Stop Using Your Task Manager as a Project Manager

OK - I’ve made a career as a project manager, and I’ve found this discussion interesting. For what they’re worth, here are my thoughts.

“Project” means different things in different circumstances - me building a bookcase is a project; me with.a team of 40 rebuilding systems and processes for finance, HR and payroll for a university is also a project. It’s pretty obvious that one wouldn’t use the same tool for both and there’s no need to spend much time explaining why. So it seems to me that the debate is much more about bookcases than finance systems and processes so that’s the direction I’ll take. Feel free to disagree.

The point’s been made (most recently be @Leo) that for many small projects, full-blown project management tools are overkill, and I think that’s true (aside: I wish people would stop assuming that “full-blown project management” equals “Gantt chart”. Gantt are very helpful in visualising, viewing, presenting a set of interconnect tasks and dependencies; they, in my long and varied experience, a lot less useful in actually planning and managing projects. But I digress). The question becomes how to decide when a task manager is OK and when something more is needed. More on that later.

The other (than choice of tool) major factor is personal working style. When organising themselves for a project, some people like to work down from a high level view of the overall goal and shape and then deriving a task list; others like to start by getting a list of known tasks down and fitting them into a pattern. And so on. One picks the tool to fit one’s needs. If I’m building a bookcase, I’ll probably go bottom up - decide number of shelves, measure, buy wood and fixings, cut and shape wood, assemble, finish. I can do all that in a task manager and I see no good reason why I shoudn’t. It’s easy and accessible and works.

If I’m planning a major project I’ll go the other way - define the goals, identify resources, major constraints (time, people, money etc), major dependencies and risks, draft a high level plan and refine recursively until there’s something actionable. I can’t do that in a task manager. I’ll generally use mind mapping at the first stage and then expand nodes of the map using notes applications. Only at the final stage (something actionable) will I use “project management” software.

Out of my actionable plan come sets of tasks. I’ll manage my own in a task manager, because now I’m running a task list, as is everyone else on the project. Periodically, we reconcile the status of our tasks lists with the overall status and needs of the project. We don’t combine the two (aside: I don’t want automatic integration between tasks lists and project data. I know many people do, but my own experience is that (a) people find themselves working around the integration, either because ti doesn’t work well or because they’re deliberately trying to fudge the data and (b) there’s no substitute for the critical intellectual process of actually looking at where you are and what you have to do.).

So - my conclusion is:

Use a task manager when you know the overall shape, goal, structure of your project, whether that’s in your head (bookcase) or written somewhere in a plan.
Use something else when you don’t.

That turned out longer than I intended.


Spot on. I’ll reinforce the “planning” aspect of Project Management that upfront and monitored during the execution of the project is cost (spent but more importantly “togo”), schedule with forecasts Vs baseline, quality, and risk (both positive and negative uncertain events) management.

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This is an excellent post.

With a bookshelf, you know exactly what the project it going in. You can get right to work knowing what you need to do. You need wood for shelves, tools, fasteners, varnish or paint. Put 'em all together, it’s a bookshelf.

With more complex projects, you don’t even know what the project is. You know you have a problem that needs to be solved. You may not even have a clear sense what the problem is. The accounting department seems to be taking too long generating quarterly reports. The solution is … new leadership? New hires? New business processes? New software? If it’s new software, do you build it or buy it? If you buy it, from whom–and is there benefit to customizing it?

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Indeed. Basecamp has a nice tool for visualizing that kind of project. I suppose you could mimic it with tags in a task manager, but not nearly as powerfully or simply.

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Very true. The core of successful projects (IMO) is a clear view of the desired outcome - if you don’t have it, how on earth do you know when your project is done?. Getting to that can take a lot of work and time in the first place. More important, to me, is that it can change over the life of the project - external factors, internal constraints and project challenges can all mean that what you wanted/needed when you started isn’t what you want/need by the time you finish. Keeping that changing dynamic in view throughout is something that a task manager can’t help with - and even many “project management” tools can’t. For example, a Gantt chart can show you how far our diverging from what you were trying to do, but not how far you’re diverging from your outcome.

The purpose of any of these tools is to organise information for you to be able to make decisions. If the tool doesn’t contain the information, it can’t help. In any case, none of them are a substitute for your own time and attention.


Here is an app that gives you a kanban style view into your Things database.

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I’ve been thinking about this issue a lot lately.

It is particularly challenging in pure “thought” “projects.”

For instance, I have to push my various research streams forward. There’s really no definitive finish line, nor are there even well-defined objectives or outcomes along the way.

Those things are all really post-hoc phenomena: after I hit upon an insight, I know what the project is. But managing the pre-insight process is really the hard part.

I’ve begun thinking about this in terms of asking and answering questions. Instead of projects and programs, I have streams of these questions and answers, roughly in a Data-Information-Knowledge-Wisdom hierarchy.

I haven’t systematized this at all yet. Still, the realization that the majority of my “real” work doesn’t fit well within project management paradigms has been freeing.


Related: one of the key GTD realizations I’ve had recently is that you really only need one next action for any given project.

Trying to map out more than one next action might not even fit with David Allen’s natural planning model. This is particularly true in volatile/uncertain/complex/ambiguous projects (like those this thread is veering towards emphasizing).

Do your task/project management efforts ever feel like moving deck chairs around the Titanic? I think that happens when we go too far in “project management.” The only task that matters is trying to turn the ship (and maybe launching life boats, radioing for SOS…). You don’t need to plan what happens after that. Maybe well-laid plans would help if all goes well, but they won’t matter if you spend so much time planning that you forget to dodge the iceberg.

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The best plan for the Titanic involves NOT hitting the iceberg in the first case.

This seems like the start of a profound metaphor. It needs work. :slight_smile: