Project Management Guide

Best Practices

Handling Tasks

As you have seen throughout this guide, there are many considerations to make when putting together tasks for a team. If you create tasks without first coming up with set of best practices, your project can quickly fall apart.

Before you start any project, decide on what the rules for task creation are going to be. When coming up with a set of best practices, you want to make sure your rules are:

  • Simple to understand
  • Simple to implement
  • Take as little time away from work as possible

There are a few common ways to do this.

The Project Manager registers all tasks

Depending on the size of your teams and how they work together, it may be easiest to leave all task creation up to the Project Manager, since they have the greatest perspective of the project from every angle.

If this rule works for your projects, there are many advantages.

  • It allows the other members to focus on their tasks. Under this rule, there is a clear distinction between the person who creates and assigns tasks and the people who handle the tasks. While this allows each side to focus on their specific role, team members will have few opportunities to interact with tasks they're not in charge of and may have difficulties understanding situations outside of their own corner of the project.
  • Each task is consistent. What you often find with multiple task creators is that each develops their own “style” that can at times contradict others. When there is a single task creator, you can guarantee that tasks will be created consistently.
  • The Project Manager is fully aware of every piece of the project. Sometimes, team members can slip in extra tasks without the Project Manager noticing. While their intentions are usually pure, this can easily lead to wasted efforts if the tasks aren't properly vetted in light of the project objectives. When the Project Manager registers all tasks, they get a reliable sense of the scope and status of the entire project.

The biggest disadvantage to this method is the burden that gets concentrated on the Project Manager. If the responsibility becomes overwhelming or too much to handle for one person, delays can directly impact the progress of the project in a negative way. This is when making tasks as simple to create as possible becomes especially important.

Each member registers tasks

Using this rule, all members are given the ability to register, and therefore manage, tasks in a project. This rule makes every team member act like their own lower-level manager.

This rule comes with its own set of advantages as well.

  • Rapid cooperation becomes easier. Because each team member can freely register tasks and assign them to other team members, your teams are empowered to self-organize. This makes cooperation a more fundamental part of your team's day-to-day work.
  • The Project Manager has more time for other priorities. It's easy for Project Managers to get tied down in task creation and management if they're the only one's responsible for it. If your teams are able to add and manage tasks in a productive way, your workload lightens, and you can take on more high-level management responsibilities.
  • Overlooked tasks are quickly added. Even the most organized Project Managers will neglect to add minor aspects of a task into their project management tool. When every project member is able to add/edit tasks, they can help pick up any overlooked work and put it into the system, notifying you of its creation.

The biggest drawback to this method is the inevitable lack of consistency you'll find across tasks. Try as you might, some members of your teams will pay strict attention to detail and others simply won't. You can work with the ones who struggle, but when you have groups of people entering in tasks, you're likely going to see a wide variety of ways people organize their thoughts about a given task.

Pro Tip: Set expectations for your team.

If you choose this method, try to write out a set of guidelines for creating tasks that you share with your teams and regularly remind them to follow.

Wiki

Document important information

Over time, your teams will accumulate a lot of knowledge about your projects. And unfortunately, people come and people go. We've all been in a position before where one individual held a crucial piece of information, but that person had left the company.

If you sort important information into formal documentation, it will protect your projects against these kinds of problems.

Using the Wiki function in Backlog, you and your teams can collaboratively document and organize crucial information.

Pro Tip: Don't skimp on the detail.

Use Wikis to document even minor information that wouldn't make it into serious documentation. What might seem like a silly detail to one team member can mean hours of confusion and extra work for the rest of a team should that person leave.

Make an onboarding document for new team members

One useful Wiki to incorporate into every project is an onboarding document.

A new team member will obviously be less familiar with the project than someone already working on it and require time to ramp up. Until that person catches up with everyone else, they won't be able to do their best work.

You can make it easier for new people to join your project by putting together something they can read over when they join, including basic information about the project, progress so far, and any preparation they'll need before they can begin working.

Pro Tip: Keep things up-to-date.

