Why you should schedule around people, not tasks

The nature of the modern business environment is constantly evolving. Project management has wrought much change. From plotting Gantt charts by hand to the modern day explosion of project management software solutions, everything is different – including the nature of work itself.

To illustrate, Roger L. Martin, former dean at Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, gives an example of how work is a series of projects in an article in the Harvard Business Review:

Think of a freshly hired assistant brand manager for Olay at P&G. She may initially view her role as pretty standard: helping her boss guide the brand. However, she will quickly learn that the job is ever-changing. This month she may be working on the pricing and positioning of a brand extension.

Two months later she may be totally absorbed in managing production glitches that are causing shipment delays on the biggest-selling item in the Olay lineup. Then all is quiet until the boss approaches her desk with yet another project. Within months she will figure out that her job is a series of projects that come and go, sometimes in convenient ways and sometimes not.”

If this assistant’s role sounds a lot like a project manager to you, you’re onto something. In today’s business environment, everyone is a project manager. TechRepublic covered a recent report by Planview, noting:

Even if you don’t have a formal title, training, or the credentials of a project manager, chances are you may still be expected to manage projects. According to the report, two-thirds of professionals noted that they manage projects as part of their official responsibilities—even though they don’t carry the project manager title.

Additionally, some 20% of respondents defined themselves as ‘accidental’ project managers. These are folks who find themselves managing projects on top of their daily responsibilities.”

Everyone is a project manager, because the nature of modern work is project-based.

Project Management As Model

The entire way we structure organizational endeavors is through project management. In turn, project management as an industry is growing by leaps and bounds – in numbers, in salaries, and in perceived importance (see Chartered Status in the UK, for example).

In a positive development, project management is being brought down to the educational level and being taught in schools. Truly, the world is changing, and for the better.

This change happened fast enough that common sense wisdom has not had a chance to catch up. After all, it wasn’t always this way! We are used to thinking of the workplace with an outdated mental model – the manufacturing line.

The manufacturing line is a linear process, that follows a simple, repeating, input-to-output plan. Each person on the line has a repeating task, that is their job. It defines what they do. The process is easily broken down to stops and stations, and each of those stops becomes a person in a job doing a task.

When operating correctly, the inputs are combined into the desired output, again and again, as needed. Production lines can be conceived of as waterfall flow charts. They’re simple, linear, and workflow based.

In the modern business environment, endeavors aren’t linear. Organizations don’t manufacture output with a manufacturing line process. They create projects, with inputs from various and often far flung places.

The output of a project isn’t always easily quantifiable. Projects have goals, not outputs. These projects can sometimes be one-off initiatives. Sometimes they repeat at regular intervals. But never do they follow the simplistic, linear, in to out model of a production line.

Project management can be conceived of as an airline route map. The project manager is the hub that connects all the spokes.

Projects have many different “here to there” linear lines, and not all of them overlap. But they all end up in the same place, for the same goal.

And this means that the skill set needed to succeed in the modern business environment is changing, too.

Flow to work: Knowledge is a skill

In a factory line, expertise at a particular task is the necessary skill that drives excellence. The better you can attach a door to a car, for example, the better you are at your job.

In today’s business environment, it isn’t about a particular task, but about adaptation of a skill set to new contexts and goals. If you’re a project manager, you adapt your talents to whatever project you are working on.

Whether you’re overseeing the rollout of a new birthing wing at the hospital or a new outlet store at the mall, the project management skills you possess is what drives excellence.

Perhaps the biggest trend that has brought about this change for the better is this: Work is no longer about a particular task. It’s about applying knowledge to new problems. This, in turn, creates more knowledge. The ultimate skill is learning and adapting. The task is almost secondary, in a way.

Roger Martin, in the same HBR article, describes how the future of the business world is going to be defined by knowledge and the project-based approach. He points to consulting companies and Hollywood movie studios as examples.

