Regardless of which methodology you ascribe to as a Project Manager, there’s one thing in common with most: thinking about what needs to be done in terms of individual tasks.
In this section of the guide, you’ll learn to manage tasks, including how to:
First, we need to be clear about what a “task” is. In this guide, we will think of a task as a unit of work necessary to achieve a project’s objective.
For example, in web development, you’ll see common tasks like "code new homepage layout" and "fix sign-up form bug."
Apart from describing the content of the work, tasks define parameters such as who’s working on the task and what the due date is for completion.
Note: Depending on the scale of your project and teams, you may need to establish further parameters such as milestones, start dates, and compatibility.
However, keep in mind that the more parameters you add, the more complex the act of adding a task becomes for you and your team.
A good rule of thumb is to only give a task as many parameters as is absolutely necessary.
You can think of a single task as a project on the smallest possible scale. For that reason, managing individual tasks resembles managing a small project.
As we’ve established earlier in this guide, project management is the act of creating and maintaining an environment in which an objective can be achieved according to a plan.
Similar to how you’re managing the project as a whole, for each task, you’ll be responsible for ensuring that objectives and requirements are clear, appropriate changes are made when necessary, and problems are solved swiftly.
Managing tasks can be as simple or complex as your project dictates. Some teams get by with tools as basic as sticky notes on a white board. Others use excel sheets. And others invest in project management software.
When you begin to manage tasks for your teams, there will be a number of tools available for this purpose. It’s up to you to choose the medium that’s right for you and your teams.
While many teams initially avoid project management software and apps due to cost or fear of lost productivity while adapting to a new system, there are major advantages to consider before dismissing the use of technology to help manage your projects.
Note: We will go into more detail about using one of these tools, Backlog, later in this guide. The cloud-based app offers a free trial, so you can easily follow along if you are interested.
The first step in task management is to create tasks. This might sound simple enough, but there are a number of important things to consider that will help set your teams up for more efficient collaboration.
With every task, describe what needs to be done as specifically as possible. If you assign ambiguous tasks, you run the risk of your team members interpreting the work in different ways.
For example, when running a project to develop an e-Commerce site, you might create a task to "build a login screen." However, this task could refer to any number of steps necessary to creating a login screen for a website. Is this task referring to designing the actual layout, building the web page, implementing the functionality, or something else?
When a situation like this occurs, it may be several weeks before anyone realizes that your site does not have a functioning login.
One way to avoid mistakes like this is to imagine performing the task yourself. If you were to read a task titled “create a login screen,” and then imagine physically going through each step, you would find that you'd need to make a login web page, think of the design, and add login functionality to the server. Really, this task has three separate requirements that need to be met before the task can be considered complete.
You can either be super detailed in your task description by including something like a checklist for your developer to follow, or you can split these parts up into separate tasks or subtasks.
Pro Tip: Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
If you’re unfamiliar with a specific task, ask an experienced member of the associated team. Asking questions is an important part of being a Project Manager, and you should never shy away from getting clarity around something you’re unfamiliar with out of fear of looking inexperienced or unknowledgeable.
The process of thinking about tasks in more detail helps you discover potential problems that can get overlooked when thinking in vague terms.
You also make the job of your teams much easier. They can spend their time completing the work rather than deciphering ambiguous instructions or asking questions.
Details also help your teams act as a second pair of eyes for spotting potential problems down the road. The more they know about the work being done, the more help they can be to you in return.
Above all, making work precise means each team member is able to complete their allotted tasks without confusion.
Requirements let your teams know exactly what conditions need to be met for a task to be considered done.
If you’re specific enough in your task description, you may already cover the requirements of that task.
However, always be sure to double check that each task lists exactly what completion looks like. There can be one requirement or several depending on the relative complexity of the task.
When you set completion requirements, anyone can quickly look to see whether the job is done or not. This will help you avoid situations where your team members assume a job is done that actually isn’t totally complete.
The size of a task can depend on:
You can measure the size of a task based on any of these components, but there are certain advantages to paying attention to time, which we’ll go over.
Consider the following when sizing up your tasks.
Obviously, it will be impossible to make your tasks completely even from all perspectives, so it’s best to choose one form of measurement, and use that to dictate the size of your tasks.
If you choose the length of time required to complete a task, you’ll need to split all of your tasks into similarly sized time periods (e.g. ½ a day or 1 day’s worth of work.) To do this, you will need to split oversized tasks into smaller pieces and group smaller tasks into batches.
