Freelancer Project Management

Project Management Advice for Productive Freelancing

Information for Subscribers

Tomorrow (Wednesday August 17th) I’ll be moving to a new server so that I can launch some exciting new projects I’ve been working on.

There may be some problems exporting subscribers so if you’d like to continue receiving these posts, simply go to http://freelancerprojectmanagement.com (same address) and re-subscribe from Wednesday.

 

I’ll see you on the other side!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Photo by Flickr user: Omakakii

Twelve Free Project Management Software Applications

I’ve been going through some of my lists of free Project Management software applications, checking that they are still free and still available.  I currently have twelve on my list but I would be delighted to hear from you if you have any other open-source software you think I should add.

Clocking IT
ClockingIT is a free hosted application, keeping track of all your tasks and the time you spend on them.

 

 

DotProject

dotProject is a web-based project management application, designed to provide project layout and control functions.

 

 

GanttProject
GanttProject is a cross-platform desktop tool for project scheduling and management.

 

 

 

 

JxProject
JxProject is a free project management software package: a version without adverts is available for $20.

 

 

 

Open Atrium
Open Atrium is an open source team collaboration tool and includes a blog, a wiki, a calendar, a to do list, a shoutbox, and a dashboard to manage it.

 

 

 

OpenProj
OpenProj is an open-source desktop project management application similar to Microsoft Project. OpenProj opens existing MS Project files and is interoperable with Project, Gantt Charts and PERT charts.

 

 

Project HQ
Project HQ is a collaborative open source project management tool, similar to Basecamp and activeCollab.  Project HQ uses a structured workflow to assist you in managing your projects.

 

 

ProjectPier
ProjectPier is a free, open-source, PHP application for managing tasks, projects and teams through a web interface.

 

 

 

 

 

ProjectStat.us
ProjectStat.us is a service that can help you manage your customers’ project info and allow your customers to see up-to-date project information at any time.

 

 

 

 

SugarCRM
CRM-focused software. There is a free Community Edition but other software is not open source and is not free.

 

 

TaskJuggler
Free and open source software project management tool that covers most project management tasks.

 

Teambox
Teambox is a mix of social collaboration tool and online project management for sharing tasks and projects with a team.  Only free for the first three projects, then a pricing plan comes into effect.

 

 

 

Added:

Another 2 free packages:

Project in a Box
The free Community Edition of Project in a Box uses PRINCE2 materials and templates.

Tree.io
Tree.io is a cloud-based service with unlimited projects and storage.  The first 3 users are free – after that you pay $15 per user per month.

Don’t just Duck and Cover: Risk Management for Freelancers

Sometimes, things go wrong with projects. That’s life. If you are taking on a new project you can take one of two approaches when dealing with the risks that might cause your project to veer off track:

1/ Stick your head in the sand, your fingers in your ears, hum loudly and wish for the magic pixies to make them all go away, or

2/ Put together a plan for factors that could derail your project and decide what steps you can take to protect from them.

If you pick the first strategy stop reading now and Google ‘magic pixies will fix my project’ instead. If you think the second would be more appropriate for your project, read on.

Your risk management plan does not have to be fancy. The most important thing is that you are going through the process of identifying risks early on in your project planning and considering contingencies. If you get used to thinking in this way before problems arise, the battle is already half won.

Going through the following simple 4-step process with each new project should help to identify threats, decide how likely they are to occur and create a contingency plan.

Step 1: Brainstorming

Sit down, either alone or with others who will be working on this project (your project team) and take some time to think of all the reasons why your project might run into difficulties. These could be anything from

  • team members who are inexperienced in this kind of project
  • using technology that some of your team might be unfamiliar with
  • bad weather in a project that relies on outdoor work
  • a new client you haven’t worked with before
  • funding difficulties

to other, more unlikely ones such as

  • tornadoes, snowstorms or volcanic ash clouds
  • several of your team all getting sick at once
  • your client going bust

The main thing is to get them all down at this point.

Try to be specific. For example, rather than saying that the task of producing invitations to a launch party might overrun, say that producing invitations to the launch party might overrun because the outside company you are relying on to produce them might not be used to such a large order. It is much easier to come up with contingencies if you are specific.

Step 2: Ranking your risks

If you are feeling overwhelmed with disasters at this point, don’t worry!  The next step is to rank the likelihood of these risks actually happening, putting the most likely at the top.

For example, it might be very likely for a wedding photographer to experience bad weather on the day. The threat of the wedding being cancelled might be much further down on his list, with the risk of a snowstorm in July in Florida would be right down at the bottom.

