A few words of wisdom from one of two preconference workshops I attended at Internet Librarian yesterday, on a topic that initially sounds extremely boring – project management. Despite the potentially dry subject matter the workshops were excellent – the morning’s was led by Mary Auckland, independent consultant and trainer (from Britain, which should help explain the title of this post), while the afternoon session was split between Helene Blowers and Macrina Gilliam of Columbus Metropolitan Library and Amanda Etches-Johnson of McMaster University (and btw, it’s not often I see sessions that inspire me to steal this much thunder. Spot-on visuals by all three afternoon presenters).
In my new position I will have a number of long-term projects, etc. that I will be attempting to guide through a much larger and more complex organization than I am used to, hence my feeling of urgency in gaining some new getting things done skills. I have a tendency to fly all over the idea map (a habit described yesterday as “scope creep”), and then to falter a bit at nailing things down into a coherent timeline. I was hoping to hear some strategies on how to get a handle on the sequencing and realization aspects of managing a project, which I did.
I was also extremely intrigued by the subject of Helene and Macrina’s presentation, an organization-wide project management initiative adopted recently by Columbus Metro (a.k.a. the #1 public library in the nation). While it would take a bit of time to explain it in detail, suffice to say that it’s a systematic approach to starting, developing, and finishing projects in a large library organization. Beyond helping employees wrap their minds around how to turn an idea into a useful service, their Project Management Life Cycle (.doc download) seems to encourage something extremely important – stakeholder understanding of new and developing products and processes accross departmental lines, which in effect forwards an ethic of professional insight and shared goals within their organization. I had never considered the gigantic effect a systemwide eye to project management could have, but the more I think about it the more it seems to make sense – apparently, in only 10 months this initiative has had a huge impact on the way work happens at CML, and has already become an ingrained part of their working culture. It’s a best case scenario, to be sure, but providing a rational organizational framework for proposing, developing, and concluding the types of initiatives that so often get bogged down by bureaucracy or any number of other reasons is one clear path to breaking out of the age-old pattern of library idea kill. And it is also an excellent way to encourage my favorite thing – transparency.
For her part, Etches-Johnson insightfully addressed the common problem of being a one-person project “team,” and how to maneuver around the constraints of working largely by one’s lonesome. Among other things, she recommended dividing work into manageable chunks, documenting what you’ve done and why, and assembling an advisory committee to provide guidance and feedback.
While there is much to be said for flying by the seat of one’s pants, I am a huge proponent of systematic approaches to intimidating tasks such as teaching, web design, writing… almost everything except cooking. I came away from yesterday’s sessions with the sense that more than a series of silver bullets, project management is about finding techniques for de-mystifying the who, what, when, and why of the sorts of initiatives that make the library world go around. Like instructional design, project management emphasizes starting at the beginning (creating vision/objectives), streamlining the middle (finding resources and creating a product) and ending reflectively (monitoring progress, evaluating outcomes).
A few other things I thought about during the presentations:
It is difficult for projects in libraryland to “end,” largely because they are typically about services rather than software packages or other one-off types of products. This was discussed at length, and ideas were presented around the benefits of creating a final phase and moving on to the next initiative in order to prevent burnout and/or create a celebratable “release” point.
Focus on encouraging an ethic of “quick and dirty” – this is where Amanda’s just-bloody-do-it advice comes in. Librarians excel at contingency thinking, planning, and critiquing, not so much at letting an imperfect product see the light of day.
Create a project scope document that specifies what will NOT be done in addition to what will – it’s easy to suggest more features and fancy extras, which can have the effect of dragging a formerly lithe project under.
Manage expectations – don’t promise the world if you can’t produce it, and communicate your plans and outcomes in order to help others know what to expect from your efforts.
Most small projects can be admirably managed by common tools like Google Docs, MS Office, or OpenOffice, but in the event that you’re looking for something more tailored, these are two decent productivity/project management tools I’ve been working with lately:
OpenProj – open-source project management software, bit of a learning curve but a free alternative to MS Project. Benefit: built-in calendaring features.
FreeMind – Concept/mind mapping application, easy to use and a fine alternative to Inspiration. Benefit: for detail supremacists, branching layout prevents excessive notation. (For some this could also be a big drawback.)
My first impression of Monterey: a strange, somewhat rundown yet upscale tourist town in the true California fashion, home to some creepy haunted candy shoppe types of places (see image). Sadly I wasn’t able to stay on for the full conference, but I still managed to have a plate of heart attack inducing, beer-battered Fisherman’s Wharf fish and chips courtesy of the ever-gracious John Blyberg. (The calf fries are on me in Denver, John.)
Thank for writing this up and bringing all these goodies to my attention Char. Like you, (I think) I’m a divergent thinker (aka Creative Generalist) so finding ways to stay on top of projects and move them forward in an orderly way is always a challenge.
Peter – my pleasure. I seem to be an Aptitude Test Saboteur more than anything else, but I definitely understand the orderly forward movement challenge. I highly recommend concept mapping your next project, even if it’s a small-scale affair – I think it’s super useful for us all-over-the-place thinkers to visualize the constituent parts of a challenge.