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April 16, 2009 117 comments so far

GTD and Project Management?

Can David Allan's "Getting Things Done" also provide benefits for "classical" day-to-day project management? My opinion is yes, but not all concepts apply and some might have to be slightly adjusted. Let me explain how I applied some of David's concepts in order to improve project management and leadership at Onepoint.

Personal task management and project management have much in common. In both disciplines you need to keep track of activities that either you or someone else is going to have to do. I think the two major differences between task and project management are that (1) as a project manager, you hopefully will not have to do most of the tasks yourself ;-) and (2) unless you apply a pure agile PM approach, you will have more scheduled activities than unscheduled tasks.

Even if you are planning quite agile (as we do) and you have customer and PR commitments (e.g., a communicated release date) you need at least a high-level schedule with phases and milestones. In order to improve the support for this kind of scenario where you have a scheduled upper layer of the project plan and an unscheduled lower layer, we have recently added a feature we call "actions".

These actions can be seen as small GTD-style next action lists that are each related to a scheduled activity. While each activity can be handily subdivided into individual actions to be completed by the assigned project contributors, only the activity above these actions carries the overhead of classical project management (mainly rescheduling and time tracking). We use these next action lists also together with milestones in order to check of important deliverables.

We have seen that this combination of classical PM and agile/GTD (at least for us) brings together the best of two worlds: we have minimal project administration overhead while having a high level of control in terms of resources, costs and an up-to-date schedule. To be fair, the original idea for these actions came from one of our customers, Amazone. We simply integrated the actions more closely with GTD aspects. If you are interested in how they use them I suggest you visit us at the FOCUS PROJEKTMANAGEMENT TOOLS & LOESUNGEN event in Wuerzburg on May 5 & 6.

Another concept that we wanted to bring into project management was the "waiting for" list. Using our PM software (Onepoint Project), a project manager can easily get a view of all open tasks she is waiting for in a given time frame. In order to also support classical task management needs these lists can be narrowed down on project and time frames using simple pop-up-style filters. You can even filter on basis of activity categories that could be used in similar ways as contexts/categories in GTD (although we do not use them in this context). This way a project manager can prepare for the weekly project status meeting more quickly.

We also wanted to bring in a concept that is key to David's approach: write everything down that is on your mind - in order to free your mind and stay in control at the same time. Actually, I did this already before starting to work with GTD, but since I use GTD myself I also started to "see" that for my employees the benefits of this concept were not so obvious ;-). Therefore, I made "Getting Things Done" a must-read book and we are clearly seeing improvements in this area. Much more is getting written down, much less is being forgotten and much more happens on time - a very important development and one that I intend to develop even further during the next months.

Of course we also added support for this concept in our software and these are our activity comments: Every activity can have any number of comments. Comments can be created by all project contributors that are assigned to the activity and are shown in the order they were added. This way we get a sort of "micro discussion group" on the activity-level that helps us to document very small changes with minimal effort that otherwise would probably have been forgotten.

Finally, I believe that you can take ideas from David's weekly review process for making your project status meetings more productive. We succeeded in doing this by focusing on our waiting for lists as well as reviewing activities and next actions on a one-by-one basis. Of course we also go beyond that, e.g., by checking our milestone trend analysis and discussing open issues. A work week is no productive work week without our half hour jour fixe-style project status meeting... :-)