Revise the content of your onboarding docs frequently. Especially with tech-related projects, introductory information tends to become outdated quickly. Revise this document any time you expect a new member to join.

Encourage active editing of your Wiki

The most common problem teams run into with Wikis is the relatively small number of team members who actually contribute to them. When those people leave a project, the Wiki stagnates.

How can you ensure that all members of your teams regularly edit the Wiki?

  • Don't worry about the appearance of the text. The more time-consuming you make editing, the less motivated people will be to contribute. As a rule of thumb: Wiki's don't have to be “pretty.” What's important about a Wiki is the information contained in it.
  • Don't worry about whether the information is necessary or not. The value of a piece of information is entirely up to the recipient. If you split your Wiki into easily skimmable pages, even a large volume of information won't be overwhelming. Team members can feel free to add all kinds of information, without worrying whether it's “necessary” or not.
  • Don't worry about whether it's okay to edit or not. Wikis keep a record of prior edits, so you can always restore one to its previous state if necessary. Worry more about the information getting old than making a mistake in your edits.

Pro Tip: Notifications can act as reminders.

Backlog's Wiki feature can send notifications about updates. If you use this functionality, you can subtly encourage people to continue to edit and revise the Wiki.

Flow vs stock

It's good to have as much information as possible posted on a project's Wiki. But it's even better if you can quickly determine what information belongs in a Wiki and what information should be posted elsewhere.

Using the principles of "flow" and "stock," you can determine whether information is appropriate for your Wiki, helping you keep even the most robust Wiki organized and focused.

“Flow” is any information that is time-sensitive.

Flow information has its highest value at the moment of its creation. As time passess and the project progresses, its value drops.

Examples of flow information would be:

  • Minutes from meetings
  • Messages between team members
  • Notices to users
  • Diagrams of progress

Flow is the pieces of your project in action. You can use this information to track progress and revisit important decisions, so it's still important.

However, because this type of information becomes quickly outdated, it's usually better suited for the comments section of a related task rather than your Wiki.

When you're unsure, ask yourself this: Is this information only relevant to the progress of this particular task or will others need it later? If you answered the former, put it in the comments section of that task.

“Stock” is information that is less likely to change throughout your project.

Stock is basically the information that results from your flow. This kind of information will continue to have value through the end of the project.

Examples of stock information would be:

  • Manuals
  • Specifications
  • Designs

Your Wiki is an excellent place to record your stock. Keeping your stock updated regularly as your flow work is completed will help each team stay up-to-date and on the same page.

Pro Tip: Pay attention to date stamps.

For both flow and stock, it's important to note the date that information was created. Your Wiki will automatically attach date stamps when information is added and updated. You can also see exactly which part of the Wiki was changed.

If you're wondering whether a piece of information is still relevant, trying checking its date stamp. If it's something you think has probably changed since that date, encourage the team member in charge of that info to verify that it's still correct, or update it if it's changed.

Communicating with your teams

We've talked about a lot of the logistics of project management, but there is a key element to every Project Manager's success that is equally, if not more important, to ensuring successful collaboration: your communication skills.

Communication Skills

Creating a culture where team members readily bring up issues, contribute actively to all parts of the project, and help each other out when in need all starts with your communication skills as a manager.

Communication comes down to your ability to:

  • Communicate the project's requirements clearly
  • Explain complex concepts concisely
  • Actively listen to your team's input
  • Respond appropriately to feedback
  • Empathize with those around you
  • Overcome barriers to communication

When communicating with your teams, there are a few rules you should always follow.

> Explain why

Understanding why you're working on something is important for motivation.People don't necessarily need a reason to work, but they're more likely to care about what they're doing and think critically about how their work affects the rest of the project if they have one. Context plays a dual role in communication: it motivates and informs.

> Listen

Your role as a Project Manager is not just to tell others what to do and why; it's also to listen to what your teams need and respond. That's not to say that you have to accept every suggestion or request your team members make. It simply means that if you do refuse something, that you explain why and how it will negatively impact the project.

If you can't explain your decisions, your teams likely won't respect them.

