5 Old-School Project Management Practices to Update Right Now
By Shelbi Gomez, Senior Communications Manager at Workfront
Project management best practices have been quietly serving us well for more than a century, beginning with Henry Gantt’s famous chart and Henri Fayol’s five management functions. And while the foundational principles remain perfectly sound, are such old-school practices still as effective as they could be in the world of modern work?
The answer, obviously, is no. Especially when you consider, as Alex Shootman points out in his book Done Right, that we create as much new information every two days as was created between the dawn of civilization and the year 2003. If you don’t find that statistic mind boggling, you should read it again.
The way we work today is staggeringly different from the way we worked even 20 years ago. After all, the smartphone has only been around since 2007. And the changes around us are only accelerating. Amid so much disruption, is your team relying on old-school project management approaches—or are you fully embracing the advantages offered by holistic work management solutions?
Here are five subtle areas where many of today’s teams are unknowingly stuck in the past, despite the availability of vastly superior technology. Are any of these holding your team back? Or will you follow the lead of regional medical staffing company CHG Healthcare and take some bold, new steps into the future?
Old School: Trust Your Gut
At CHG, putting people first is a core value, which makes sense for a company dedicated to delivering medical care to rural areas in the Western United States. Due to this focus, CHG’s marketing and tech teams often measured a project’s success by how employees felt about how it had gone, even after establishing a formal project management team and standards three years ago. After all, when you’re building project plans in Microsoft Excel and executing through Jira, it takes a significant amount of manual effort to parse the data and paint a picture of how smoothly projects are sailing along. So you go with your gut. This view was so fashionable before recent technology improvements that nearly 20 years ago PMI (Project Management Institute) devoted 4,000 words on intuition in a conference paper.
New School: Trust the Data
When CHG appointed a project leader to search out and replace the existing system, the primary goal was to improve workflow and processes and streamline them across the creative and web development teams. “I quickly realized we needed to do more than replace one creative system. We needed to better connect work across different teams while planning for future projects,” remembers Amy Pett, director of marketing project management.
What they needed was a system of record for work. They needed to move beyond project management and into the world of modern work management. They landed on Workfront and now have a digital platform that adds qualitative data to the soft information employees regularly provided. “We used to gauge success by how people felt about their work, which is still very important,” Pett says, “but Workfront has given us the data to back it up.”
However, as Shootman argues, machine learning, the advent of artificial intelligence, and the aggregation of data doesn’t guarantee leaders will make better decisions. And it never will. There’s just too much data to wrangle, and opportunities can whiz by as we wait for enough information to make a move. “Get comfortable with making decisions with less than 100 percent certainty,” he says. “The leaders who win will be those courageous enough to make decisions without waiting for all possible information.”
Old School: "Hey, Do Me a Favor"
According to PMI, “resource management issues continue to be the number one challenge to organizations that practice project management.” Common issues include inadequate resource forecasting, conflicting priorities, and a lack of information on what resources are available. When faced with these challenges, it’s human nature to take the path of least resistance. We start circumventing the system. We make work requests by email, IM, or Slack. We drop by a colleague’s desk with a, “Hey, can you do me a favor?” In other words, we often neglect best practices to our own detriment.
New School: Fill Out a Smart Form
Because work management considers more than just formalized projects, it does a better job of accounting for ad-hoc requests, one-and-done assignments, ongoing responsibilities, cross-functional initiatives, and all of the other daily tasks that characterize modern knowledge work. (Our most recent State of Work survey says we devote just 40% of our time to our primary tasks—which is quite often defined as project work.) Particularly in the area of request management, a system of record for work simplifies resource planning and resource scheduling, maximizes efficiency, and bolsters morale.
And here’s what that looks like in practice: CHG has automated nearly half-a-dozen creative request forms in Workfront. Now based on question responses, the system applies the right template and assigns the work to the right employees automatically. The result? CHG has significantly reduced the number of side favors marketers have done for colleagues that they talked to or emailed privately.
