9 Great Project Management Tools and Tips

by Darwin on August 23, 2009

Project-Management-PictureAfter moving from several years of line operations and technical roles in the biopharma industry, then to more business oriented roles in outsourcing and supply chain, I learned a few Project Management Tools and Tips along the way.  While some of these tips may seem pretty obvious and simple to the tenured project manager, to someone new to the role of leading cross functional teams, there may be something to learn here.  As a disclaimer, I don’t do IT or Construction Project Management which seems to be what virtually all the information and training out there is based on.  I’m sure some of the same concepts apply though.


Learn to Use MS Project – This one may seem obvious if you’re already using it, but for some people assigned to run a project or a team, they may feel like using Excel or some other tool will be adequate to run the project.  MS Project has incredible functionality and for people that don’t have it, you can easily PDF the project file and email it to them for review.  It’s important to learn some of the tips and tricks with MS Project so you don’t mess up the file though.  For instance, if you have two different people working on a task and add both their names in the Resource column, it will alter the duration since it perceives more resources as being able to complete a task faster.  Also, you should never change the start and end date of a task once it’s linked, but change the duration instead.  The values are stored in any one of several fields in a database in the background and by altering the end date, you can mess up linked tasks.  I recommend taking a training for beginners at a minimum but once you’re versed in MS Project and using it in real time, it’ extremely powerful.

Time Zone Pain – A few of my projects have team members from various continents and in one case, I’m the only one from the US.  In order to have the best turnout and most efficient meetings, I set up a grid with the various time zones and what time it was in each zone compared to the US.  I then blocked out any hours from 10PM to 6AM for each time zone, which left a couple slots in the morning and evening US time.  I ended up selecting a standing meeting time in the early AM US that jives with afternoon and after dinner hours for the other time zones.  However, to share the pain with my team members if it’s perceived that the Project Manager has an easy time slot and everyone else has to suffer for routine meetings, when you need to do a one-off meeting or a one on one call, make sure to do the call at an inconvenient time for yourself which falls during your counterpart’s work day.  Not only is this a good Project Management behavior, but it’s a good leadership behavior and common courtesy.  You’ll garner respect and diminish any resentment that may have been present quickly.

Always Issue Minutes – I always issue an agenda in advance of a meeting and try to get minutes out within a day.  Some days, after spending 30 minutes typing up minutes (that reads weird), I question the value of the exercise.  However, it’s tough to quantify all the different circumstances where having typed an agenda and/or minutes was helpful.  For instance, if there was a complex discussion and decision during a meeting and you type of minutes, if nobody replies with a correction or disagreement, it’s de facto record for the project.  If someone comes back 2 months later and says, “I didn’t agree to that” or “I never even knew you were going in that direction, I have nothing to do with the fallout from this”, the minutes are there.  I don’t like to think of it as solely a CYA exercise, but it does serve as a valuable way to ensure everyone’s aligned and that any absentee members can voice their opposition to any decisions made.  An additional benefit is that I find myself being questioned on a particular topic weeks later and i can just copy and paste a bullet point and email it out instead of trying to recall the specifics and type up a fresh email.

Meeting Agenda Tips – Since I always issue an agenda, it’s important to have some substance and clearly identify who owns a topic, ensure that people are prepared to speak to their topics and that you’ve captured all the different topics you want to cover for a particular meeting.  What I find is that throughout the week between meetings, I field various  emails and calls related to my project from individuals that warrant team discussion.  For fear that I may not adequately capture each one or forget one, I leave a draft agenda for each of my projects open at all times.  When a call comes in that I want to add, I just jot a note down in that draft agenda at the top.  If there’s an email chain I want to summarize or highlight, I copy/paste that into the top margin.  The, the day before the meeting, I have all kinds of notes and reminders of things to add into the agenda.  It’s much more efficient and accurate than trying to remember various conversation and find emails in the inbox, especially when running several projects at once.

Cancel Meetings: Respect the Time of Others – There’s nothing more frustrating than sitting through a meeting that you clearly didn’t have to be at because (seemingly) the person that called the meeting felt that their ego would be impacted by canceling the meeting or letting certain extended team members jet after a particular portion of the meeting.  If your team is meeting on a frequent basis and there are no new pertinent topics to discuss or decisions to be made, just cancel the meeting already!  It’s frustrating to attend a meeting just because it was on the calendar and have the meeting leader just recap things and ask attendees to give updates that could have been done offline or that didn’t warrant discussion.

Best Days for Meetings – When I have a team established, because peoples’ calendars tend to get filled up quickly, I like to schedule recurring meetings immediately and I have the duration extend way past when the project should reasonably end.  This locks up schedules, a conference room and whatever other resources you might be competing with and you don’t have to bother extending a series later in Outlook or whatever system you’re using.  I try to avoid Mondays and Fridays and schedule virtually all broadly attended group meetings Tues, Wed, Thurs.  Here’s why: Holidays, Vacations and Digouts.  Most company holidays (at least in the US) fall on either a Monday or a Friday.  It’s terribly annoying to have to reschedule a meeting a week before a holiday week (since nobody ever has the time to strategically look ahead at such things months in advance) when calendars are already booked up.  Additionally, people tend to be pretty much checked out by Friday and digging out from a weekend or prior vacations/travel from the week before on Monday.  For these reasons, I say avoid these days at all cost for a standing meeting.

