Plan, Don’t Panic

As a professional project manager, I pride myself on mobilizing a team, creating a detailed plan, identifying issues and risks, eliminating blockers, and launching a successful product or service. Completing a project on time and within budget is a great source of pride. I’ve successfully managed scores of projects during my corporate career, and continually seek to enhance my skills.

In my personal life, however, I would often find myself racing through the grocery store 45 minutes prior to my dinner guests’ arrival, frantically searching for the ingredients necessary to whip up a dessert I thought would be a crowd pleaser. Often, in desperation I would settle for a boxed cake from the bakery department.

Or wasting a Saturday morning at the paint store trying to decide between colors and finishes for the living room, and in exasperation grabbing something that was somewhat close to my ideal color, just so I could finish painting by Sunday evening. By Tuesday I would regret my decision and close my eyes each time I passed through that room.

I noticed that in the middle of these panicky situations, I could not think very clearly and was prone to poor judgment and mistakes. Negative self-talk would consume me for days afterward.

It was time to unite my two worlds.

To avoid the cycle of panic and despair, I adopted several Agile project management practices from my professional life and applied them to my personal life. This shift from panic to planning has served me well, and I believe it can serve you as well.

Adopt these 5 simple practices and enjoy a smooth journey toward your goal.

1.  Determine Your Destination
Define the objective or the deliverable you desire as a result of your project. Make it specific so that you will know when you have successfully completed the project. Two key questions to ask yourself are: “What is my definition of done?” and “What is my definition of success?” Keep it short, specific, and time bound (assign a deadline). Write this on a Post-it® Note and place it on a white board, wall, table top or window, easily visible to your project team.

2.  Roll Out Your Map
Studies have shown that 65% of us identify as visual learners, with our retention maximized when we see information graphically, rather than reading text or listening. An excellent visual aid for managing your personal projects is a Task Board. In its simplest form, a Task Board is a table with 3 columns (To Do, In Progress, and Done) to capture all the tasks within your project. Label 3 Post-its® with these column headers and place them from left to right on your work surface, under your project goal Post-it®.

3.  Plot Your Course
Now that you have the structure of your Task Board established, it is time to brainstorm! A fun and efficient way to do this is to use Post-its® to capture the tasks required to complete your project. Don’t worry about identifying tasks in any particular order. Simply brainstorm and write each task on its own Post-it® and place it anywhere on your work surface.

When you have captured as many tasks as possible, place each Post-it® under the To Do column of your Task Board. If you have already started or completed some of these tasks, move their respective Post-its® to the appropriate column. Take a second pass and arrange the remaining Post-its® in the To Do and In Progress columns based on their due dates — placing those due sooner toward the top of the column.

You may also use colored Post-its® to distinguish tasks assigned to various teammates or belonging to a particular project phase.

If you find the Post-it® approach too low tech, you can use a Task Board application; choose one that is compatible with your mobile device(s) and cloud-based so you and your teammates can easily access the plan.  My personal favorite is Trello.

Congratulations, you now have a graphical representation of your project and its current status!

4.  Pull Over and Check In
On your journey you should pause and check with your teammates as to the health of your project and if anything is impeding the team from reaching its destination. A key practice in Agile project management is the Daily Stand Up or Daily Scrum, a short (15-30 minute) meeting to review the Task Board and identify any issues that are blocking tasks from moving toward completion.

You may find that during the Daily Stand Up your team identifies new tasks — simply add the tasks to the To Do column, and assign an owner and due date. If a task requires reassignment or a revised due date, adjust its Post-it® as needed.

5.  Course Correct
As you apply these practices to your personal projects, it is important to adjust and adapt them to your specific needs. Known as a Retrospective, this process can be accomplished in as little as 15 minutes and provides valuable feedback to make you and your team more successful. You can conduct a Retrospective at any time; for a several months-long project, you may do this at each milestone, or for a short project perhaps weekly.

Retrospective findings may be very simple such as “Conduct our Daily Stand Ups at 9:00 a.m. rather than 3:00 p.m.” or “Use colored Post-it® notes to distinguish project phases” or wider ranging such as “Break tasks down further and assign more realistic estimates.” Many resources for how to conduct a Retrospective can be found online.

Follow these 5 simple steps to gain control over your personal projects, and you will benefit from a sense of calm and accomplishment.

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