Dividing tasks into equal amounts of work by time makes it easier to:
As with most recommendations we make in this guide, it will be up to you to decide what the best way of dividing your tasks up is.
There’s no “correct” size for tasks, but here are a few considerations to think about before making your decision:
Pro Tip: Think about how your team feels about their work.
Aside from the logistical advantages to grouping your tasks into ½ day or 1 day chunks, there’s also a psychological advantage.
When you make tasks that are achievable in a half a day or a day, your team members are able to check off at least one task per workday, giving them a sense of accomplishment each and every day they walk out of the office.
By setting an assignee to every task, you attach clear responsibility to every piece of work within your project.
Assigning every task is also important for transparency. Without an assignee, you—the Project Manager—might know the status of the task or perhaps a few members of one team, but other team members, teams, and stakeholders will not easily be able to tell the status of an unassigned task which compromises their ability to understand the progress of the project as a whole.
Pro Tip: Focus on what matters.
You can set a number of parameters for tasks, but the assignee and due date are the most important. As a rule of thumb, unless you have significant reason not to, always set an assignee and due date for every task.
The assignee of a task acts as the point person for the work being done. Should someone have a question about that work, they should feel confident in turning to the assignee for answers.
When thinking of who would be best for a task, it’s important to get to know your team’s strengths, weaknesses, and skills. Over time, you’ll learn which types of tasks are done best by which team members, and your projects will run more efficiently.
Pro Tip: Don’t leave anything unassigned.
If there is no appropriate person to assign a task yet, or you are the only person fully aware of every aspect of the task, assign it to yourself—even if it’s just temporarily.
There may be projects where tasks require two or more team members to collaborate. It’s still best to select one assignee who will act as the supervisor to that task.
When multiple people are assigned to the same task, one of two mistakes can easily happen: multiple people do some of the same work or multiple people neglect a piece of the same work.
When collaborating on single tasks, there are a few ways to ensure proper collaboration and communication.
Pro Tip: Distribute tasks fairly, and play to your team’s strengths.
You’ll want to ensure that each member of your teams have realistic and fair workloads. Additionally, if you assign tasks based on people’s strengths and interests, you’ll inspire more engagement and productivity.
Setting due dates for every task is crucial for driving progress forward.
Without clear deadlines and priorities, it’s easy for tasks to sit around untouched or partially finished forever. Setting due dates is about creating a clear path to your project’s success. Not to mention that without them, you can’t accurately forecast delivery dates, spot bottlenecks, or resolve issues quickly.
For your teams, deadlines are also an important motivational tool. They help people prioritize their work and coordinate with others.
When you have an especially meticulous team member, they often spend an unnecessary amount of time correcting minor issues. This extra time often has little impact on the end product but can have significant impact on your overall project schedule.
There are certain types of tasks that tend to get workers caught up in details. With these kinds of tasks, use deadlines to limit this behavior.
Recommend to your team members that they work hard on improving quality until the due date and then decisively move on to the next task once that deadline comes.
In order to track changes over time, you need to have a solid foundation of the conditions of work at all points along the project timeline. This requires continuous monitoring and adjustments to changes in conditions.
Highest on your priority list of tasks to attend to are ones whose deadlines have passed.
A task can become overdue because of a number of reasons. A few examples would be:
When you’ve spotted a task that has gone overdue, follow these steps:
Keep an eye on tasks actively in progress, so you can address issues as they arise, rather than waiting until after they’ve missed their deadline.
Check in with your teams daily to see how their work is going. Find out if they are running into any roadblocks or difficulties, and ask if they think they will be able to finish in time.
If you find out that one of your teams are starting to doubt their ability to finish a task on time, get to brainstorming solutions. Find out what you can do to remove roadblocks or provide more resources to that team.
Note: Many workplaces attempt to use percentages as a way of tracking progress; however, there are actually very few types of tasks for which a percentage is an accurate reflection of progress.
As a result, this completion percentage becomes a meaningless parameter whose only significance is the effort wasted on calculating it from one day to the next.
Rather than trying to calculate an inaccurate percentage, simply focus on whether your teams will finish each task by the due date or not.
It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on your project’s horizon. As you work through overdue and in progress tasks, they will inevitably affect what’s to come.
The more informed you are about what’s next in the project plan, the better you will be at assessing potential conflicts in the future.
As the conditions surrounding your project change day-to-day, ask yourself:
In the field of project management, we use the term “milestone” to refer to major checkpoints throughout a project. It could mark the end of a project phase, the completion of a new version, or some other important culmination of tasks.
