List Tasks

In this series of posts, I share what I’m learning as I make my way through Project Management Simplified, a course with management consultant, Chris Croft.

Step 2 of Croft’s The Twelve Steps to Manage a Project Successfully is to list the tasks associated with the project. David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, defines a project as any outcome that takes more than one step to accomplish. But Croft lists examples such as “hire manager” or “purchase furniture” that certainly take more than one step. Really, he is talking about sub-projects.

Croft reviews three ways to list these sub-projects: right brain, left brain, and someone else’s brain.

  1. Right Brain: Host a brainstorm party with your team. Set up an environment where people are explicitly encouraged to come up with lots of zany ideas. Aim for quantity over quality.
  2. Left Brain: Take the relevant ideas and put them into an tree-diagram known as a work breakdown structure (WBS). For example if the project is a conference, your categories might be participant recruitment, presenters, site, etc. You can start doing it with paper and pen, but eventually you will want to share your WBS with someone else. I think PowerPoint is good software for creating this kind of document and I used it to create an Idea Tree Template that you can download.
  3. Someone Else’s Brain: Take your new fancy, schmancy WBS to knowledgeable people and ask for their feedback and ask them what is missing. You can also research topics you’re not familiar with and try to determine if you’ve missed anything.

Croft discusses the problem of “granularity.” How detailed should your list be? If your categories are too broad, it will be impossible to determine the costs. But if you get too detailed it becomes unworkable.

Croft’s rule-of-thumb is to break tasks down until they take no more than a week. He suggests that any longer than that makes it hard to hold people accountable—if a task is scheduled for a month, you might not know until the end of the month that the work isn’t getting done.

How do you identify the tasks required for a project? Share your process in the comments below.