Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Aztec Calendar Conundrum: organization and project management

As time becomes more and more limited and things to do multiply, I am looking for good ways to organize my days and projects and keep everything straight. I am starting to understand why PI's tend to ask the dreaded question "What am I looking at?". The student thinks their project is all important, but the PI has too much on her/his minds to remember exactly which experiment you are doing and want help on.

What to do when your calendar looks more like an Aztec one?
During the past year, I have tested a few different time and project management sites and here is what I found. This is in no way a comprehensive analysis, but just the results of hours of googling and trying.

I used HiTask for 6 months and liked it a lot. It's a calendar, task manager and project manager all in one. You have a calendar where you can schedule events (talks, meetings, etc) and plan experiments. You have task manager where you can list everything you need to do and assign specific tasks to projects. And finally you have a project manager where you can invite your lab members and assign tasks to them directly. The calendar is nice and handy and the task manager is very straightforward (though not very organized once tasks are completed). You can assign priority levels, star specific tasks and keep track of a lot of different things.

Example from the HiTask website
Unfortunately, HiTask forbids me to use the site now because I have reached the maximum number of free tasks. There was no prior information on whether there was a limit to the free account and even if I went back and cancelled my tasks from 6-months before, it still didn't allow me to use it. This really annoyed me! To keep using the site I have to pay $8/month. If it was just me, I would have considered it because it's a very well designed site, but I think it's not worth it for the whole lab: $8/month for 5-10 people would be $480-960 a year and you'd have to remember to cancel whenever someone leaves or for temporary students. However, I would definitely recommend it for personal organization.


After HiTask, I went back online and I found Asana. After co-founder Dustin Moskowitz left Facebook, he created Asana, a project management platform to provide "a single version of the truth about what everyone is doing" (see more on Bloomberg BusinessWeek here).  Like the yoga pose it is named after, Asana may not be straightforward right away: it needs concentration and thinking on how and why you want to use needs practice. But man, it is powerful and beautiful and completely customizable, and you can plan your entire life on it! And everyone else's life for that matter. And it is free for groups with less than 30 members.

The intro videos are very useful and in fact necessary, because you'd have no idea what to do without them. The help team is also very responsive. There are many ways to run Asana and organize your workspace: public and private. I split my workspace in Lab space and a personal space which is not accessible to others. In the Lab space I have pages for individual projects where each project is mapped out: I set headings for different parts of the project (Intracellular signaling, Learning and memory) and then use each task for a question that requires one large experiment each, e.g. Does my protein of interest regulate AKT signaling? Within each task you can set subtasks with specific due dates (Transfect cells, Drug treatment, Run Western) and keep adding them as many times as you need to repeat the experiment until the question is answered. You can then assign whole tasks or just subtasks to specific people, and lab members can plan their own work or expand on the assignment as they wish or assign tasks to you.
In addition of the individual project pages where you can generate an overview of what needs to be done, you then have your own task page where every task can be listed day by day independently of project so that you actually know how much you have to do. The organization of this page still needs some work, I think, since the sorting can be awkward and there is no calendar view to remind you of scheduled meetings and seminars. However, sorting my tasks for the day on Asana has become a routine by now. The only drawback is that it is not super user friendly and you would actually have to take the time to train people to use it.


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      1. Plan your day using time management techniques

      As a project manager, time management skills are essential because you are dealing with a wide range of tasks that demand a quick turnaround time. Planning your day will go a long way in keeping you organized and increasing your productivity. Assist your task planning by using project management software which helps you track the work of you and your team.

      If you are not very tech savvy, a simple to-do list can also be a great organizational tool. Prioritize your most important tasks by putting them at the top of the list and less important ones at the bottom. Having a visual plan of your daily tasks helps to keep you on track and aware of time.

      Related post: Free ebook 104 secrets to become a great project manager

      2. Include stakeholders in important project conversations

      While you will have plenty of responsibilities regarding the project, don’t neglect your clients.

      Good communication is essential is keeping both parties informed of project progression, curtailing scope creep, and apprised of changing requirements. Some clients may have different expectations when it comes to communication, so make sure to establish the frequency and type of communication (like emails, phone calls, and face-to-face conversations) at the beginning of your project.

      Establishing communication expectations early helps alleviate stakeholder uncertainty about communication frequency and delivery.

      3. Regularly communicate with your team

      Daily team communication helps keep misunderstandings and unclear requirements under control. Keeping your team informed in every step of the project is essential to project management success.

      For example, a study published by Procedia Technology found that good communication skills were the cornerstone of project management. The study examined over 300 “construction project managers, architects, construction managers, engineers and quantity surveyors” and their successes and failures on various construction projects.

      4. Anticipate project setbacks

      Even the best-laid plans often go awry.

      Remember that even with a high amount of planning and attention to detail, your project may still encounter some challenges. Pay attention to complaints from stakeholders or colleagues, and other warning signs, like a missed deadline or cost overrun, that there may be a problem.

      Preventing a crisis will keep your project running smoothly, save you a lot of time, and keep you, your team, and your stakeholders confident in progressing with the project.

      Unfortunately not every complication can be avoided. Crisis management skills are essential for dealing with the unexpected. Project managers need to be flexible and pragmatic. Improvise and make sharp decisions when needed.

      Related post: 92 free project management templates

      5. Stay focused on the details

      A common problem project managers encounter is having the project aims not aligned with the organization’s objectives. A great project manager will strategize a plan for the project to lead back to the overall success of the business.

      Know your project’s scope by heart and avoid wandering outside of the project’s requirements. It’s too easy to get lost in minor details and forget what your focus is, so a well-planned project scope is essential for success.

      And final, you should use KPI to measure effectiveness of the project, here are full list: 76 project management KPIs

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