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What a difference time makes!

I mentioned in my first post that I’m heading up a Task Force on Project Management Skills here in the UC Library system, and we’re in the middle of our survey of people with project management experience. The first big batch of data is in, and I’ll give a you teaser. When it comes to time management (which we defined as “the ability to maximize personal efficiency by setting priorities”), 17% said they have a “basic” level of competency, 43% reported an “intermediate” level, and 40% declared themselves “advanced.” That’s a nice spread, as they say.

I’ve been thinking about this measure and noticing that it captures only part of the story of time, from a project manager’s perspective. Of course, giving weight to and balancing the many tasks you have and gracefully wearing the many hats you wear is certainly significant. But I think there’s another more fundamental technique underlying that capacity, and this is ability to estimate the time it takes to do your work.

If you know how to do this, you may take it for granted. If you don’t know how to do this, you may view it with suspicion. The very idea that you might be asked how long it will take to do a specific task, and then be asked to keep track of how accurate your guess was may strike you as irritating, unnecessarily time-consuming, and, even, intrusive.

I’d like to try and make the case for this practise.

Once you can estimate your own tasks fairly accurately, you can then forecast your future workload. If the members of your workgroup can estimate their tasks too, you can forecast the workload of your group. This means you can anticipate resource bottlenecks before they occur, giving you an opportunity either to request more resources or re-priortize your work. You can try out “what-if” scenarios as you think about balancing the work load between individual team members as appropriate. In other words, this technique puts a powerful information tool into your hands.

It all begins with time estimating. I’ve put together a short slide deck on Basic Time Estimation if you’d like a step-by-step introduction. There are many other ways of doing this, so if you don’t like mine, keep looking.

An interesting approach I’ve seen recently is one implemented in Pivotal Tracker, an agile project management tool. With Tracker, you assign points, “which are a relative, team-specific metric representing the effort it will take to complete a given story” (or task). The online help suggests: “When starting out with Tracker, it helps to ground a point in something concrete – for example, how much can be done in an ideal day, or a typical small feature.”

Whether the measure of effort is in days, hours, or points, the point is to give you control over your time. And that brings us back to Time Management, which I’m glad to say the project managers in the Libraries of the University of California are doing quite well.