Lightweight project management made easy with Asana and Harvest

Asana & Harvest = Better Project Management

Asana & Harvest = Better Project Management

As we have grown and scaled one of the biggest challenges we have faced is ensuring that we maintain the type of collaborative environment we had when everyone sat in the same small office in Arlington, Virginia. Now with team members, partners and clients spread across time zones and the world we have had to work a little harder to keep everyone working towards the same goals. We’ve tried a bunch of different tools and combinations of tools with varying levels of success. While I’m sure this is something we will continue to evolve over time, I think what we have now is worth sharing.

We recently started using Asana  and Harvest to manage our consulting services projects and internal product development. Asana is a web and mobile application designed to enable teamwork without email and Harvest is a time tracking tool that tightly integrates with Asana. The combination is a great lightweight project management suite that while probably not capable of handling a heavyweight project management style marries nicely into our very agile and lightweight execution process. Basically Asana lets me assign tasks to team members, track progress and if necessary bring partners or other external stakeholders into a project simply by inviting them in. These partners can be provided access to just the task they are assigned, the project or the entire workspace (all projects).

One a project member has been assigned a task the first step for that person is always to estimate the time to completion and register it as a comment in against the task. When scope changes or if the assigned resource is going to exceed that time frame we ask that they provide an amended time estimate and an explanatory comment.  This is not meant to be punitive, in fact we expect 10% deviance within task estimates. The goals is to improve our estimating internally so that we can provide better estimates to our management team and to our clients. Understanding over time the level of effort associated with a particular type of UI change, data exchange or configuration task enables us to bid projects more competitively and understand where we may want to invest in order to reduce repetitive tasks. As a side note we also ask that resources request more information if they can’t provide an estimate without additional information. This helps us tune the type and level of detail provided by business analysts, project managers and other team members feeding requirements into the process.

Once the estimate has been provided its time to start working! Team members “check into a tasks” which directly tracks their time against the project.

Check in to track time.

Check in to track time.

This enables me to have literally up to the minute understanding of how our resources are being expended and better manage our budgets and client side execution. If a team member forgets to check into the task, they can simply log into Harvest directly and put their time directly against the assigned task.

Add time directly to Harvest

Add time directly to Harvest

As the time flows in I’m able to track what our resource means from a budget standpoint and maintain a tight control over resource allocation. For clients requiring weekly status reports I can automate much of the reporting requirement as the time keeping system (Harvest) also pulls in data from project management system (Asana) in order to enable a richer detail around what is actually being done during time keeping increments.

That’s really all there is to it. Our rollout of both was literally done over a weekend without any special consulting services needed. I simply imported pulled our existing projects list into Asana and then followed the very simple instructions for integrating the tool with Harvest. A month later the system is functioning fairly simply with very little instruction having been required to onboard internal staff or team members on the use of the application.

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

Is that tile crooked? How to decide when its time to hire a pro

how to decide when its time to hire a pro

Part of being a leader is knowing when to ask for help

I wish everything could be solved in house. There is something satisfying about getting the job done inside the team. If you can pull it off, it’s cheaper too. At work here at MB&A, we have over time pulled creative design work and some other things we originally outsourced, simply because we needed to have the skill in house. At home, I’ve gone the other direction with a few things including hanging up my tool belt for projects I just can’t do as well as the pros. Knowing when you have moved into an area where you need outside help to succeed is a skill that both individuals and organizations should learn if they want to be successful. I’ve come up with five questions I ask myself about projects I undertake at work or at home to help ensure I get the outside help I need, when I need it.

