PM: Put First Things First

Once a Project Manager begins leading medium to large-sized initiatives, a daunting realization emerges: there are WAY more things being added to the list than is possible to accomplish today, this week, this month or even as part of the project. A related observation, during the early stages of a project, is there are often more things being added to the list on a daily basis than are being closed out.

If we aren’t diligent in managing this situation it can result in much unneeded stress, lost sleep and ultimately burn-out. There is a MUCH better way!

To start, the most important thing a PM can do is realize that everything coming at us:

  • Does NOT need to be done today, this week, this month, or even (perhaps) as part of the project. To emphasize: just because something is brought up does NOT mean it needs immediate or potentially ANY attention at all.
  • Does NOT require our engagement. That is, we have an entire team of people to consider whom are MUCH better suited to address a particular item, it being within their domain.

Now that we’ve gotten our head straight with regards to the above, let’s explore the process a PM can take to effectively manage the onslaught of seemingly endless and diverse items that will come up during the course of a project. Doing so involves several simple steps, including:

  • Putting the item on the list
  • Determining timing, priority and ownership
  • Using a tickler system
  • Performing team reviews
  • Dispositioning items
  • Publishing a week over week count

Putting the item on the list

As we receive new action items while leading meetings, via email, phone, hallway and/or drop-in conversations, the first step is getting them on the list. More specifically, the RAID Log (Risks, Actions, Issues, Decisions); one of the most important artifacts a PM maintains. Doing so provides team visibility, ensuring we don’t lose sight of ANY items and track the disposition of each.

Determine timing, priority and ownership

As we seek to learn more about the nature of an item it is important to nail down the required timing (or due date) for when it needs to be addressed, especially if it is a prerequisite to other project-related work. In addition, we’ll want to confirm the priority, among the following options:

  • High priority – Something that must absolutely be done during the course of the project and by the timeframe specified
  • Medium priority – Something which is important that we will very likely need to address and/or not lose sight of
  • Low priority – Something that if we weren’t able to do would not result in negative impact

Finally, we need to determine ownership of the task. While there may be multiple people involved in an action item, it is important to establish the point person to hold accountable. All of which needs to be recorded in the RAIL.

In reality, we (the PM) may be able to suggest the timing, priority and ownership by virtue of our deep insight of the project. Even so, it is important to confirm with the team (covered below).

Using a tickler system

A key element of the RAIL includes establishing an update due for each item on the list. And, part of a PMs daily tasking is to review the RAIL to identify anything which has an update due of today, or before. These are the items that we must follow-up on, by:

  • Reaching out to an individual team member (the action item’s owner) to obtain status.
  • Preparing the list of items as a portion (or all) of the agenda for our weekly team meeting.
  • Taking action ourselves, on an item for which we are the owner.

Bottom-line: We (the PM) need not pay ANY attention to action items with an update due beyond today. Put simply, these are for another day…

Performing team reviews

As new items are added to the list, for which we aren’t 100% sure of the timing, priority and ownership, it can be helpful to QUICKLY review these, NOT necessarily for immediate resolution, within the context of our weekly team meetings. In addition, we’ll want to review pre-existing items which have an update due of today or before to get a status update and/or work the item to conclusion.

A key factor in ALL of the above is that we must ensure we are NOT diving deep into ANY topic that doesn’t need immediate attention when other “in-flight” activities require the primary focus of our teammates. Rest assured, since we’ve set “planned attention” (i.e., update due) for all items on the list, we’ll get to each relative to their priority and timing…

Dispositioning items

Upon reviewing items with the team we’ll potentially find it necessary to update some/all of the above information, including setting the status or disposition. The status flags I use include:

  • Open – An item on the list for which no activity has taken place.
  • In process – An item for which work is underway.
  • Hold – An item which may or may not have been started, for which it has been decided that we should keep in a holding pattern, where no (further) work will commence. This may result from the need to monitor a situation to determine if the action is required after-all.
  • Closed – An item which has been completed (e.g., agreed as closed or something that no longer must be addressed), clearly documenting the outcome / decision within the RAIL.

Publishing a week over week count

While the early stages of a project will typically generate more items to add to the list than are being closed out, at some point we (the PM) MUST ensure this trend reverses. That is, there will eventually need to be a point in time when more items are being closed out than added to the list. It is a pivotal point in a project when this is achieved and should be shared with the team as a demonstrable metric of performance.

To monitor this, I share a very simple snapshot which, in the early stage of a project, may show as…

StatusJanuary 20January 27
In process1014
More items were added (above) than closed out; a natural phenomena early in a project.

Later in the project expect to see this trend reverse, with our snapshot showing something like…
StatusMarch 17 March 24
In process1214
Still adding new items to the list, but even more are being closing out.

In summary, the PM must diligently manage the list of things to do, realizing not everything deserves immediate (or sometimes ANY) attention. That said, getting each item on the list provides team visibility ensuring we don’t lose sight of anything and each receives the “appropriate” amount of attention.

If you are looking to improve PM competencies in yourself, or organization, feel free to reach out so that we may chat about how I can help.

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