Step 3: Contingency planning

This is the stage when you can start thinking of what you might do in the event that one of these risk factors starts to affect your project. Now you have ranked your risks you can decide

  • how far down the list you will look to make contingency plans
  • whether you will start that planning now or wait until the event of it actually happening.

You may decide that only the top risk factors are ever likely to happen, so you will only develop a plan for those eventualities.

Example:

Your project is to organise an event to launch a new brand of perfume. You have five people in your project team, one of whom has never worked on a launch event before. The event is in January in Boston.

You risk management strategy might look something like this:

Risk Contingency
The inexperienced staff member might underestimate how long each of their tasks will take, resulting in project delays Set up a thorough reporting schedule so that the team can track their progress against the project plan and report back frequently
Bad weather might cause transport problems on the night of the event Send out transport options with the invitations so that guests are aware of the alternatives
The client has had some funding issues so cash flow could become a problem Agree with client to be paid in stages, at each significant milestone
The catering company might be unable to meet the order Choose a second catering company to supply the drinks
Sickness may affect more than one member of the team resulting in delays to tasks Have other freelancers on standby in case of serious illness

In this instance, the team decide that the first three risks are very likely, so work on actually implementing the contingencies, but that the fourth and fifth are less likely as they have worked with the caterer before with no problems and they consider it unlikely that more than one team member will get seriously ill. They will only deal with those eventualities if they arise, rather than spending time on it now.

Step 4: Communication

It is no good in having a risk management plan if nobody knows about it. Make sure you communicate your plan with the rest of your team, and with other parties such as your client if you think it is necessary. After all, it could be you that is unable to work and your team needs to know what to do!

Photo by Flickr user Zolierdos

Keeping your eye on the ball: how to stay focused on your project goals

It’s all too easy to get sidetracked by the things that need to be done day-to-day: emails to send, invoices to pay, phone calls, thinking up new ways to market your business… Twitter…

Freelancers have to organise so many aspects of their businesses that it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture.  All these things are important, but so is the reason we set up our businesses in the first place: our freelance projects.  There’s not much point in being a freelance writer, event planner or designer if you don’t ever get time to do the writing, planning or designing!

There are four simple strategies you can adopt in order to keep your goals clear and your mind on the result.

1/ Define your project’s scope

It is much easier to keep your goals in mind if you know what they are!  Write down the goals of your project at the outset, and make sure you have agreed them with your client: you could both have very different ideas about what constitutes a successful project.  For more information, have a look at this previous post about the project scope.

2/ Track tasks

I have written previously about breaking your work down into tasks; once your project has been divided into bite-sized chunks it is much easier to keep track of your progress.  You can use a low-tech approach such as Post-it notes and a wall planner to keep track of your tasks, or use one of the multitude of software packages specifically designed for project management.

3/ Set milestones

If you have a larger project you can divide it into phases before breaking it down into tasks.  The end of each phase is denoted by a milestone, which might be something like submitting a piece of work, a website going live, your design being approved or moving from a planning to an implementation stage.

Reaching a milestone can give you a good sense of achievement and a reason to celebrate.  It helps to have smaller goals to focus on within your project when the end is too far away to see right now.

4/ Schedule in time-outs

It can be helpful at various points in your project to have a time-out to review your progress so far and look ahead at what is to come.  Reaching a milestone is an obvious point to do this, although you can do it at any time, especially if you feel that you have hit a wall.

Your time-out can be used to evaluate:

  • What is going well
  • What could be going better
  • What problems you have faced and how you overcame them
  • What you could change as you enter the next stage

By taking the time out to assess your progress you can avoid repeating mistakes and get yourself out of any ruts you might find yourself in.  You can monitor your work and consider whether you are still on track to meeting your goals or whether you are getting diverted or sidetracked.

Photo by Flickr user chispita_666

What to do if your project falls behind schedule: A 5-Point Plan

Sometimes no matter how well you plan, estimate and schedule, a project can fall behind schedule.  It may be because of something out of your control, lack of experience in that particular field or just plain old life getting in the way.

So once you have found yourself in this situation, what should you do?

1/ Don’t Panic!

The first thing to remember is not to panic.  You are behind schedule, but this is why you have a project plan: so that you recognise situations before they become problems and do something about them.

2/ Assess the situation

Take a look at your project plan and ask yourself:

  • What is the new finish date of your project if everything continues on this track?
  • What resources would be needed to bring your project back on schedule?

3/ Communication, communication, communication

It might be tempting to stick your head in the sand and hope that everything works out okay, but you will probably need to communicate with your client at this point to make some decisions.