  1. Have I done this before? This is probably the toughest one because it’s not so much about asking the question. Most of us are aware that we are trying something new. The skill is in ensuring that when you are about to attempt something new, that you take the time to ask yourself the rest of these questions. Just jumping in can have disastrous consequences. I learned to ask the rest of these questions because I lived the results of not asking. Take the time to think things through.
  2. How good does it have to be? What are the consequences of failure? I think the easiest example here is legal. I’ve had some fairly dire consequences from playing amateur lawyer and not understanding how to protect my interests. If its important enough that you think you might need a lawyer, you probably do. I’ve also destroyed a MacBook Pro trying to swap out a hard drive. The point is that not getting outside help can cost money too. I’ve probably saved more money by being honest about how hard something is to do and how bad the consequences are than from any other single thing.
  3. Are there people who do this for a living? Most people have done some home improvement in their lives. I’ve painted and tiled a lot of places in my time. I don’t do it anymore. Not because I can’t. I now have a few of the skills and all of the tools (Home Depot is my friend). I don’t do it because as a weekend warrior home improvement guy, I’ve never been able to get it as good as the pros. This was fine before I knew just how good and fast they are at doing it. I’m still proud of some of the work I’ve done, but I know it simply isn’t as good as someone who does it for a living.
  4. Is this something I will do again? How often? If its something I’m going to have to do regularly it may be worth learning how to do. If it’s something I only do a few times a year or every few years, it may be worth leaving to the experts. My Dad used to always say about plumbing that it is pretty simple—basically water runs downhill, but you usually had just about forgotten everything else you knew about it by the next time you needed to know it.
  5. Can I learn this? Do I have time? Even simple things take time to learn. I’m sure I could over time develop into a pretty good painter or tile guy. Unfortunately, at the rate of one bathroom every five years I’m not likely to get the time invested that I need to get to a high level of skill. See my post “5 keys to mastering anything,” for more on why repetition plays a role. For the purpose of this post I would say that anything you don’t do pretty regularly is a candidate for outsourcing. There is only so much you can be good at.

How do you make the decisions to do it yourself or hire outside help?

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.

3 Keys for New Managers

Most people’s introduction to “formal” leadership is as a newly minted manager. One of the first things newly appointed managers and “leaders” learn about their new position is that they no longer have time to do any “real” work. As I’ve talked to people and learned from hard experience, leading and managing is hard work. Those who cannot come to grips with a system for dealing with the pressures of doing while managing the doing of others will rapidly find that their work life is becoming less and less fulfilling and their calendar more and more full. In talking with lots of managers over the years as a consultant and as the manager of my own staff I know first hand how challenging it can be to lead and execute at the same time. One of the first discoveries that most managers make is that the time they use to have to execute their own tasking has now shrunk dramatically. For people who are used to consistently working harder, to perform better, to deliver more this can present a signifigant hurdle to overcome. As a new manager the temptation is to keep the velocity and effort you put towards your own work constant and simply add your additional duties as manager to what is now a longer list. This is simply not a sustainable path. I’ve watched people ruin their health, their home lives and often their relationships with their co-workers and staff because they simply could not re-balance in their new role. I won’t say that the following will make managing easy, but hopefully it will provide a perspective that enables you to shift your approach. The key is to take full advantage of your team which enables you to look at a slightly bigger picture, and shift your focus just a bit farther out into the future.

1. Change your expectations about your work and re-define success.
The first thing I think most managers need to do is adjust their expectations with regard to the quality with which they execute some of their tasking. As a subject matter expert or line worker you may have had the luxury of consistently delivering everything you touched to the highest possible standard. In fact you were probably encouraged to do so because that constant focus on quality is what the organization was striving for and may have played an integral role in getting you to the leading role you occupy today. This may sound strange, but you are probably going to have to unlearn some of those great habits and begin to really think about the level of effort required to get a product together that will meet the requirement, not exceed it. If you are thinking that I just arbitrarily lowered organizational standards you aren’t reading the last paragraph correctly. I am advocating that managers need to know what the final objective is well enough to identify the correct level of effort and polish required to execute on the mission. As a line worker, subject matter expert of whatever your previous role on the team this was probably not part of your job description. Quality standards are set and achieved or exceeded by the folks who work for the managers. Now as a manager you need to fight to ensure that you do not set artificially high standards for the wrong tasks. Having well written reports is great, but there is probably a balance to be found between copy editing and meeting the mission. I believe in good grammer, but I also believe that their is an appropriate level of effort to be expended on every task and part of the managers job is to know where that line is and make sure they cross it every time, just not by too much.

