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.
In this article
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.
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.
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.
Related Read: We’ve Got The Power: How DPMs Influence Ways Of Working
3 Key Task Management Strategies
Without further ado, let’s deep dive into what managing tasks as a project manager in 2023 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 2023
- 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.
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 2023 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.
Ever heard of self-managing teams? If you're wondering what that could mean for you, check this out: Project Teams Without Project Managers: Exploring The PM Dilemma (with Julia Ryzhkova from Railsware)
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.
Related Read: What Is Project Management Software Used For?
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 2023 is shaping a proactive communication environment that works for you.
A good way to stay communicated is by getting your team members to create content whether it’s about their specialization, the work culture, or the kind of ideas they have for your organization. Find out how you can make content creation part of your culture, here.
Check This Out: Workshop: Don’t Just Manage Your Team, Manage Your Client
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.
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.
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