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Thursday, 22 September 2011

Thoughts on "Cheat's Guide to Project Management"

Sally Pewhairangi's workshop "Cheat's Guide to Project Management" covered the planning stages of managing a project in a way that made it clear why the planning is so vital.

We started by discussing reasons projects fail -- one of those brainstorming sessions everyone always has plenty of material for and which can get downheartening. But Sally concluded this section by saying that while we can't always make these problems disappear, we can manage them; and looking back at my notes now I can see that the vast majority of the problems we talked about would be much alleviated by the process the rest of the session modelled.

This, much abbreviated and paraphrased, was:
  1. Find out/figure out how the project fits into the institution's goals. A project to merge serials into the main collection will go differently if the aim is to free up space or to aid findability. If push comes to shove, which consideration will win?
  2. Define the heck out the project. Make sure everyone's on the same page about exactly what is to be achieved, by when, and with what resources. What's included/excluded? Get it in writing and signed off by everyone to prevent confusion, co-option, mission creep, the sudden discovery that you have no budget, etc.
  3. Break the project down into tasks and subtasks so you know everything that has to be done and don't get surprised.
  4. Work out who's doing which subtasks by which dates.
For someone like me who just wants to achieve something, this often seems like a nuisance, and during the session my group was constantly having to rein ourselves back from rushing ahead to the what when we hadn't sorted out the why. But when we did plan it all, it became much easier to come up with a much more innovative and relevant approach to solving the problem.

One of the other fascinating things came during the "silent brainstorm" section that is, everyone scribbling out all the tasks they could think of in silence. No talking meant no-one dominating or being shy, and no derailing into knocking ideas prematurely. And this really brought out the different strengths of different team members - when we categorised the tasks as a team we could see one person focusing more on communicating with stakeholders, one person on technical aspects of the project. Come to think about it, this could be a good way of deciding who should be responsible for managing what.

In short, a fantastic workshop which has given me a whole new perspective on planning and, more practically, the tools to do it systematically.

Plus, the template we worked through was so useful in breaking things down, guiding us through, and giving a real sense of accomplishment at the end, that I'm now pondering how something similar might work in an infolit class: guiding students through thinking about what information they need and where to find it. I'm thinking something like:

Plan your search
1. What’s your topic?

2. What kind of information do you need?
Well-tested research <-----------------------------------------------------------> Cutting-edge knowledge
Summarised information <------------------------------------------------------------> Detailed information
Layman’s level <---------------------------------------------------------------------------> Research level

3. Who would have written about it? When? Where would they have published?
Kinds of people
Date-range published
Kind of publication

4. What words would they have used to talk about it?
Synonyms - any other words that mean the same

5. What sources would hold the publications from #3? What search features are available?
Database or other source
Available search features

and then some stuff on analysing results, facets, pearl-growing, etc. (I may abbreviate the above to try and fit the whole thing to a single A4 sheet for a one-hour class; or may leave it at two sides for the class I get two hours with.) I won't have a chance to test this out probably until next year so would be happy to hear any ideas in the meantime!