Be careful not to unnecessarily overshoot your target.

2. Think system first, tasks last.
This is closely tied to the last point about being able to back down your personal quality meter where appropriate. Where you may previously have been responsible for the flawless execution of a part of the unified whole you are now responsible for a more complex delivery. This requires a mind shift in almost everything you do. One of the first things I try to determine every day as I ride into work is identify who I need to talk to this morning so that they can be as productive as possible all day. Their is an enormous temptation as a manager to do your own tasking first, or to close the door and just make it through one thing first before you talk to your staff. This approach will kill you over time. Think of the big picture and get your staff working towards the big picture first. I have found that invariably my own tasking is altered by what eventually comes out of the conversation with staff regarding direction. More importantly if I sit down and work on my issues first I have just left the entire team working towards an objective that is not clear or worse no longer valid. You will lose the good will of your staff if you let them row in the wrong direction to often or for too long. I know that I ask a lot from the people I work with so I try to make sure that I don’t ever waste their time. I also encourage them to ask questions and get clarification so that they don’t waste the company’s resources moving in the wrong direction. This should not be confused with riding over top of people and micromanaging which is covered in the next section.

Make sure you look at the big picture.

3. Relax, let other people work and learn.
The hardest thing to come to grips with for me personally as a manager was the realization that my way wasn’t the only way to get something done. There is an enormous temptation to intervene while your team is in process and have them do things your way. After all, you are now the boss – shouldn’t your staff do things your way? I have no issue with a manager interceding in order to ensure the success of the mission. I also have no problem with a manager providing mentoring, feedback, or instruction to staff on how to perform tasks or meet organizational goals. However, I think that managers benefit greatly from allowing staff to develop there own approaches and succeed or fail on their own merits whenever possible . This builds the managers trust and enables the manager to focus on other things that may require attention while at the same time enabling staff to develop confidence and independence. These are critical to the larger team succeeding. The world is a competitive place and the highest performing teams are those that can successfully execute with a minimal instruction set, enabling the manager to focus on looking a little farther forward in order to smooth the way forward. This last part is critical, managers that become so deeply engaged in the near term objective that they can’t see the big picture set their team up for failure. The managers primary role shouldn’t be as a another set of hands on a task, or as the person in charge of counting the beans, or even as the person in charge of making sure things get completed. The manager can do all of those things, but none of those are as important as setting the course forward, ensuring the team has the requisite skills and character to achieve the mission, and understanding and communicating the big picture.

Learn to depend and trust your team. 

These three keys to managing to succeed are great things to think about as you come to grips with managing your staff and trying to manage your time and resources in order to help your team succeed. I think one final thing to keep in your mind at all times and particularly as you work through difficult managerial problems is to put yourself in the shoes of your team. How would you have reacted to your approach? I have changed course on many, many decisions because they were only a  great idea from my perspective. It usually isn’t that hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, a little imagination and couple of minutes are all it takes. The problem is remembering to do it, particularly as you spend more time in the managerial role and become more accustomed to people following your direction. Make this simple activity a habit and use it before you set direction for staff, give a briefing, or intercede in a project. The ability to put yourself in the shoes of another is a skill you should nurture not just in order to improve your interaction with your staff but because it is critical throughout your business life. Negotiations, working with customers, even your interaction with your own management will be improved by working on seeing things from the standpoint of the other stakeholders that are effected by the action.

Thanks as always for reading my blog, I hope you will join the conversation by commenting on this post.

If you liked this post, please consider subscribing to this blog and following me on twitter @jmillsapps. I regularly give talks via webinar and speak at events and other engagements. If you are interested in finding out where to see me next please look at the my events page on this blog. If you would interested in having me speak at your event please contact me at events@joshmillsapps.com.

If you are interested in consulting services please go to MB&A Online to learn more.