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Project management approach

My project management approach boils down to two things: making lists and keeping an eye on deadlines. Some might like to wrap this up into fancy sounding business-speak but that’s all there really is to it. I prefer keeping things simple and that extends to managing projects.

Before starting off on my freelance career, I worked at CMG plc., then a FTSE 100 Index consulting company that focused on industries like telecommunications and the public sector. We took a traditional and structured approach to project management and CMG Commander, our in-house quality system which included a Waterfall project management model, was a big deal within the company. Being heavily influenced by the corporate world, it was natural to apply a similar Big Design Up Front style to my freelance projects. This approach quickly proved to be too clunky so I turned to Agile, specifically Scrum and Kanban, which seemed better suited to the faster pace of web agency work.

A simplified version of Scrum and Kanban

Though more flexible than the traditional approach, much of the formal Scrum and Kanban methodologies are unnecessary for my projects. Many of my clients and collaborators are non-technical business owners; they mostly don’t care to learn about Agile nor have the time to get up to speed with the terminology. My solution is to use the Scrum and Kanban processes as a framework, cherry-picking the important parts and simplifying the language. Hence, the focus on lists and deadlines which everyone can easily understand.

At the beginning of the project, I compile a set of lists containing all the things that need to be done. The level of detail depends on the project. These make up the ‘Product backlog’ in Scrum but to the client, I just refer to them as lists. The lists are divided into easily digestible phases with deadlines (‘Sprint backlogs’ and ‘Sprints’) so that the client gets some sense of the timelines. Phases last a number of weeks but the exact duration is driven by the pace at which the client prefers to move. Often I will use Kanban-style boards to help team members visualise how the project is progressing.

And that’s it. We work through the project, ticking off list items or adding new ones to the rough schedule agreed between the client and development team. Strict adherents of Agile methodologies may disapprove but formal daily Scrums, Sprint reviews and retrospectives, burn-down charts, set Work in Progress limits and regular cadence meetings typically found in Scrum or Kanban projects aren’t normally needed.

Getting things done with GTD

David Allen’s Getting Things Done time-management method, or GTD, strongly influences the way I handle day-to-day life tasks, perhaps because of how it formalises my natural working style. It also blends well with a simplified Kanban project management approach.

GTD has five steps:

  1. Capture: Everything that has my attention goes into a master list. For a number of years, this used to be a Moleskine Reporter notebook, then it was Cultured Code’s Things task manager. These days I use the Obsidian note-taking app.
  2. Clarify: I process the master list at appropriate periods throughout the day, actioning, delegating, or deferring as needed.
  3. Organise: During processing, items that can’t be handled right away go into other lists or spawn new ones. They’re prioritised and if necessary, tagged with a deadline. These other lists may be in notebooks, whiteboards, calendars, online collaboration tools or Post-Its. The important thing is that they’re stored somewhere appropriate and can be actioned at some point. Project related items are moved into their relevant product backlog.
  4. Reflect: Every so-often, I’ll go through my various lists to review and clean up the items. This is when the more structured project planning happens: work breakdown, phase and deliverables planning, amending the relevant Gantt charts, refining costings and the like. When done together with team-members, the Reflect stage acts like an informal Sprint review and retrospective.
  5. Engage: Under GTD, this is where you actually do stuff.

As you can see when you superimpose my simplified methology with GTD, the different stages align well.

Scrum Product Backlog Sprint Backlog Sprint Product / Review / Retrospective
GTD Capture / Clarify Organise Engage Reflect

Things get done

Despite being a lightweight hybrid methodology, you can get lots of things get done through this process. I’ve successfully used it on projects ranging from small website builds, to running a private security agency and managing a family beach resort. It works because creating order from chaos doesn’t need esoteric terminology or faddish philosophies. You just have to be diligent with keeping track of what needs to be done, when it needs to be done and adjusting what you do based on the changing circumstances. Of course, this methodology may not turn out a successful space shuttle or suspension bridge but it works just fine for many of the every-day projects freelancers encounter. Oftentimes, ‘just fine’ is exactly what you need to get the job done.