementation cost was literally about $25 so the cost of trying it out was negligible.
posted by harkin banks at 1:22 PM on May 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

My very low tech solution (on a blank cubicle wall):

Milestones are sectioned off on the wall with yarn/string taped top and bottom and each section has a printed out header (start up, process 1, process 2, etc)
Each project has a 8.5 x 11 piece of paper with the project title, check list, etc. As each project moves through the phases, I move the paper into the correct section making any notes and adding various colored dots/stickies or additional documents as required. I've sometimes resorted to plastic page protectors to keep everything together and I have 30 or so cubicle clips.

Basically, it's a very large spreadsheet but all the people involved in the projects know the system so I don't get a lot of questions about "Where's job A?" and most of them can add their own notes/updates when I'm out sick or on vacation.

(my dream system would be a large piece of plywood with alternating rows of cork and ceramic tiles so I could bulletin board and white board in the same plane)
posted by jaimystery at 4:46 PM on May 22, 2013

I used products from companies like Magnatag ( before and they worked well. We used them, along with white boards, to flowchart a massive office move and renovation effort. It was easier to move tasks around by the various stakeholders than to look on a computer screen.
posted by pxharder at 6:01 PM on May 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

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