When I talk about productivity I am not just talking about doing as much as possible, or automating wherever you can. Productivity comes in many forms, and so can be enhanced in many ways.
Some people equate productivity to yield, return, output, value or speed – they think of it in terms of quantity. Others may take a different view and see it in more esoteric terms: usefulness, better, smoother, less disruptive, easier – in other words, in terms of quality.
Pretty much anything that you do or are involved with can be optimised for productivity. If you removed the quantitive and qualitative labels you may well end up with a definition of productivity as simply ‘doing the best job possible’ while refraining from stating exactly what ‘best’ is. This gives you a good universal benchmark:
Were we productive? We did the very best we could – we achieved the best outcome – yes, we were productive.
Optimising the performance of your project? Surely that’s just project management, right? Well, not really…
First off: What is a project?
I define a project as a job made up of several tasks that cannot be executed and completed in just a single action. Projects have a start and an end. Non-projects (I’ll call them tasks in this instance) are either done or not done, but there is no intermediate state – you start it and work it until it is finished. A project has several steps to it, and can potentially be put down and picked up again part way through as the end of an individual task is accomplished. To draw a housework analogy: the ironing is a task, while the laundry could be seen as a project with several tasks involved: sorting, washing, drying, ironing, folding and putting away.
Even in the humblest of situations, whether on our own or part of a larger team, we all come across times when we are faced with a project that we want or need to work through. As a matter of course it is important that the project is correctly executed, and that the desired results are achieved. But how to ensure this? What many of us don’t realise is that without even thinking about it our brains attempt to take a structured approach to the project at hand. This is all well and good I hear you say, why do anything more?
If we give that process some conscious front-of-the-mind attention we can optimise the natural process. This will lead us to bigger and better things: maximising our performance, and boosting productivity, in both quantitive and qualitative terms.
What is this process? It can be broken down into 8 phases:
These are eight behaviours that take place during the lifetime of the project. These are not distinct activities though, rather a progressive thought journey from beginning to end. If you were to represent this process in a time-line where each phase is represented by a different colour, the ‘flow’ may look a little like the lower bar in this representation:
By having an awareness of this progression we can give ourselves a nudge whenever we realise that we have reached a mental impasse. We can use this framework to set ourselves on the right track from the beginning, and to keep on it as the project develops.
Here are the kinds of things that take place during each of these 8 behavioural phases:
This is the starting point of your project. It is a time of mental postulation, testing out ideas, internal brainstorming, imagining what you may need to do, when, how and why, and what results you could achieve.
Having mentally planted the seed of your project you now need to hone in on specifics. Formalise all the thoughts, gather information, discard the flim-flam and zero in on the reality. You should have a clear vision of your desired outcome now.
This will help your project to emerge from the ethereal and become tangible. At this point you will actually decide what needs to be done, when it needs to be done by, how it is to be done. You will be deciding what tools you need for the job, what skills are required – and how much time, money and other resources will be wanted. By the end of this phase you will have a clear timetable for the ‘doing’ stages of your project. You will understand the correlation between different tasks and have a realisation of the impact of any one task not being completed on time or to the required standard.
This is a part of the process that is often forgotten, overlooked or disregarded. But having planned out your project you will now be able to determine what knowledge gaps you may have, and what you personally need to do to bring your part in the project up to the desired skill level.
Depending on what your actual project is, it may be that certain tasks can or should be either delegated or contracted. Delegate if your time is better served doing something that others can’t. Contract if you don’t have this skill, but others do, and they will do it better, quicker and more efficiently than you would even if you took the time to learn how to. Now is the time to distribute the tasks among the do-ers, setting benchmarks and deadlines for each. Ensure that everyone understands the knock on effect that would follow if they do not deliver on time, or to the required level.
Having got this far into your project, now is the actual time for doing it! Any colleagues will have their briefs and you can turn your attention to the part of the project that rests on your shoulders. Of course, you may have no other role than to manage the project – but this is not a license to take a break! If your job is purely ‘Project Management’ then this is what you must do – by keeping in touch with those who are actually doing it. Be receptive to issues as they occur, and respond as quickly as you can to prevent delaying the process. Monitor progress, remind and encourage. Ensure you are aware of what is actually happening at any given time. If you are a Project Manager – the buck stops with you!
The project has been ‘done’ – the end point has been reached, all actions are completed, the deadline has passed, the end product is produced. Is it time to take a break yet? Sorry… but you are now in a position to step back from the melee and mentally review what has taken place. How do you feel about the outcome? Are you pleased or disappointed? Was it a ‘good’ project, or did it feel like it could have gone better? Your gut is a good indicator when it comes to weighing up success or failure, and you should take note of your instincts in the aftermath of the period of activity, before the hard factual results are in. By tuning in to this you will be better equipped to understand the tangible outcomes when they are revealed, and learn how you may need to amend your approach next time.
In reality this is the true end of the project. It does not matter what you have done, or that you did it at all – what truly matters is the results that your project achieved. This may be statistical, such as response rates; or tangible, such as shipping numbers; it may be as simple as an acceptance or decline of your product; or it may be an award, recognition or some other factor entirely. The simplest questions to be answered are:
Did it achieve what it set out to achieve?
Why did it achieve success or failure, or whatever degree in-between?
What can you take forward from this?
Having reached this final conclusion, you are now – well and truly – at the end of your project. If you can say that you have consciously worked through all of these phases, then regardless of outcome you can confidently say that you have achieved a productive project.