Running the Meeting – I’m a stickler for time management in meetings.  I always try to ensure that we get through the agenda, that we end on time and that each agenda topic is given its due time.  It’s incredibly frustrating when some insipid conversation drones on and on because the meeting leader doesn’t want to tell someone to just take the conversation offline.  Some people can completely monopolize a meeting because they’re trying to make a point or stroke their ego, at the expense of other important topics and everyone else’s time.  So, keep people on track, don’t be afraid to interrupt and recommend resolution offline and finally, take a few minutes at the end of the meeting to recap key topics.  Make sure everyone’s aligned on key decisions that were made and also recap assignments.  If you list out assignments in the minutes and find that they weren’t done the next week, sometimes members will say, “I didn’t know what that assignment was all about”, or “I thought Johnny was supposed to do that”.  Well, if you spend the 2-3 minutes to quickly run through and state who’s supposed to do what and why, there will be no question when it’s time to revisit progress at the next meeting that it was crystal clear who was assigned what.

Always go back to the Timeline – Not only is the timeline what drives the project, but it’s also a more polite and professional way to ensure team members are on track and holding up their end of the bargain without overtly calling them out in front of the whole team.  It’s a great motivator.  If each week or each month, you know that your workstream is going to be reviewed and you’ll have to highlight where you’re at, you’re going to make sure you get your assignments done and you’re not holding up the project.  Getting called out in the absence of a timeline discussion is a bit more obvious and might engender some resentment and embarrassment.  Of course, if things just aren’t getting done, you have to get tough, but it’s best to let people self-police and know what’s coming rather than surprise them by putting them on the spot.

Recognize and Reward Performance – It’s good to share positive feedback with both team members and their management.  What I actually like to do is just shoot a note or verbally mention my appreciation for a team member’s performance without even letting them know.  Sometimes it trickles back down, “Hey, the project lead let me know you’ve been doing a great job” or it gets mentioned at a year end review of something.  This shows that it’s not necessarily self-serving and it’s not just lip-service. You took the time to try and positively influence an employee’s performance review by sharing positive feedback.  Rather than being talked about like, “I worked my butt off for 6 months on that project and the project lead never even passed it on to my manager”, you get “Hey, if you can get on one of his/her projects, you should.  They really make sure to recognize hard work.  I was hooked up after the last project I did because he/she went out of their way to make my accomplishments known”.  This is important when you’re working in a cross-functional team where the management teams may be in different organizations and employees aren’t really sure if their hard work is being recognized throughout the year.

There are all kinds of workforce management software that make life easier in regards to tracking time on projects, meetings, who was where & when, etc. It can also be a big hand if you need to gather data to justify re-organizing how much time is to be spent on which projects and priorities.

Well, those are just some basic concepts that I’ve found to be useful in running projects.  I’m interested in hearing some of your tips and tricks as well as gripes.

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September 11, 2009 at 2:17 am
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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alan August 24, 2009 at 6:31 pm

Your article on this blog is fantastic. Well done! I’m a big fan of your blog and be sure to keep up the great work.
I plan on returning and linking to your site.

The Alan Haft Blog,


2 Robert August 25, 2009 at 7:55 am

When I am not running my website, I work in the software industry. Your article is spot on… we use project managers for our projects, and they could all stand to read your article.

I like to say you have project administrators and then you have project managers. I think too many project managers are really only project administrators.

Thinks like using certain software and sending out minutes are administration tasks, while running the meeting and dealing with the client is where project management takes over.

Again, good points, I may send it to some of them.



3 Sean August 26, 2009 at 7:53 am

I found this post via Google news. Great stuff! The only thing I would question is the use of MS Project. Yes, it can be a good tool for some teams and managers, but it’s definitely got some drawbacks. The first and perhaps the worst one is that MS Project does not really support collaboration. Most people don’t use all its features, because they simply don’t need them. In addition, if you don’t have this software yet, equipping all your team with licenses can be pretty costly. I think you should also mention web-based project management alternatives here. Tools like Wrike.com, Basecamp, Zoho Projects, etc.


4 CBM September 11, 2009 at 7:56 am

I agree with Sean. MS Project is useful for big companies and big projects. But it’s not appropriate for anything small – it would be an overkill (costs and efforts).

Since most of the teams don’t sit on the same location (don’t forget, also the customer is in the team and isn’t likely to share the office with it’s supplier), communication and collaboration via the web becomes more and more important. In our company, we use a tool (ZCOPE) that supports this really well. We couldn’t afford MS Project – neighter in terms of costs nor in terms of customer relations.


5 Dauer Kinsley June 10, 2010 at 11:37 pm

Very insightful article! May I request that you make it 10 tips? And the 10th would be to choose project management tools that match your business needs. On project management it is always SaaS versus on-premise software. Yet depending on business needs, each has its own advantages and disadvantage. I hope it won’t be too much if I suggest that on your next story please tackle comparison of these kinds of project management software. Got the idea from this web crm comparison http://www.worketc.com/compare.


6 Ideas To Make Money June 18, 2010 at 10:58 pm

I think the best day for a meeting has to be a Thursday afternoon. Thursdays are great because you have had enough days back from the weekend and you have Friday to finish any work that needs to get done. And besides it leaves much more time for others to get their work done.


7 RRR October 10, 2010 at 9:08 pm

I created a MS Info Path meeting agenda/minutes XML file that automated many of the basic meeting tasks. It links to Outlook and stores e-mail addresses that it uses to send out the agenda and minutes. I could keep attendance and automated clearing the attendance, and I also kept the previous weeks information and automated moving this weeks notes to last weeks notes section for the next meeting. It turned a 1 hr job into a during the meeting task. I could send it out right after the meeting and have the agenda and minutes ready for the next week by clicking 2 buttons. I am not a programmer, but it could be a great tool for you.


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