Leveling up Our Project Management: New Tools for 2020

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TTT’s theme for 2020 is getting even better at what we’re already good at. 

So when I joined the project management team in January, we dove right into a focused effort to double down on our strengths and fine-tune how we do what we do best. We’re doing this in three ways. 

First, we’re using the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) to rank our processes and procedures on a 5-point scale. Second, we’ve moved to Notion to improve our documentation. Third, I’m responsible for a comprehensive statistical analysis of our 2019 projects to uncover key insights and optimize our processes.

Ranking our procedures

The Capability Maturity Model is a framework that allows us to rate each aspect of our processes on how thought-out, deliberate and repeatable they are. You can think of it as a test of efficiency. 

New project management practises start at level 1, “initial,” and are improved until level 5, “optimizing,” where they’re optimal or automated. 

This is useful because we can score our processes on the CMM scale, set goals, and be more strategic about how and where we choose to invest time in improvements. The levels are,

  1. Initial. Things feel unpredictable and reactive. You’re flying by the seat of your pants.
  2. Managed. Projects are planned but procedures are mostly kept in your head.
  3. Defined. You’re proactive rather than reactive. Documentation and procedures are clearly laid out.
  4. Quantitatively Managed. Projects are data-driven and controlled. You use quantitative improvement metrics.
  5. Optimizing. Processes are stable and they may be automated. You’re in the best possible position with all relevant factors considered and you are focused on planning for the future.

After switching to a new documentation tool, some of our processes jumped from level 1 or 2 to level 4. The key to this jump was controlled, repeatable environments with streamlined documentation.

Streamlining documentation

Imagine you’re a project manager. 

You have several projects that you’re responsible for and everyday, you diligently communicate with your clients to make sure everything is accounted for.

One morning, a client asks you to remind them about a decision that was made in their discovery session several months ago. Checking the Discovery folder Google Drive, you find no record of that particular decision. “That’s weird,” you think to yourself – you remember discussing it. So you comb through folders in Google Drive, check Slack messages, your computer files, text messages and finally find the notes you’re looking for attached to a follow-up email.

Does that feel familiar? How frustrating would it be to go through a similar workflow every time you have to share files, access meeting notes, reference past decisions or bring someone up to date on a project? Finding notes, to-do lists, files and issue tracking was a pain.

Adding to the issue was Confluence.

Some issues with Confluence were that navigating the document hierarchy was cumbersome and it felt “heavy” to keep up to date. There’s a lot going on as a PM, and your tools need to be nimble and pleasurable to use. Because of this we found we were documenting processes and never looking at it again. It’s difficult to raise your CMM score without an organized, streamlined collaboration workspace that gets used consistently and is easy to keep up to date. We needed a different system.

Our solution was to adopt Notion, a lightweight collaborative workspace.

Welcome Notion

Notion is good for taking past insights and putting it at the forefront of our processes. We do this primarily through our templates. Instead of an isolated wiki of best practises, we’ve set up project templates that contain placeholders for all the documents we need to complete over the course of a project.

The project templates also include custom, ready-made checklists for everything from project initiation to project close-out. In each project page, we link meeting notes so referencing information and past decisions is neat and orderly. Notion also allows links which help bring everything together into a one-stop-shop.

Notion layout
In Notion, we use check-lists, issue tracking, document links and document placeholders in a custom template making project management workflow much more streamlined.

Templating means what would’ve taken a few hours takes 45 minutes because the documentation is 30% done when you start! It’s been a huge timesaver and forces us to be more consistent and more organized.

In the end, the best thing about Notion is that people are actually using it including other teams in TTT. 

Now that we’re documenting consistently, not only do we have this structure in place to guide us, it also makes cross-team communications, meeting planning and project tracking all that much easier to adapt to a remote workstyle.

Notion facilitates our processes and allows us to implement our lessons learned in a real way. But, perhaps more importantly, we didn’t just pull those lessons out of thin air. I’ve been tasked with a comprehensive review of all projects from 2019.

Reviewing projects from 2019

There might not be a more thorough way for a new team member to get familiar with the team’s workflow than to statistically analyze every project from the previous year. I should know – that’s been one of my main focuses since joining the team in January, three months ago. 

Again, the goal is to get even better at what we’re already doing well. So, the first question for me was, what have we been doing well? To find the answer, I’ve been using spreadsheets to collect and analyze data on all our projects from 2019.

Looking back at the CMM scale, for a procedure to reach level 4 it must be data-driven. After I combed through and collected the data, I did simple calculations to uncover useful insights that help drive more of our procedures by data

For example, QA has been a certain percentage of our development budget for a while, but it turns out it should be a bit higher. Finding that insight was as easy as adding and averaging numbers, but it was also valuable and actionable. 

Other questions I’m asking include; how long do projects take, how long does each phase of a project take, and how can we more effectively estimate for new projects – benefiting both ourselves and, more importantly, our clients. 

This information can be integrated into our workflow in Notion using tables and tagging. This is where one of Notion’s superpowers comes in – setting up and navigating databases. 

Imagine a world where you’re trying to set up a team for a new project and, at the click of a filter button, you can take a look at everyone who has worked on something similar in the past? Our eyes are set on optimization (the domain of peak procedural maturity – level 5) and that’s just one way we’re leveling up our project management.

It’s hard to talk about anything these days without mentioning the COVID19 pandemic. As the working landscape changes, I’m grateful to be able to work remotely for TTT. Thankfully, our determination to continue to thrive (at a safe distance, of course) is holding strong. We will continue to ask the question, how can we get even better at the things we’re already good at, so we’re always improving how we serve our clients, the TTT team and the broader Vancouver community.