People have specialty knowledge that they’ve learned, both in school and from experience. The company’s organizing principle is the project, not the business unit/job title/linear job model.

As projects are planned, employees with the necessary skills from across the organization are assigned to the projects.

Take a movie, for example. A team is formed to write, act, shoot, edit, market, and distribute a movie. As team members finish their task, they move to the next project.

This is the “flow to work” approach, a term coined by Filippo Passerini. It is increasingly found across the business world. Rather than type employees by a “job,” forward thinking organizations are classifying employees by knowledge and skill set.

Rather than assign work to an employee, they assign the employee to the project/s they’re needed most for. The employee flows to the work, not the other way around.

The flow to work trend is the obvious direction organizations will head towards in a knowledge-based, project-defined work environment. Passerini rolled it out at Proctor and Gamble years ago, and it’s been copied since.

Proggio screenshot
This view shows planned vs actual work

Project planning problems

However, this flow to work model creates problems for project management, too. Modern business is increasingly complex. Projects are carried out across multiple locations, with multiple teams, and with multiple goals.

Take the movie example above: Writers, camera crews, actors, video editors, marketers, producers, directors, and other people are all needed to create a movie. Actors need to be signed. Filming may take place in five locations across the globe.

Editing may be done in three different offices, around the globe. Marketers are needed in every country the film is being shown in. Media bookings are needed in key markets. Flights need to be coordinated. Everything down to the candy bars in the actors’ trailers must be taken care of!

schedule around people

In traditional project management, projects are planned with a Gantt chart. Gantt charts are task-centered. The left hand side of a Gantt chart lists tasks, and they are mapped out as a timeline on a bar chart.

Imagine a movie Gantt chart. It’s a nightmare. There are too many moving pieces, too many people, too many tasks, and far too much complexity. Creating such a chart is an exercise in futility.

Managing such a project with a Gantt chart is guaranteed to fail.

Gantt charts have a hidden Achilles heel to them, that seasoned project managers know how to avoid. Gantt charts are useless for workflow management.

The explosion of agile as a trend within project management comes from the realization that the simple Kanban system is far more efficient in getting work done than the Gantt chart can ever be.

There’s a simple catch-22 in project management, with lasting reverberations across the industry – project planning requires a timeline, and timelines don’t work when managing the project.

The more complex the project, the more this catch-22 is a problem for project management.

Every project manager has this problem. On one hand, you need to have a timeline. Deadlines and schedules are crucial. On the other, you need to manage workflow and all those different tasks that go into a project. How else will they ensure there are only potato chips and Twix bars in Al Pacino’s trailer? And this comes at the cost of the timeline and project planning phase.

If your focus is on a million different tasks, it isn’t on the overall project structure. If your focus is on the project plan, you’ll miss out on those million little details.

Proggio screenshot of Kanban board
A Kanban board is a way of organising tasks that doesn’t rely on a linear approach to time

Solving the Catch-22

It is clear that there is a need for a better method to planning projects for the modern, complex business environment. The Gantt chart is over 100 years old.

I’d like to suggest a better method: instead of planning around tasks, we plan around people and project areas.

Picture your kickoff meeting. Who is present? What teams do they represent? What areas of the project are they working on? Now take that and use it as your organizing principle for your project plan.

Now, instead of planning around tasks, you’re planning around people. And in the management phase, you’ll focus on them, too.

Project management requires a top down process of plan to management to delivery. Instead of getting bogged down in the catch-22 between plan and workflow, you can fully optimize the plan from the top down while allowing task management to flow from the bottom up.

At the end of the day, the question is never “What is the status of task X?” It’s “Where are we with task X?”

That “we” is everything. It’s about time the project plan was centered on it.

Key takeaway

The modern business environment is increasingly structured as knowledge-based and project-defined, with a flow to work approach. In such a model, everyone is a project manager – and more and more people are managing projects regardless of title.

Project management must adapt, starting with the method for planning projects. Instead of building project plans around tasks, it’s time to build them around people.