Episode 75: March 24, 2009
by Stever Robbins
Today’s topic is how to track a dozen things at once.
So I’m the point person for somewhere between three and four student projects. I figured it would be a cinch. How hard can it be to keep track of four projects comprised of 22 students, 3 faculty members, and 4 sponsors, who only have to deal with 16 or 17 administrators around 3 different topics? What could be easier?
Herding cats. That could be easier. Because I get easily confused. I could keep track of mommy and daddy when I was young because one of them had a beard. I wasn’t always sure which one, but at least I could tell them apart.
My project here started out easy. I wrote up the project description for one group and sent it to them. Then I started work on the project description for the second group, but the faculty member for group three called to chat. So we outlined group three’s project, while I accidentally sent the description for group two to the administrator who would be working with group one,
Then I had to get back to project two—or was it one—to help them schedule their next meeting with the administrators. Er, which administrators? I think the administrator I was just talking to was from project two. Or one. Or three. Or … argh!
Similar Projects Cause Great Confusion
What made this so hard to deal with is that all the projects were roughly similar. They all had students, faculty advisors, sponsors, and administrators. Plus, I had to do the same things for each project: create a project overview, prep the administrators who would be talking with the students, and check in with the faculty sponsor to set up a schedule.
Because the projects were so similar, I was able to confuse which steps I’d taken on which projects. Salvation came in the form of engineering graph paper. That’s graph paper with a wide column one, and the rest of the columns narrow. Don’t worry, if you visit this episode’s transcript, I link to a website that will help you print all the engineering graph paper you could imagine.
Use a Grid to Track Progress
On each row of the graph paper, I wrote the names of the student team. To protect the innocent, let’s call them Cougar, Buffalo, and Snort.
I labeled each column with the steps the team had to go through: project overview written, admins prepped, faculty check-in complete. There were lots of other steps, but you get the idea.
As each step got completed for each team, I would just check it off in the grid at the intersection of the team name and the step. When Snort’s faculty advisor interrupted the phone call with Cougar where we were planning the project overview, I was able to check off the Snort/Faculty-Check-In-Complete box, so I wouldn’t forget and re-check-in later. Then when I finished with Team Cougar’s overview, I could check that off. With a single glance, I now know which teams still need to do which phases.
Use the Grid to Track Per-Project Information
Sometimes you need to track information on a project-by-project basis. In that case, I merge a few columns together and write the information right on the tracking sheet. Since each team has a different weekly check-in time, I create a column called “Check-In Time” and just write in each team’s check-in time on their line.
Use Paper or a Spreadsheet
My grids often go onto the cool engineering graph paper I mentioned before. But if you’re so glued to your computer that you use sunscreen to prevent your pasty white skin from getting burned by the monitor’s glare, you can do this easily in a spreadsheet or word processing document. Just do me a favor, please, and don’t waste too much time resizing your columns. Your computer is a tool, not your silicon master.
The grid technique isn’t just limited to projects. You can use it any time you have the same set of steps you’ll be doing with many different people.
If you’re on a campaign to get the people in your office to approve of you and reinforce your feelings of worth as a human being, you might as well be organized about it. Your rows would be the names of each co-worker. The columns would be the steps in your relationship-building plan: meet with each one, uncover mutual interests, recommend a thoughtful book, learn their middle name, swap stories of your traumatic childhood, and then have a nice conference with them and an HR representative, where the three of you discuss boundary issues.
This is Stever Robbins. Email questions to email@example.com or leave voicemail at 866-WRK-LESS.
Work Less, Do More, and have a Great Life!