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Managing tasks as a project manager often feels like chasing the tail of the proverbial dragon. At the heart of good project management is keeping up with change on all fronts.

From goals, tools, and priorities that shift like quicksand, nothing has embodied change more than this past year. 58% of organizations reported the COVID-19 pandemic impacted operations and task management, as well as forced projects into delay or cancellation.

Yet beneath the magnifying glass of maddening uncertainty, other things come into (or out of, if your webcam can’t get it together in Zoom meetings) focus. Not just our task management strategies, but the way we fundamentally look at projects and deliver work.

For a lot of project managers feeling like the rug’s been pulled out from under us, it’s time to go back to basics. No, not a SWOT analysis, I mean you. How do you view your organization, your team?

One of the surprising takeaways from this past year is how few project managers employ systems thinking in their project management tools, despite how they provide measurable benefits in framing and solving problems that arise from multiple perspectives and relationships—like, say, a global pandemic. Current research on managing complex projects suggests project managers would benefit from systems thinking.

Okay, Why Systems Thinking And Why Now?

Because according to the APM, many project managers think deterministically and use task management tools like Gantt charts reflecting that. And, last year highlighted an ongoing surge in searches for new project management methodologies. Since 2017, google searches for Agile methodologies are up 28%.

Many projects DPMs are involved with have a degree of high complexity and high interaction, a concept we’ll cover in more detail shortly, and need a framework to directly address that.

Alright, But Why Does Neuroscience Matter To DPMs?

Good project managers are the executive functioning system of organizations. We’re responsible for a lot—organization, planning, problem-solving, motivation, managing actions and time management. That probably sounds familiar.

illustration of a brain with the prefrontal cortex highlighted and compared to project managers

Project managers function similarly to the prefrontal cortex.

 

Now, apply this to projects and a pattern emerges. Projects themselves are also systems.

The structure of a system uses a sequence of events—a process—to perform the desired function. This is the same as all project management that is built around structures and processes. Here’s where the axis of interaction and complexity I promised comes in.

table comparing systems thinking modes to project management methods

There is plenty of overlap between systems thinking and project management methods.

 

Through the lens of systems thinking, we can compare how projects as systems pair with an equivalent project management system. Simple tasks and projects, defined by a low number of interactions and a low number of components function within a linear or waterfall-style project management system and so on.

A project’s original boundaries change as scope changes. Likewise, systems take input from their environment. Complex projects, characterized by boundaries that change in response to a changing environment like unstable remote work, require management with an understanding of systems thinking.

3 Key Task Management Strategies

Without further ado, let’s deep dive into what managing tasks as a project manager in 2022 could look like, how to make systems thinking work for you as a DPM, and three key task management strategies to hang on to into the next year. We’ll cover:

  • Why you should consider redefining roles
  • Why project planning is still important in 2022
  • How to build a proactive communication plan

1. Defining Roles

Role definition (and redefinition) is a crucial first step to developing your task management strategy. Each of your project team members should have a defined role and responsibility. It’s up to project managers to keep the vision clear. Without clear role definition and prioritization, all task management strategies fall apart.

There’s a reason the word “think tank” describes a precise, coordinated (however controversial it may be) project effort. Successful, structured organizations on some level, mirror the brain.

Think about it for a moment—organizations are well-defined information systems, communication systems, decision-making systems, and more. All these complex systems interconnect their disparate functions to collaborate, forming a constant free-flow of ideas and operations.

A philosopher by the name of Daniel Dennett, who I made the mistake of arguing with twice in my undergraduate philosophy of mind studies, once again explains it better than me: “competing parallel activities can make complementary and competing contributions into a coherent pattern.” Say that three times fast.

To put it simply: multiple ideas working at once can come together into a clear, focused project. Organizations are like brains in that brains are a highly attuned output process of hundreds of systems. The key, however, is to ensure each role is performing a single or focused function. Multitasking tanks productivity by 40%.

Systems Thinking Tool: Decision Matrix

Okay, that was a lot to take in. Defining what requires delegation—and where—begins with decision making. Dwight Eisenhower’s infamous decision matrix is, in fact, none other than an application of systems thinking.

four squares with column labels urgent and not urgent and row labels important and not important. The squares are labelled do, decide, delegate, delete, clockwise from the top left.

Eisenhower’s decision-making matrix.

The classic decision matrix is a simple four quadrant chart designed to take guesswork out of prioritizing. It follows a handy alliteration: do, decide, delegate, delete. These boxes further intersect with a label of either urgent or important and their negative counterparts. “Do” being urgent and important, “delete” being not urgent and not important, and so on.

Our current collective environment feels like a roulette wheel of natural disasters, pandemic fear, and more. Likewise, it’s important to keep in mind how external stress impacts the decision-making process.

Chronic stress biases human decision-making towards habits instead of goals. Adjacent to being adaptable with roles is mitigating workplace stress, which affects decision making.

Key task management strategies going forward into 2022 are those that assist us with decision making and prioritization while keeping the system and environment in mind—and the decision matrix is a great place to start.

2. Developing Project Plans

The next step in tuning your executive functioning as a DPM is goal setting. Stay with me, project plans for complex projects aren’t a waste of time in an agile-centric era.