> Treat your team members as individuals

Never forget: your team members aren't robots; they're human beings. Each one has their own personality and work preferences. If you treat everyone exactly the same way, we can guarantee that you won't get the same response from each.

Being a good manager isn't about establishing a singular management style that your team members have to adapt to. It's about using various management styles to adapt to your teams.

Figure out who works well independently, who prefers to collaborate, who's a morning person, who's more on top of their game in the afternoon, who likes feedback given to them straight, and who prefers messages delivered with some sensitivity.

You're going to run into an endless variety of people. Get used to getting to know and adapting to them.

> Don't depend on your PM tool for everything

Project management tools are convenient, but if you rely on them completely for communication, you're going to lose out on some of the benefits of real human connection. Some of the best ideas and most creative solutions arise during informal meetings and face-to-face interactions.

Chat applications can also help keep conversations going throughout the day, even outside meetings and tasks. Again, these more organic flows of communication can spawn great ideas and solutions.

Keep your teams talking if you want to keep them collaborating.

> Barriers to communication

There are seven main barriers to communication:

Communication is complex, and mastering it as a skill that requires years of practice—and still no one is ever perfect. Get to know the most common reasons for communication breakdowns, and how to address them.

> Red flags

As a manager, one of the biggest red flags to watch out for is when your team members stop trying to talk to you.

You may have personally experienced a situation in which you stopped talking to your own superior because they always seemed too busy, in a bad mood, or never provided any real solutions or guidance.

Your teams cannot sustain a culture where team members readily share important information and collaborate to find solutions amongst themselves if that tone is not set from the top down.

If your team members speak with you easily and willingly, chances are you're doing a great job setting a positive example for effective communication.

> Delivering negative feedback

As a manager, you'll inevitably have to deliver negative feedback about a team member's work, methods, or results. How you frame this kind of information can make all the difference.

When communicating difficult feedback:

  • Be clear about what you are asking for. When someone isn't meeting your expectations, it means that there is a gap in awareness between what you're expecting and what the other party intends to deliver. Unifying your understanding of the situation will help you find out where that gap exists and how it came about.
  • Explain why they need to do things differently. People often don't respond well to strict demands without understanding the reasoning behind what they're doing and why they're doing it that way. Instead of simply pointing out what's unsatisfying about their work, explain why it's important they do things differently and how it effects the project overall. This will make it easier for them to accept the feedback and more likely to change their ways.

Communicating via text

One fact to be aware of when depending heavily on text based communication is how people interpret words differently when they read them vs when they hear them.

Text can't communicate tone, emphasis, or sarcasm. People can quickly get defensive because of a harshly emphasized period.

You have to take a slightly different approach to communication over text than you do with face-to-face communication, otherwise your commenting sections and chat rooms could start to get a bit chilly.

Using emojis

Emojis aren't necessarily appropriate for external email exchanges, but internally, they should be welcomed as a way to keep the mood light. Emojis naturally set a less formal tone, and they can help people understand how a piece of text was intended to be read.

As a manager, using emojis can help make others more comfortable communicating with you and in front of you. When you make internal communication easy and free-flowing, the project benefits.

Clarity

We underestimate how much our facial expressions and gestures—the nonverbal aspects of communication—can add to a face-to-face conversation. When you can't depend on a smile or a casual shrug to demonstrate that what you're saying should be taken lightly, it's all too easy for people to take messages much more seriously than they were ever intended to be delivered.

Think twice before you hit send on any message. Try re-reading it in a different tone in your head or imagine how it might be misinterpreted. Often times in text, we have to put things a bit softer to make up for those nonverbal queues we can't include in our message.

Above all, it's important that you are clear. Ambiguity can leave your recipient spinning their wheels trying to figure out whether they're in trouble or were just given a kindly piece of feedback.

Conclusion

With the skills you've learned throughout this guide, you're ready to take your project management career to new heights.

Now it's time to choose your project management software, establish a workflow that's right for your team, and start creating projects that matter.

Return back to this guide anytime you need a refresher or want to introduce someone new to the trade.

Happy project managing!