Thursday, May 3, 2012

Friday Fundamentals: Reducing Complexity With Table Timelines

Welcome to Friday Fundamentals, a showcase of basic tips and tools to improve your communications skill.  This week it's all about a simple way to organize a complex team project so everyone stays in step.  I call it the table timeline. (You can see one by scrolling down this post to the sample shown at the bottom.)

When you're faced with a really big job, it can be overwhelming, both to you and to others involved.  There are so many nuts to crack.  Even if you get to the point where you understand all of a project's elements, it's a struggle to put them in priority order and keep everything moving in sync.  Think switching a whole organization over to a new payroll system, or staging a huge charity event (as in the real-life example here). 

Yes, there are entire software packages dedicated to this sort of thing, and that's wonderful -- but that can also be also the limitation.  You need specialized software to use specialized software.  What if your team members don't all have it?  What if your task force is spread across multiple organizations, with differing systems -- or no systems at all?  In such low-tech or mixed-tech settings, a very basic table is a perfectly good platform -- a plain wrapper for your project plan.  

Remember, the objective is to help people feel on top of the project -- not petrified by all its complexity.  

A  timeline grid like the one shown below can:
  • document the various tasks to be done;
  • group tasks by type;
  • show target times when tasks need to be accomplished;
  • assign task owners in a collaborative, non-threatening way (see the Practicality bullet point below). 
It's not hard to use the Word table feature to create a timeline.  Even if you're a Word beginner (or a confirmed Excel fan), you can master the basics of Word table.   Just click Insert on the toolbar or ribbon, then Table, then try a click here and a click there till you get a feel for things.  Once you can format a basic table, you can create a week-by-week action list, broken into sub-tasks, such as the one here.

My favorite features of this tool:  
  • Simplicity -- As already stated, this is a mainstream Word document, so you can attach it to an email without worrying about whether it will transmit.
  • Printability  -- You can also print hard copies very easily.  Excel's onscreen format doesn't correlate to hard-copy page restrictions or differing margin settings on different computers, even when you go through Excel's Print Preview process.  A Word table, on the other hand, is set up to show up onscreen  just the way it does in a print-out.  This means that you can get a good end product with minimal fiddling.
  • Practicality -- As a talking-points document, the table timeline is a real winner.  When you meet with your group, you can pass out hard copies, talk things through, and get people to commit to various project elements.  As they do so, you can write their names next to the tasks they sign up for.  At the end of the meeting you can photocopy your sheet with hand-written names alongside, or you can tell the group that you'll input the names into the table and send it out for them to review.     
  • Adaptability -- Revisions are easy to make and distribute (though revised deadlines don't ripple forward as they do in Microsoft Project).
  • Scaleability --  Once you've got your table put together, you can cut and paste each weekly column onto a new document of its own and use it as a master checklist for that week.  
  • Doability -- Finally, having the whole project on one sheet of paper, clearly bucketed, gives a great psychological lift to your team -- as well as a little jolt of accountability. It makes everything feel more doable, and at the same time, more serious. It's easy for everyone to see how his or her part dovetails with the rest, and therefore people tend to feel more implicit pressure to get their tasks done on time (in a good way).    It's like giving everyone a friendly but firm handshake as if to say, "You're in this with us -- right?" 
Do you need to rally people around a common goal that has lots of complicated stages and pieces?  Use a table timeline to do it.  You'll find that a table timeline provides a visual time and task map that everyone can wrap their heads around.  It will help you mobilize your people and resources to make your project succeed -- even if it's one tough nut to crack.  

Project Element 
April 29 – May 5
May 6 – May 12
May 13 – May 19
Recruitment / team communications
Recruit organizations and staff

 Appoint team leaders

Send welcome email

Recruit donor contact team
Finalize team lists

Send email with formal MST orientation packet to all MST volunteers

Recruit supplies team

Send team job descriptions to volunteers

Meet with supplies team

Recruit set-up team
Generate list of supplies and giveaways needed

Brainstorm list of potential donors
Start asking donors for supply and giveaway donations

Set up supply collection point

Set up process for receiving supplies and, generating  paperwork  for tax write-off

Print materials

Draft team job descriptions

Finalize team job descriptions

Draft referrals handout & send for review

Finalize referrals handout

Draft site map
 & set-up
Define tent service  areas

Determine approx. space requirements for each area

Brainstorm how to achieve “quiet area” for audiology testing

Finalize set-up specifics:  tent size, placement, quantity of  tables & chairs, generator placement for electricity

Adjust tent layout, floor plan & flow
Confirm space requirements with contacts for health organizations & mobile units

Finalize tent floor plan & flow

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