Effective projects require a project plan. Remember, the point of this is to re-examine and possibly redefine how we develop project plans.

A wise man once said the tree that bends doesn’t break. Instead of moulding the home to fit the work, we need to look at how the work fits the home. Adaptation is the brain’s biggest evolutionary achievement. The more we understand how the brain deals with complex change, the more we learn about managing projects effectively.

Think of your brain and your organization, as your home—perhaps one of your biggest work-related challenges this year. In 1923, Swiss architect Le Corbusier called homes: “a machine for living in.” From the grid of electrification to city architecture and the internet, home is not simply a place. It’s the nexus of human interaction and connection.

Take it from Christopher Bolick, faculty lead in the Northeastern University’s project management program, “you wouldn’t [start] to build a house without having a detailed blueprint showing the contractor how to begin.” Task management that works is all about deconstructing the big deliverables within a project into smaller, manageable tasks. AKA: making a plan.

Well-defined plans and templates are essential to task and time management. One of the key processes in a project plan is evaluating your resource load. Every DPM knows time is the only crucial non-renewable resource you have.

Systems Thinking Tool: Resource Breakdown Structure

You can’t build your literal or figurative house without knowing what you have and what you need. Using a resource breakdown structure is more than a list, it employs systems thinking by examining how resource costs are interrelated.

A good RBS will help you with managing tasks as a project manager by looking at all variables affecting your plan towards each step as they connect. The power of functional perspective granted by RBS is also an excellent complement to an existing WBS.

RBS also requires team collaboration to delegate tasks, streamline workflow and prevent bottlenecks.

Don’t Get Stuck In The Productivity Software Rabbit Hole

Productivity software is certainly a powerful and essential tool for DPMs. Being able to track tasks, project progress, due dates, and more are essential to excel in the current landscape.

From the humble to-do list to more ambitious stuff like OmniFocus, it features a central design principle: automation. Automation is the result of creating a (you guessed it) system that automates and streamlines a series of processes. Offloading executive tasks and employing time tracking frees your most precious resource: time.

Project management software in general is a big subject, and you’ll notice we tend to go back to this well a lot. For good reason! Only 22% of organizations use project management software, but 77% of high-performing projects use project management software. It makes sense for DPMs to be sort of obsessed with the topic.

With more organizations transitioning to permanent hybrid or remote models, things like IoT, communication, and task management software are fundamentally altering the executive functioning of project management. Those that capitalize on this shift will be able to deliver and complete projects faster than those that don’t adapt.

That said, when trying to stay on top of managing tasks as a project manager, it’s easy to get stuck in the bottomless pit of productivity software. I’ll be the first to admit I’m guilty of trying dozens of different programs at once. The best productivity software is the one that works for you. Knowing what you need out of productivity software relies on understanding the scope, roles, and environment of the systems you’re working within.

Basically, you need to know what needs automation in your project and pair it with an equivalent system to do so.

3. Good Communication

We use systems thinking in everyday language without (ironically) thinking about it. “Domino effect,” “circular logic,” and “a downward spiral” all express the main concepts behind systems thinking.

The majority of what we do as DPMs is communicating—it’s 90% of a project manager’s job. We can’t properly delegate roles, plan, or build a good RBS without excellent communication at every level. The first step to drafting your next communication plan should be determining what kind of communication your stakeholders need.

If you take anything away from this, I hope it’s the idea that organizations are not islands. You’ve probably caught on by now to how each aspect of managing tasks as a project manager interconnects. As DPMs, we’re running an information system. Information doesn’t become communication until it’s interpreted.

Everything we do within our organization occurs within a social system. The most important skill for project managers, not just for the coming year, is communication. A full quarter of project managers report that they don’t have access to project communication software.

A key for managing tasks as a project manager in 2022 is shaping a proactive communication environment that works for you.

Systems Thinking Tool: Rich Picture Diagram

When developing your communication plans for complex projects, consider how using rich pictures can improve the way you see them as systems. Rich picture diagrams are free-flowing drawings that illustrate the relationship between multiple elements and factors. Rich pictures help create a mental model that opens communication, opens relations of stakeholders to each other, and provides additional context you may have been missing.

A scenario: the DPM delivers a project for a web launch built according to well-defined requirements—the system satisfies them. On launch, it’s condemned by users. How’d we get here? Likely, by not seeing how the requirements were unrelated to (or are interfering with) what the users actually perform. It’s a breakdown in communication.

Looking visually at dynamics such as communication and processes, as well as structures like resources and framework, helps us see new dependencies and how they all fit together, something that will prove essential for the coming year.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of whether you’re a DPM veteran or just starting out, having good task management strategies is essential to project success. Companies using task management techniques that work spend 28 times less compared to those delivering without any at all.

The Digital Project Manager newsletter is an integrative community at the forefront of innovation in DPM. Connect with other PMs and find more resources by subscribing to the DPM newsletter. Let us know what your projections for managing tasks as a project manager in 2022 are below!

Sarah Rose

About Sarah Rose

Sarah Rose hails from Vancouver, Canada, where she studied Creative Writing and Interdisciplinary Studies at Capilano University. She writes on subjects from women's health to machine ethics to music with a focus on the intersections of tech and culture.

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