Breaking your projects up into milestones helps everyone understand the meaning behind certain groups of tasks. And they’re a great tool for communicating a high-level summary of where you’re at in a project, especially to outsiders or superiors who may not be as familiar with the day-to-day workings of the project.
For example, many design teams follow certain phases (like Discovery, Definition, Design, Development, Deployment). These could be turned into milestones that help both your teams and leadership better understand where the project is at without having to decipher hundreds of tasks.
Fun Fact: The word “milestone” comes from the rocks or signs posted at fixed intervals on a trail to mark off distance.
Milestones make progress easier to understand by providing context to everyone’s work. Using this context, you can more easily adjust the due dates and details of tasks to reflect important milestones.
One more benefit to milestones is psychological. Milestones create small moments of accomplishment within the grander scheme of the project.
People often become less motivated over time, especially if they feel they are working on the same things day in and day out. When you divide work up into milestones, you help distinguish work through different phases of the project and emphasize progress.
Milestones mark turning points in projects and serve as estimates of the conclusion of phases. When you know what milestone you have achieved, you also know what tasks you've completed.
Use milestones as key moments for reviewing the state of all your tasks to determine which tasks have not been completed, which ones have but were never updated properly, and which can’t be completed in line with the milestone.
This will give you a good gauge of areas of your project management that you need to work on. Perhaps you need to update your tasks more often. Or maybe you underestimated how long certain tasks would take. Find takeaways from each milestone that you can apply to the next phase of your project to improve your skills.
Deciding how frequently to check on everyone's progress can be tricky. On the one hand, staying up-to-date more frequently allows you to respond to problems faster. On the other, you’re taking time away from yourself and your teams every time you ask for an update.
Pro Tip: Reduce check-ins with project management tools.
Tools like Backlog allow you the the advantage of getting an updated view of your projects in real-time as tasks are completed (as long as your teams are diligent about closing completed work, that is).
One technique that has become popular in recent years is the Daily Stand-up Meeting.
This meeting takes place each morning for about 15 minutes. It’s a highly-focused status meeting that engages a team.
Each member provides updates on three things:
It's important to keep these meetings as short and concise as possible. If any problems come to light that cannot be resolved within the 15-minute meeting limit, wait to address them until after the meeting. Set aside time with the relevant team members involved in the problem, and work out solutions then. Don’t waste the time of the entire team for tasks that only pertain to a few.
With the daily stand-up, you can be sure that you’re responding to problems each and every day, and that no longer than 24 hours ever passes before you’ve been made aware of an issue and begun to address it.
The frequency and form of your check-ins will vary depending on your teams. For example, if one team's work is highly predictable, you may not need to check up on their progress more than once a day. Conversely, if another team has a lot of new or inexperienced people, you’ll likely want to talk to them more frequently about how things are going.
Your culture will also affect how you interact with your teams. If you’ve built a strong culture around sharing information as soon as problems arise, you may not need to check in outside of your daily stand-ups. However, if certain teams tend to delay raising issues unless directly asked for an update, you’ll likely need to check in more and strictly enforce your Daily Stand-ups.
Project Managers sometimes underestimate the importance of creating an atmosphere in which team members can freely bring up problems. When team members discuss mistakes openly and collaborate together to fix problems, it makes a Project Manager's job much easier.
If a problem does arise, you’ll need to revise the associated task.
For example, if a task gets delayed, you may need to ask another team member to step in and help, rethink a simpler way to accomplish the task itself, or, if all else fails, extend the deadline for it.
These changes must be considered in light of the rest of the project to ensure that changes to one task don’t mess up the conditions necessary for future tasks to be completed properly.
There may also be cases in which you need to set up a new task. If you need to add a new task, and that task affects the long-term schedule of the project, you'll have to consider whether to revise the overall schedule or add members to your team (if possible).
Tasks are never set in stone. They’re organic; they change, they evolve, and sometimes they become irrelevant.
As project conditions change, tasks will become outdated unless you attend to them regularly. Here are the tasks to look out for:
Pro Tip: Keep morale high.
Incomplete, unassigned, or abandoned tasks aren’t good for the morale of teams. It’s much easier to see progress and feel a sense of accomplishment when all tasks are accounted for.
It gets more complicated to update your arsenal of tasks the longer you put it off. But it's impossible (and probably pretty boring) to try to pay round-the-clock attention to updating tasks. It’s easier if you establish guidelines concerning the timing of updating tasks.
Follow these simple guidelines, and you’ll be sure that your project tasks change and adapt together, avoiding future conflict and confusion for your teams.