Old School: Ask Employees How Busy They Are
Traditional project management practices depend upon up-front planning, forecasting, and open and ongoing dialogue to determine who’s overloaded and who has additional capacity. There are no easy means of monitoring how the work is progressing on the ground. So the verbal or email check-in is often the tool of choice. “How’s that project coming along? Do you have any room on your plate for anything else? How does the rest of your month look?”
New School: Lean on Utilization Data
Work management, on the other hand, offers real-time, reliable utilization data that can help uncover engagement and success issues by recognizing workload capacity imbalances faster. And it’s not just about identifying problem employees who are failing to pull their weight.
“One project manager was so efficient, we would have never known that she was over capacity if we didn’t have Workfront,” says Pett. “Her pace was unsustainable and she would have burned out, but because we were able to shift some of her workload in time, she is happier. She now contributes in other significant ways as well because she has the capacity to add value and she appreciates that the company responded to her need for better balance.”
Old School: The Agile Whiteboard
I’ll admit it. I’m a sucker for a good, old-fashioned whiteboard and a colorful array of Expo markers. (There’s nothing like the smell of dry-erase fumes in the morning.) And whiteboards do have their uses, even in the high-tech office where I work. But when it comes to Agile project management, the whiteboard has serious limitations, especially given the continuing rise of dispersed and remote teams. A burndown chart that exists only in whiteboard form can only be accessed from one physical location, unless someone points a streaming webcam at it, like the infamous Trojan Room coffee pot, which is a real thing someone did in 1991.
New School: Interactive Digital Storyboards
As CHG discovered with their Agile web development team, modern work management tools further streamline and automate Agile practices, providing a real-time window into work status and progress. “We manage all of the scrum ceremonies—sprint planning, daily standups, the backlog prioritization or grooming, storyboarding, estimating, iteration review, retrospective—through Workfront,” Pett says.
CHG product managers use Workfront to set up each sprint, populate sprints with tasks, select team capacity and focus, set sprint timeframes, and color-code tasks—no Expo markers required (unfortunately). Burndown charts display and measure a team’s sprint progress in real time, providing projected completion dates based on pace. Interactive storyboards show work moving from “in planning” to “in progress” to “awaiting approval” to “complete,” while displaying the number of tasks and hours completed as tasks progress. And it can all be accessed at any time, from anywhere.
Old School: "Hello, Peter. What’s Happening?"
In the classic 1990s comedy Office Space, the droning manager Bill Lumbergh stops by software developer Peter Gibbons’ desk ad nauseam to check on Peter’s work progress. Back then, direct questioning or personal observation were about all we had to go on when we wanted to determine how work was moving along. The same goes for today, unless we have access to the automations available in modern work management software.
New School: Real-Time Dashboards and Reports
At CHG, project managers and marketers now easily view and track existing work, what is planned, and what has recently been completed in a centralized space. Instant access to important project details and deadlines help the fast-moving teams stay focused. Where a report used to consist of nothing more than a list of jobs in progress, now CHG has more detail, including rank pending and job preservation.
“Managers and requestors have the freedom to go into Workfront, see a project request, make an update, ask a question, and update or view task status,” says Pett. “Before, they’d have to hunt somebody down to find out what was happening.” (Suspenders and company-logo-festooned coffee cup optional.)
Work Management Beats Project Management
The underlying principles of project management are sound. They’re essential. They have successfully helped thousands of companies complete millions of projects over the past 100+ years. But if you’re putting those principles into action manually, without the benefit of today’s holistic work-management solutions and all of the automation they provide, you’re missing out in a big way. Take it from Amy Pett, an expert project manager with years of experience in the field:
“Having an operational system of record has enabled us to successfully transition from taking orders to becoming a strategic planning partner. For lifelong project managers like me, Workfront is a huge and exciting change.”