May 2017

How to Herd Cats: A Briljent Project Manager’s Tale (or Should it be Tail?) about Project Management

By Kasia Forsyth

If you don’t know me, you’re about to get a small taste of my world in this month’s blog. I’m a Briljent Project Manager (PM). It’s not a fancy title; but, it is an interesting, complicated world I live in. This role is the only role I’ve ever held where I have consistently maintained that my number 1 task is to herd cats – maybe not literally, but it sure feels like it some days.

My cats come in a variety of forms because projects are riddled with complexity: contract negotiations, managing communications, resource assignments, changes in scope, managing resources, moving deadlines, contract amendments, changing resources, client delays, reviewing deliverables, juggling projects, shifting priorities, sharing resources, upselling, managing conflict, delivering product, etc. (Those are just the challenges I could think of off the top of my head!)

“Wow! That sounds intense. How do you do it?” you say. “Super powers?” You’re close, if those super powers are organization and communication. In my opinion, those are the two tools I use most frequently from my PM tool belt. And, if you are wondering, it’s not a literal tool belt; but, if it was, think of Wonder Woman. All her powers were in her belt, just like all my best project management “tools of the trade” are in my handy PM tool belt.

Let me tell you about some of those tips that I believe have made me successful as a PM:

1. Create and keep an organized e-mail inbox and folder structure.

This one is number 1 for a reason. I would place this as the biggest contributor to my organizational success. (I know you are having your doubts about me right about now, but just stay with me.) As small as this seems, it is HUGE. Why? It keeps me organized. I can find any e-mail communication I’ve ever received, and I don’t have an inbox with 10,000+ emails to search. In the PM world where there is so much written communication, this is a lifesaver.

Here’s how it works: First, it’s important to note, I use my inbox as my to-do list. If something is still in my inbox, it means I still have an action to take. As soon as I take that action, I file the email away. When I’m ready to file it away, I drag it to the appropriate folder.

My e-mail is structured in folders that I have created. I label folders by client, and then I add sub-folders for each project under each client (assuming I have more than one project with that client). Then, as appropriate, I create a task-level sub-folder under the project folder.

Using this method to clear out my inbox and keep a running (and current) to-do list, I average about 20 to 30 emails in my inbox at any given time. Sounds refreshing, right? It is.

An additional tip that piggybacks on this is that when I’m in a meeting. I take my laptop and type out my notes. Then, I e-mail it to myself and file it away in my folder structure. This allows me to find my meeting notes easily later.

My next tip – drum roll please…

2. Communicate clearly, honestly, even frankly

What’s more difficult than trying to deconstruct what someone is or isn’t saying? Well, I can’t think of anything. Brain surgery, maybe?

Let me be clear. I am not an expert communicator. I’ve never met anyone who is. What I do know is that talking for the sake of talking or adding unnecessary detail will typically result in the point (and their attention) being lost. I attempt – not always with success – to be clear and concise in every communication. So what does that look like for me? Well, for starters, I don’t typically write a book for a simple point. I find that the more someone types, the less interested I am, and I start to skim for the main points. For me, my only real “long” e-mails are internal kickoff e-mails where I attempt to give as much background information as I can so that everyone on the project is getting the full story, history, contacts, deliverables, resource assignments, etc.

What’s one of the best ways to attempt to herd a cat? Well, if there is something important or urgent to discuss, try to pick up the phone first, and then follow it up with an e-mail. Have you ever tried to e-mail something important, and then end up in this back-and-forth battle with miscommunication after misunderstanding after miscommunication? E-mail is a poor excuse for miscommunication when we all have working phones. Better yet, try face-to-face communication. I try not to read in to e-mail, and if I do have an issue, I pick up the phone or meet in person to discuss. E-mails just aren’t the best venue for important topics.

So what about communication that is honest and frank? Well, both can really benefit project relationships (or any relationship, in my opinion). Frank communication is defined as direct, straightforward, or sincere. By honest communication, I mean honorable in intentions. It’s not always easy to do both; but, if you have the right heart and you aren’t beating around the bush, you are more likely to be heard and understood.

3. Create and maintain an organized project documents folder structure

Like the inbox, my folder structure for documents is much the same. It’s organized into folders and sub-folders. I break down the folder structure so that I can easily find what I’m looking for. I can’t tell you how often I have had clients come back to me a year or more after a project has ended and ask for me to resend something we completed on their behalf. Clients know that they can count on us, and that’s important to building the relationship.

In closing this post, if you don’t practice the tips I’ve shared, my hope is that you’ll give one a try and see if it’s for you. And if you already do these things and haven’t learned anything new, I hope this blog was at least entertaining and you feel it’s the cat’s meow. Now, strap on your gold tool belt, get out your lassos, and try to herd some of those cats!

Warning: No cats were harmed in the creation of this blog.

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