This is why you have already assessed the situation: you can go to your client with solutions, not problems.  You may have already agreed project priorities with your client, which should help you make decisions about how to proceed, but if not the questions you need to be asking at this point are how to prioritise.

4/ Prioritise

There are three variables to a project:

  • Time
  • Quality
  • Cost

At this point, the time frame has slipped.  You need to decide which is the most important variable at this point, if you haven’t already done so.

Time

How important is the time frame?

If the project isn’t time critical, your client may appreciate an update about the new deadline but decide not to act.

If the deadline is key and cannot be moved, you and your client may choose to prioritise this over quality or cost.

Quality

The client may choose to let the quality slip in order to get the project completed on time.

An example of this might be a project to create decorations for a launch party.  Clearly the date of the party cannot be moved, but the client may choose to have fewer banners or to use pre-printed posters rather than custom-made ones in order to complete on schedule.  (Of course, you may have to take a reduced fee to compensate for the loss in quality).

Cost

Your client may decide to allocate a higher budget in order to complete the project by the deadline.  This is why you went through the assessment stage: you are now able to go to your client with an idea of what resources you will need to complete on time.  This may be anything from extra hours to hiring extra staff, more equipment or other resources.

5/ Consequences

If you are working on multiple projects, you now need to assess what the knock-on effects are for your other projects.  Are you allocating more hours to get this project completed on time, and what does that mean for your other project plans?

Remember: Don’t Panic!

Photo by Flickr user Patrick Hoesly

The Importance of Celebrating Success

In the previous post I talked about setting objectives that you can measure.  But why do you need to measure your progress?  There are four main reasons for this:

1/ To keep you on track

2/ To communicate your progress

3/ To celebrate your success!

4/ Evaluation

Keeping you on track

Too many projects fail because of inadequate planning and unrealistic expectations.  As a freelancer, missed deadlines can mean that a) you don’t get paid and b) your reputation can be damaged.

But by breaking your project down into smaller chunks and setting deadlines for each individual stage, you can keep an eye on your overall progress.  It doesn’t have to be complicated, just block out the length of time each task in your project should take and set deadlines for each one.  By keeping track of each individual task you can monitor the progress of the overall project and take care of any slippage before it becomes an issue.

Communicating your progress

You may have agreed a reporting schedule with your client but if not, achieving your milestones or objectives can be an excellent prompt for updating your progress.  (For more about communications plans take a look at my recent posts)

Celebrating your success!

The freelancing lifestyle can be tough: we frequently work alone and have to be constantly self-motivated.  It’s easy to get overwhelmed by work and feel that we are swimming against the tide.

This is where celebrating success can be very important for our own self-motivation.  If you wait until you have finished a project to celebrate your success you can become de-motivated in the meantime, especially if your projects are long-term.  This can mean you fall behind and struggle to meet deadlines.  Finishing a project can become an exhausting battle: you may be onto the next one before you have a chance to congratulate yourself on a job well done.

By giving yourself a pat on the back or small reward after each stage of your project you can really improve your motivation and therefore your productivity.

Evaluation: What went well?

Pausing at each milestone or objective can be a great chance to reflect on your work and evaluate what went well in that stage of the project and what could be improved upon.  You don’t need to spend too much time on this, but by getting in the habit of taking the opportunity to reflect on your working practices and problems you may have faced you can improve your work for future projects.

Photo by Flickr user seelensturm

Staying on Track: Setting Project Objectives that Work

What will your project produce?  What are its outcomes or deliverables?

If you are clear from the beginning what your project is going to achieve, you are not only more likely to achieve it but also save time in the long run.  Many projects become bogged down in unnecessary detail or go off at time-consuming tangents.  Having clear objectives from the outset will help you stay on track as the project progresses.

You will also see how setting measurable, defined objectives also benefits your business as a freelancer.

Woolly objectives achieve nothing

Your objectives should be agreed with your client, but ensure that you are both clear about what they are from the outset.  Remember:

  • When you are setting your project objectives you must be specific.
  • Set values, if appropriate.
  • Make sure your objectives are measurable (see below).
  • Set time parameters so that you have clear deadlines to work towards for each stage.
  • Each objective should be able to be described concisely.  If you can’t define it in a brief statement then it is probably too vague and open to interpretation.

Setting objectives you can measure

For each objective you set, state how you will measure its success.  For example, if you are designing a new website for a company you can measure how many hits it gets.  If the objective is to increase traffic to the company’s site, agree a target with them, say an increase of 20%.  Be specific, don’t say ‘about 10-30%’ as everyone will have a different interpretation about what this means.

