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Project Management Guide

A Step-by-Step Guide to Task Management

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:

  • Create a task
  • Set requirements
  • Group work into tasks
  • Assign tasks to your teams
  • Set and adjust due dates
  • Track progress and overcome obstacles
  • Set milestones
  • Check in with your teams
  • Update tasks

What is a task?

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.

What is task management?

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.

Task management tools

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.

Investing in your process

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.

  • Unlike a whiteboard with sticky notes, project management software keeps a living archive of every task completed, including a record of conversations and decisions that took place surrounding each task with features like commenting sections.
  • Unlike excel spreadsheets, the information in software is always up-to-date and easily accessible to your entire dev and leadership teams. There are never five different versions of a product plan floating around in various people's emails. There is one up-to-date version always accessible by all.
  • Project management software is also useful for automating the process of tracking progress and presenting that progress visually with features like Gantt Charts and Burndown Charts. They allow for easy searching and filtering of tasks and projects. And if you find yourself frequently updating the details or parameters of your tasks, these tools can save you a lot of time avoiding any back and forth to communicate these changes to multiple people at once.

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.

Creating Tasks

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.

Be specific

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.

> Imagine yourself trying to perform a task

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 advantages of specificity

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.

Set requirements

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.

> Why you should list requirements

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.

Determine an ideal size

The size of a task can depend on:

  • The amount of labor required
  • The level of difficulty
  • The length of time it takes to complete

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.

> Aim for evenly sized 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. ¬Ω 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:

  • Forecast time estimates for your entire project, even when changes are made
  • Divide work fairly amongst your team members
  • Track the overall volume of work currently underway

> Choose how to size your tasks

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:

  • The scale of your project
  • The skills your team members possess
  • The type of industry you are in
  • Your team's individual preferences

Pro Tip: Think about how your team feels about their work.

Aside from the logistical advantages to grouping your tasks into ¬Ω 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.

Assigning Tasks

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.

Choosing an assignee

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.

> What if there are several people working on a single task?

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.

  • Creating subtasks. If you create subtasks that make up a larger task, you can assign individual parts to different team members while still keeping each part under the larger branch of the parent task. This creates clear responsibility and accountability for each piece of the task while sticking to the single assignee rule.
  • Designating a supervisor to the task. Alternatively, you can assign the task based on which team member has the most involvement in or oversight of the work. The member you assign as the supervisor will then manage both the additional team members involved and the task itself.
  • Alternating supervisors. You can also create a rotational system for assigning tasks where the task supervisor changes as the task progresses. Think of it as a relay race style of task management. Each assignee hands off the baton to the next when their part is complete.

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 a due date

Setting due dates for every task is crucial for driving progress forward.

A task without a deadline will never end.

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.

Deadlines ensure people don't over-work a task.

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.

Tracking Progress

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.

Overdue tasks

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:

  • The task may be larger or more complicated than you originally thought
  • Other parts of the project that precede the task may be holding up its completion
  • A team member may have too much work on their plate due to an illness or other absence

When you've spotted a task that has gone overdue, follow these steps:

  • Check in with the assignee for a detailed update
  • Together, come up with a plan of action for completing the task as soon as possible
  • See if there are other team members you can pull in to help speed up the completion of the task
  • Explore simpler means of meeting the basic requirements of the task as quickly as possible, leaving the more complex details for later on in the project
  • If the task impacts other work that is scheduled to be done, adjust those deadlines accordingly

In progress tasks

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.

Upcoming tasks

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:

  • Are there any future tasks that now look unnecessary?
  • Is there any work that needs to be added to fully meet the project's objectives?

Milestones

Establishing milestones

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.

Using Milestones to adjust tasks

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.

Sustaining motivation

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.

Prevent overlooking incomplete tasks

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.

Check-ins

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).

Stand-up meetings

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:

  • What they accomplished yesterday
  • What they're working on today
  • What, if any, roadblocks stand in their way.

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.

Other check-ins

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.

Communication culture

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.

Updating Tasks

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).

What kind of tasks need updating?

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:

  • Tasks whose due dates have passed. We've already discussed this, but tasks whose due dates have already passed are your top priority for updating. If the task isn't complete, set a new due date. When you do this, you will also have to update the deadlines of other tasks and adjust the overall schedule of the project.
  • Tasks with unsuitable assignees. Many tasks will require different assignees as they proceed. If the current assignee is no longer suited to the situation, switch to a more appropriate team member.
  • Tasks with ambiguous details. As hard as we try to avoid it, sometimes it's necessary to create tasks without much detail to them because it's simply not available yet. Fill in those details as they become available.
  • Tasks without due dates. Similar to the point above, there will be exceptions where you do have to create a task without a due date. Again, it's your job to fill in those details as soon as they become available.
  • Tasks team members neglect to mark complete. As you manage your project, you'll sometimes find that open tasks you thought were incomplete are in fact done. This problem usually stems from a lack of commitment by a team or individual team member to keep all task information up to date. What may seem tedious or time-wasting to them is obviously invaluable to you and the success of your project. Be proactive about closing tasks as soon as they're complete, so a culture of keeping things up-to-date takes root across the board.

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.

When to update

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.

Update tasks:

  • When problems arise. Whenever a problem arises, you'll likely need to update the information within a task to account for the solution you come to. This may mean changing one of the parameters or the content of the work to be done.
  • When you update other tasks.Whenever you update one task, always look to any related tasks that might also need updating in light of whatever changes are made. If you change an assignee, deadline, or other feature of a task, it will likely have an impact on other tasks handled by that team member.

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.