Are you afraid of using a project management tool? Well, you shouldn’t be — it can make you better, your clients happier and your business richer.
In my case, I went for a tool more focused on task management and document management, than resource allocation or detailed upfront planning. That being said, the tool is also a very smart personal assistant thanks to its artificial intelligence. It can guess what project an email should be attached to, and it schedules everyone’s personal backlogs (your dashboard) all day long. This is a far cry from simple to-do apps. This is the 21st century, use technology to give yourself an edge.
I am pretty good at what I do, except when it comes to efficiently handling my workload. I realized at one point I would need to become a professional project manager myself. Problem is, I do not want to.
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Another (more feasible) solution was to use software to help me. I tried many software solutions hoping to solve this, however, I always ended up not sticking to them. They were too cumbersome to use and got in the way of my work.
I remember spending so much time trying to adapt to the software. It was frustrating, but I knew I needed a system to help me stay on top of my different projects while still having time left to do my job.
Bad time management is costing your business
Bad project and time management were costing me and my business in many ways.
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You feel it. It is all the time you waste on Facebook or browsing the internet. Maybe, like me, you have a ton of emails every day to answer, and you spend too much time on them, or do it at the wrong time. One day, I decided to keep track of how much time I spent browsing the web and answering emails. I then used my regular billable hourly rate and applied it to my allotted time. It was scary. In one year, you are talking thousands and thousands of dollars in lost productivity. And I consider myself not too prone to distractions.
It is even more critical when it comes to opportunity costs. Bad time management is also about spending time on low return activities. When you waste too much time on trivial tasks, you are not using it for strategic thinking, growing your business, or moving important projects, etc.
Small and medium businesses using project management tools are almost twice as likely to see an increase in productivity, as this study shows. They are also 30% less likely to see a decrease in productivity over time versus those without project management processes.
Multitasking is evil: try time boxing
Most people think multitasking is a great skill to have. It sounds obvious: if you can do more actions at the same time, you can achieve more. I used to think that too, but in my day to day, it did not feel that way. I was working on multiple tasks, sure— but more often than not, progress would feel slow and definitely stressful.
Research shows multitasking takes a toll on productivity. It is mostly because of the switching cost. Think about it, when “multitasking” you are not really working on multiple tasks at once. You keep switching between tasks. It adds up, and the more complex tasks you try to combine, the worse it gets. The sad truth is multitasking can cost you 40 percent of your productive time.
Luckily my mentor introduced me to better ways to manage my time and business projects.
The idea was to introduce Agile project management in my day to day, but in a way that I could handle. It needed to work for a group of freelancers, including remote workers. More importantly, it should not increase the workload of actually executing and operating the business. It should be seamless and easy.
In several Agile methodologies, there is this concept of task time-boxing. The idea is to focus on a task for a period of time. For example, for all of those distracting emails, instead of answering one at a time as they arrive, I now time box email answering. Every morning, I lock one hour only for emails. Sometimes I extend this, of course, but the idea is not about the duration, more about the focus. Later in the day, with emails coming in, I quickly read them, sure, but I do not answer —other than a simple “I received your email, will reply soon”. I saw an immediate increase in productivity and a decrease in stress, simply thanks to this time-boxing. More on this later, but first, a word on Agile.
What is Agile? Is this not a thing for software development?
Agile is a philosophy described in a very short Agile Manifesto. Really, it is about productivity. This is why it is used more and more, everywhere. In the manifesto, the group believes self-organizing teams are the best solution to achieve agility. It also believes in technical excellence as well as continuous learning and improvement of its own processes.
Agility also means the ability to sustain a constant pace of production indefinitely. And of course, almost above all, Agile is about satisfying customers, including welcoming changing requirements even late in the process.
Originally these principles applied to software engineering; the goal was to build better software more efficiently. This philosophy is now mainstream, not just for software programmers anymore. It is possible to implement Agile in many businesses and definitely in any project-based professional service business. You do not even have to be in a team. I initially implemented this as a freelancer, by myself, before expanding to a small team.
You have to be careful though. Agile is not a methodology— it is a list of 12 principles, or ideas. I needed to translate it into a process I could follow.
Many implementing Agile try to use a methodology named Scrum. This is a bad idea. Scrum has a lot of ceremonies, meetings and documents. It is really optimized for software teams, not freelancers and professional services business. Most Agile tools do try to support Scrum or Kanban, and I needed something that worked for us.
It clicked for me when I started to get the idea behind Kanban. And, please note, Kanban comes from the manufacturing industry, not software. It is applicable to many activities. Kanban is simple. It is about looking at yourself, or your team, as a production unit. You want to be constantly busy, but on the right things, and efficiently. You don’t even need software to do it, just a post-it and whiteboard is all you need.
But there is a catch with Kanban. It basically assumes you are doing one kind of job, all day long. It was not designed for projects, but to build stuff like cars. Many of the different types of project management software push Kanban, a solution that does not really work for … project management.
Still, understanding the operational simplicity of Kanban helped me to understand what actually works for my business: Agile Productivity Management or APM.
Prioritize like a pro
I mentioned earlier, before APM, I tried several software tools and solutions but quickly gave up. These tools are good, extensive, and super professional. They were also super complicated. It was almost a part-time job just to maintain them. Too often, they assume you are working on one single project for a long time, maybe two.
For my business, it is very common to see myself work on half a dozen or more projects, at the same time.
Instead, I now use Agile Productivity Management. The full explanation for APM, as a methodology, is a lot. However, it boils down to two simple goals: APM is about prioritizing projects and constantly updating personal backlogs (similar to Kanban).
