What does simple project management look like?
February 19, 2014 7:07 AM   Subscribe

What does "Project Management Light" look like? Are there good resources out there team members can read/watch/etc? Background and requirements inside.

We're collaborating with another institution for a number of projects in the near future and have to come up with a shared project management process. Without dedicated project managers, we've rejected following a PMI process and keep talking about a "project management light." Of course, this means we have to document what exactly that means. I'd love for us to adopt something so we all have a resource to go back to.

Here are some of our requirements.
  • Projects may be lead by various people in the org, few of which can receive intense training.
  • Projects must report progress and health regularly.
  • Team members will be located on two separate campuses.
  • Milestones, timelines, and deliverables must be clearly communicated.
  • Most team members already have a task list solution, some are part of a few teams using different solutions.
Do you have resources you can point me towards? Tips and kind words of wisdom?
posted by advicepig to Work & Money (11 answers total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
The Kanban method might be well-suited for your needs. It's fairly easy to learn, and there are lots of tools/services available online for remote communication and project management.
posted by evoque at 7:11 AM on February 19, 2014

Super-simple and easy to get going is Basecamp. I found it really easy to get team members who didn't like project management on-board with Basecamp.
posted by xingcat at 8:15 AM on February 19, 2014

trello had a nice implementation of kanban
posted by lescour at 8:35 AM on February 19, 2014

Best answer: I did "project management lite" for years when I was first leading projects, and so do many of my colleagues. I don't have specific resources to offer, but here are my words of wisdom after watching many small projects fail.

The tools are only as good as the plan. It's easy enough to find a template or tool that "anyone" can fill in, but that will not take the place of a basic understanding of project planning. I've seen small projects fail or go way overbudget because requirements weren't properly gathered. The other issue I see alot is not finalizing scope and requirements before starting work, which causes lots of rework when the stakeholders keep adding things they insist is necessary.

If I were training a team to do simple project management, I would focus on teaching requirements gathering and properly setting scope just because those seem to be the areas where some people just don't "get it." If you can't have formal training on this for everyone, then you could do project lead meetings where the more experienced leads (or the ones who got training) can help coach the less experienced folks.

Also, please make sure that the leads have a point of contact where they can ask basic project planning questions, or questions about the tools. This would normally be a PMO role, but if you don't have a PMO, then someone should be appointed to be that person.

by the way you're still doing the "PMI process" no matter how small or simple the projects are. The PMI process (aka PMBOK) is just a formalized way to describe the standard phases of a typical project.
posted by cabingirl at 8:38 AM on February 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

We use activeCollab. Found it very affordable in comparison with Basecamp and since version 3.0, quite customizable, easy to use, with some interesting modules to extend functionality.
posted by juiceCake at 8:39 AM on February 19, 2014

I like this explanation of project management. Project management is making sure the whole shape of the work is filled in. The more that other teams are tracking tasks, etc., the less that needs done.
posted by michaelh at 8:44 AM on February 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Disclaimer: I am a professional project manager. I am heavy.

I'm very wary of 'Project Management Lite'. I understand and sympathize with organizations who don't want a lot of cumbersome documentation and red tape to get in the way of their Doing Real Work. But even the most heavyweight documents and restrictive policies have your project's and organization's best interests at heart; they are protecting your project from spinning out of control.

Good project management draws a box around your project and controls what goes in and out of that box. So, the lightest project management methodology needs to have, at a minimum:
  • Something that clearly and unambiguously states what this project is and isn't about. (e.g. Paint the entire house, but NOT the trim or the roof). Call this a scope statement.
  • Something that defines exactly what you want to accomplish and any rules about how it needs to be done. (e.g. Kitchen must be painted Avacado Green. With rollers. Bathroom must be painted canary yellow, with anything but spray paint.) Call this a requirements document. You will want to get this approved by the bosses. Their approval draws a box around the project.
  • Something that breaks down each deliverable into a set of tasks. Give each task an owner. (e.g. Acquire tarp (Henry). Spread tarp on floor and over furniture (Jane). Acquire paint and brushes (Bill). etc) Call this a Task List.*
  • Something that lists each task and owner and when each task is supposed to be complete. Call this a Schedule. Keep your schedule updated as things happen (e.g. A task is delayed, or early, or completed).
  • A list of people's names and what their roles are in the project. This can be simple: "Tom = Paintbrushes; Mary = Boss" or it can be more complex, like a RACI chart.
  • Something that tells people how they can request a change to the project. This is a Change Management Policy. At its lightest, it just tells people that changes aren't made automatically. At its heaviest, there are forms to fill out, formal estimates to be made, etc.
I would never go any lighter than this. As far as tools go, it's a matter of preference. Basecamp and trello are pretty easy to use. Smartsheet is pretty good too. But really, it's down to organization and detail. The best PM I ever knew worked with just Excel and a clipboard.

*Or a Work Breakdown Structure
posted by bluejayway at 12:56 PM on February 19, 2014 [26 favorites]

I like Basecamp and recommended it to my husband for use in their startup for project tracking for a small team.

But I concur with bluejayway and cabingirl - the best PM toolset in the world will fail if the teams involved don't understand the CONCEPTS, things like scope and tracking and change management. bluejayway's bullet list is extraordinarily helpful.

Also, here's a tip from the trenches of a major EDM project: the two biggest issues we've struck in a SharePoint rollout at my current job are accountability and costing. Everyone loves to write requirements and work through elaborate scope documentation and ask for unicorns with rainbows flying out their butts, but not a single fuck was actually given in the original project plan to outline who's going to pay for pretty ponies unforeseen cost overruns, and there's no clear structure for approvals, thus important decisions keep getting tabled because higher management wants animated logos in the intranet header but can't be arsed to pay for a key plugin for electronic signature integration (to ultimately, hopefully save time on the whole "important documents getting buried on people's desk while waiting for signature approval" theme), so who knows if we'll ever actually go live, sigh.

So there's that.
posted by lonefrontranger at 1:12 PM on February 19, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've used Basecamp, Trello, activeCollab, Redmine, and others. In a sense they are all similar, and how effective they are really depends on how you use them. Of those four, I think I like Redmine best and activeCollab the least, although Trello has its own unique and interesting way of managing and presenting data that might be best for certain types of projects. I've heard people talk positively of Asana. Attask, Smartsheet, dotProject, Goplan, and Teambox.

There are many AskMeFi questions you can search about project management for further suggestions.
posted by Dansaman at 3:21 PM on February 19, 2014

Response by poster: Thanks for the practical advice, all. In the end, I agree that it's not about the tool.
posted by advicepig at 7:39 PM on February 19, 2014

It definitely isn't, but a tool can ironically be used as, well, a tool, to get people committed to process. We took the tool away for a day and people felt lost and became even more committed to participating in keeping projects running smoothly.
posted by juiceCake at 8:34 PM on February 26, 2014

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