January 26, 2016

Project Management: Do You Have a System?

Too many cooks in the kitchen describes a lot of my projects. Collaboration is a vital component to a successful organization but it can sometimes devolve and create headaches. Surely you’ve been there too.

Imagine you’re planning a fundraising event with lots of moving parts. You have an initial meeting to gauge interest, brainstorm ideas, and begin to shape the project. No problem. The issues typically begin in the middle of the project and rise to a frothy foam near the end. Lots of people want to weigh in—some with the mettle to work for a solution and others who prefer armchair quarterbacking. By the final days before the event, everyone has an opinion and suggestions for improvement. And you’re pulling your hair out (or at least I am). 

How do you highlight the good ideas and dismiss the nitpicky ones? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff?

A good project management system can help. These can range from low-tech (a dry-erase board or binder) to high-tech (complicated online systems that require specialized training to comprehend). The one that we use is at the higher end (but not highest!) but it’s easy-to-use and has helped avoid some of the last-minute micromanaging. For about two years, we’ve relied on Basecamp for project management. This works pretty well for us, but there’s a monthly charge, which may not be in the budget for some churches. I don’t have a single recommendation for the perfect project management system that will fit everyone’s needs but I can offer some tips as you begin your research. 
  • I highly recommend an online management system. It can be accessed from home or work or any place with an Internet connection. This is especially important, I think, with volunteers. A physical project management system like a binder or bulletin board has the limitation of being physical—it can’t be widely shared or easily accessed.
  • With an online management system, you want one with the capacity for lots of users. While only a few people will probably establish projects (staff, key lay leaders), lots of people will login and use the system — especially if your projects are big or involve a lot of volunteers. Some project management systems limit the number of people who can participate. 
  • Make sure there’s a good calendar with color-coded deadlines for different projects. This is helpful for the leadership to quickly capture an overall look at all of the projects in process — and it can be narrowed down for individual projects. 
  • The system should be fully integrated with email alerts. That is, the project manager should be able to assign a task or ask a question that will automatically be emailed to the appropriate folks. The system should also track the responses. 
  • Look carefully at pricing. Some are free. Some are good. Those two elements may not always match. Don’t set aside a chunk of money in your budget but if you can find system that seems workable, don’t sweat a few bucks. It can really save a lot of money (and headache) in the end. 
  • Central to the success of any project management system is a commitment from leadership to use it. To really use it. That means that each step in a project is carefully planned and recorded in the system. I know from experience that if you only use the system occasionally, it won’t be helpful.
As you begin your search, a lot of different project management systems offer the first project free. Take advantage of that and explore at least two or three options. Find one that seems to fit and go forth, organized and connected!

Editor's Note: Readers, what project management system would you recommend and why? Please share your recommendations, challenges, or successes in the comment box, below.

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