When setting up a project plan people ask me, should I rather plan longer tasks which include lots of items or one task per item? Just having 5 bigger tasks which run over months is tempting as it means that you will have a very simple and clear project schedule. But there is a risk in this approach that can kill your project management and cost your business money. But don’t worry, I will give you a third way that works.
How long tasks kill your ability to manage your project
Using long tasks is tempting, that’s agreed. You don’t have to go into the details and let your team members decide how to get everything done on time. They can do the planning for themselves and report back to you, if their respective task is finished 30%, 40% or 80%. Easy to do and less hassle for you. No need to dive into the details.
Why using long tasks does not work
Humans are not made for working on lengthy huge tasks. Look at yourself. You wanted to work on this important presentation since weeks, didn’t you? And it’s still not even started. But that’s no problem, you can put in some all-nighters and get it done for next Monday, right? That’s because your job is at stake and you are a motivated guy, but that’s not true for everybody in your team. Let’s face it, long, tedious and difficult tasks tend to not get done until it’s 5 minutes to midnight which is a recipe for a sloppy job but not for excellence.
Why long tasks cannot be managed
Even if your team works a seemingly regular pace on this long task, it’s virtually impossible to know If you will hit the milestone. Why? Because reporting a task 80% done means nothing! Imagine you compete in a 100 m sprint and 20 m before the finish line you start relaxing because the task is 80% done. You’ll never win any race, won’t you? As I said before: “There is done or not done, there is no almost done!”
How micro scheduling will kill motivation and efficiency
Now, you could just jump in the opposite direction and go for “OK, so let’s use super short tasks of a day or 2”. If long tasks don’t work, short tasks should solve the problem. Nope, because they create other problems.
How using short tasks will kill your efficiency
If you go for scheduling every short task in your Gantt chart, you will end up spending days moving tasks around and with no obvious gain in clarity or control. Let’s take an example. You decided to meet your customer to discuss the spec is one task that you scheduled on 5th of October. With some classic finish to start scheduling of other tasks behind. Now as your customer calls you on the 01st to postpone the meeting to the 10th you start rescheduling everything without the chance to compensate this small delay within the scheduled task. Lots of work for having seemingly more control. But that control isn’t real, as the next task may be slightly shorter or longer and once again your schedule will move around. It just doesn’t make sense to try to control the uncontrollable.
How using short tasks will kill your team’s motivation
It is a fact, the more you micromanage, e.g. check every short task if it is done, how much time it took and try to maintain the exact pace at a micro level, the less your team will like it. People dislike being treated like children. “Paul, did you brush your teeth. Marie, have you finished your homework?” You didn’t like this when you were young, so why should you when you get older?
Something else happens when you micromanage. People will become lazy. They work on autopilot because why should they use their head if the boss does the thinking for them. Why should they do quality work, if the boss controls everything they do? You surely do not want to nurture this kind of attitude!
To keep people motivated and let them grow you need to relax and slacken the reins. Let them make their errors, let them suffer from them and let them repair them. You will see an astonishing performance increase just by stepping back and letting them work. But don’t confound this with a “laissez faire” management style. Your task is to ask questions, provide mentoring and guidance and help them grow so that they will develop their full potential.
How to define your ideal task length?
Now that we have discussed why using long tasks is no good idea and micro tasking does not work either, what would be the right task length?
First, we need to investigate the needs of the project and of your business.
- The task length should correlate with the total duration of the project.
A long project (e.g. a year or longer) can accept task durations of some months, whereas a shorter project calls for shorter tasks. A good indicator is 10 to 25 % of your project duration. If your project runs for a year, tasks should not be longer than 3 months.
- Tasks should never extend beyond a major project review. If you have a review on 5th of April all tasks going on before should be finished by that date. How do you ever want to get a project status, without the results of all relevant tasks! Remember, there is only Done or not Done.
- Mission critical tasks, e.g. the ones that can kill the project or even your business, should be planned shorter. Depending on the risk you are willing to accept you might want to cut the task length from rule one by half. Just in case you need to pull the trigger on the project or get involved personally you need to know this asap.
Ok, now that we have defined the ideal task length, how do we manage all these small duties which are part of the main task, without micromanaging the team. That’s where KANBAN gets into play.
Kanban and burndown charts will solve your problem
You might know KANBAN from production or even project management, if not, Wikipedia® is your friend, as I won’t get into details here.
It’s the time to get your team heavily involved. For each task, let your specialists draw a to-do list of sub-tasks in order to get everything done. The list should then be sorted by order.
Then, each item on the list gets a person assigned to it and this person decides on how many hours this will take. Every task should be doable within one week. If the estimation is longer, the item needs to be dissected. If you feel a task takes too much time, discuss. Perhaps there are assumptions on either side that falsify the estimate.
When you have your complete list, you add the hours and you have the starting point of your burndown chart for this task. The landing point is the one where the task should be finished following your project planning.
Simply put, a burndown chart is a graphic representation of all the hours on the vertical axis and the time on the horizontal axis. As time goes by and you execute the tasks you plot the remaining hours to work over the timeline.
How to manage with burn-down charts
Now comes the juicy part. Your team will work on the tasks in the to-do list from top to bottom. As soon as someone finishes one item of the to-do-list they check it off and your burn-down chart will develop all by itself and you can see at any moment if you are on track, early or late for your provisional finish date.
That means, you have full control, but without actually controlling each and every step.
When you see deviations, you can check in with your team where this comes from and take appropriate measures to counter the deviation if necessary.
You don’t need difficult tools to do this, a spreadsheet and some formulas will do the trick.
In this article, I have shown you how to keep control of your project plan and the tasks, without overloading yourself or frustrating your team. It’s easy, by choosing the appropriate task length and leave the micromanagement to each team member while keeping everything under control with a burndown chart.
Now it’s up to you. As a first step, why not answering the following questions and testing to adapt your approach for better results for your business and your teams:
- How often are the project plans redone? Is the task length too short or too long? Do I micromanage or not control enough?
- Would longer tasks and burndown charts solve the problems with micromanagement and control?
- How can I apply this to make my project management more efficient and gain clarity?
Do you have any questions? Just put your question in the comments and I’ll answer it right here.