It works for multiple projects at the same time, in parallel. This is critical for me. It makes it easy to manage all those projects and tasks.
What makes APM super easy is the use of simple lists. In theory, you could use Excel to follow APM project management. It would not be easy though. This is because lists in APM are never fixed— this is the “Agile” in Agile Productivity Management.
Even though APM is rather easy, implementing it without a tool is probably near impossible. It would be too much work, that is for sure. I use SAM9000 for my professional services business, because it implements APM in a simple way.
So, say you have a list of all your active projects. You also have a list of all pending projects — those maybe you are quoting or negotiating. The beauty is, you can decide at any given time to change the order of priority in your “active projects” list.
You look at your projects as if they were simple tasks on your to-do list. In fact, this is what they are: things to do at one point. When done, they will disappear from your to-do list. So look at your projects as tasks, and review often their priority order.
This has saved me many times since using APM. Before that, I would simply delay one project or another, because another client would put on more pressure, or simply new projects were fresh in mind. Now, I make decisions about project priorities, based on the business and based on facts.
Focus like a pro
Prioritizing projects is one side of APM, the other side is scheduling your personal backlogs. What helps me a lot is my AI assistant. My productivity app has this artificial intelligence.
For example, the AI decides my tasks for the day, the personal backlog. Of course, I can override it -it is my assistant after all, I am still in charge. That being said, usually I just follow what is there, because it takes into account all active projects, their priorities and what everyone else is working on. The AI makes the software easier to use, because it can adjust many settings and buttons for me as I work. This mostly eliminated my resistance to powerful but complex tools.
Now, I can focus on my job and I make sure not to multitask. Instead, I treat tasks in the personal backlog list like mini-projects. So, I focus on each task and give it my full attention. I time box. Sometimes tasks are really short, so I will work on several, in sequence of course, in one time box of 30 minutes. This is the Pomodoro method. For more complex tasks, I might use a time box of an hour, but never more.
The results are undeniable. I am considerably more productive since I do that. This means more gets done per week, so I can handle more business, more orders, more revenues.
Task and time management are very important. That being said, for effective project management, you also need to have the right information.
Project Management is about more than task management
Time management is about efficiency. But efficiency is pointless if you are not effective. One definition of being effective is: “successful in producing a desired or intended result.”
It is about making sure you deliver what you sell.
If your projects are straightforward, easily understood between your client and yourself, this part of project management may be less important to you. In my case, it is absolutely critical. In order to get paid, typically, clients want to see what they ordered.
This is partly how companies without project management tools shoot themselves in the foot.
When you are not using project management software, you are less likely to use a formal project management methodology. This means you are more likely to ignore major reasons why projects fail, cost more, are delayed, and in the end, are bad for your business.
Things go wrong typically for the following reasons, in my experience:
- Bad priority management and task scheduling, as covered earlier.
- Forgetting about managing risks. It starts with defining the project very carefully. Make sure everyone involved is clear on what deliverable you agree to produce.
- Not breaking a big project into smaller pieces. I used to do that all the time. When a project looks like it will be several weeks of billable hours, I break it up and create smaller projects. This also makes it easier to invoice in phases, instead of one big chunk in the end, maybe months later.
- Not communicating enough with the client and within the team about projects.
- Letting changes get out of hand. Clients will change their mind. Your methodology should accept this, embrace it. If you communicate properly and follow a process that clearly states what is expected, you can charge your clients for these changes, and you should. I no longer see changes as problems; I see them as an up-sell.
- Forgetting that it is also about people management.
To prevent these mistakes I made sure to use a project management tool that does more than just task handling. This is also why Excel or Notepad are not enough. My system, because it is a software that follows a formal methodology, makes it easier for me to follow one, almost without thinking about it.
Whatever system you choose, try to get one that integrates good document management. This makes it easier to keep files and projects together. Documents, obviously, will record what you agreed to do. They probably include information from clients, PDFs, pictures, or other inputs you need for your specific kind of jobs. In my case, I always have to manage a ton of PDF files and Excel spreadsheets. In the past, I kept them on my network, in folders named after projects. That worked. Now, I can do a lot more with software. It is easy to share documents with remote workers and I can also access them on the go from my smartphone.
If you use Dropbox or other tools to share links with clients, imagine the same thing, but tied directly within your project tracking. It is worth it.
One step further is to integrate email management directly within your projects.
This is the ability to get emails and attach them specifically to the right project, within the project management app.
Again, communication is key and a major reason projects falter. If you are a freelancer working alone, already this is very helpful. But when you work in a team, this is critical. Everyone can see emails, in context, in sequence, and attach tasks to them, regardless of whom received them.
A solid project management system is the better way
If you are not using a project management tool yet, do not be afraid of them. I would advise against using something too simple, though. You may improve your process a bit, with a simple to-do app. But if you often have more than one project active, be sure to go for a tool that can handle it well.
On the flip side, I definitely advise against something too complicated. Otherwise, you run the risk, like I did, to give up and miss on the real benefits this type of software can bring to your organization.
What you want is the right balance of power and ease of implementing in your actual workflow. When done with the right goals in mind, project management will absolutely make your life easier, less stressful. As I mentioned, this is the 21st century, use the right technology and give yourself an unfair advantage.
Because of the focus it brings in defining and delivering intended outcomes, it will make your clients happier. You will make more money thanks to increased productivity, (in my case, thousands of dollars or more).
Special Offer for Millo readers
You should give it a try today! I even created a coupon code especially for the Millo community. For 2020, use the coupon code MILLO8KA and get SAM9000 APM app for $19 per month instead of $29.
Let me know what you think!
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