If you have multiple objectives, set targets for each one.  For example, as well as increasing traffic generally by 20%, you may also wish to increase traffic from outside the US by 15% and repeat visits by 30%.

Setting targets is good for your business

As a freelancer, having easily measurable objectives is good for your business too.  When you are trying to attract new clients you can use these targets to demonstrate your own track record.  For example, if you can show that your websites consistently deliver a 20% increase in web traffic it is far more useful to a new client than merely having experience in web design.  They want to know what your web design will do for them.

Photo by Flickr user CJ Schmit

Do Freelancers need to set Project Milestones?

Freelancers are usually split into two camps when it comes to using project management.

  • Those who use their clients’ framework as part of their work
  • Those who create their own framework as a helpful tool to manage their projects.

In this post I will be dealing with the second group as they must make their own decisions which elements of project management they want to adopt.

 

What is a Project Milestone?

A milestone is an event during the life of a project that signifies a new stage.  Often a milestone is reached when a key task or deliverable has been achieved.

Milestones are set along the critical path of your project plan.

Why might I want to set them?

Scheduling

Setting milestones can help keep your project on schedule.  When you reach a milestone it is a chance to re-visit your project plan and identify any problems in your project schedule.

Celebrating success

Like any milestones in life, completing a stage of your project is a cause for celebration.  Especially if you are working on a long-term project, reaching a milestone can be a chance for you to congratulate yourself on a job well done.

Project evaluation

Re-visiting your project plan from time to time is essential and reaching a milestone is a good time to step back from the project and take a critical look.

  • What is going well?
  • What problems are you encountering?
  • Are your tasks realistic?
  • How about your time estimations?

Re-evaluating your project when you reach milestones is a good way to keep it on track and to identify potential problems before they become serious.

 

What are the downsides of setting milestones?

Over-complication of smaller projects

Not all projects need milestones.  Smaller projects can become unnecessarily complicated if you break them down into too many tasks and milestones.  You don’t want your project planning to take over from doing the actual work!

Non-critical task slippage

There is a danger in concentrating too much on the milestones along your critical path: you might miss the non-critical tasks that can slip as a result.  If you do set milestones be sure to use them as an opportunity to review the whole project, not just the tasks along the critical path.

 

To recap…

As with everything related to project management as a freelancer, only set milestones if you think they are useful and relevant to your projects.  Don’t over-complicate your project plan unnecessarily… but remember to celebrate your successes as you achieve them!

 

Photo by Flickr user Tim Green

5 Important Things Freelancers Forget When Scheduling Projects

You know every function of your project management software backwards and your expertise in estimating task times is second to none.  So why do your projects sometimes fall behind?

1/ You don’t have 8 hours in the day

It’s all very well being able to micro-manage your day with your shiny project management software, each minute accounted for, but you may have noticed life doesn’t work like that.  You get phone calls.  You answer tricky emails.  You might schedule 8 hours of work in the day, but it is unlikely you will actually work for that time.  As a freelancer, you still need to schedule time for general admin each day.

Tip: try to schedule admin work outside your most productive hours, maybe after lunch when your brain needs to do something a bit lighter.

Freelancers might not be able to gather around the water cooler but they can still procrastinate…


2/ You might not have a water cooler but you can still procrastinate

As someone who has worked both in the corporate world and as a freelancer, I can testify that it is entirely possible to procrastinate in a large office as well as in your home study.  You might not gather at the water cooler at home, but what about forums and blogs?  Not to mention Twitter and Facebook.

Be realistic about setting goals.  How much can you realistically get done in a day?  Plan your projects with what you actually get done in mind, not what you hope to do.

Tip: I read The Wealthy Freelancer (by Steve Slaunwhite, Pete Savage and Ed Gandia) recently, and highly recommend it for all freelancers.  One good productivity tip they had was to time yourself working in 50-minute bursts, then give yourself some time off.  Try this if you have problems with procrastination getting the better of you.  Or turn off the internet whilst you are working.

3/ Sh*t Happens

With the best will in the world, things still go wrong.  You get sick; your car breaks down and you spend a day trying to get it fixed; your kitchen floods.  As a freelancer, you can’t call into work and get someone to take over from you for the day – it’s all on you.  Build some slack into your project schedule.

Tip: If you have some over-arching personal projects on the go – maybe writing an e-book or some other long-term project, you can always use any spare slack time you have to work on these.

4/ Over-Optimism

When planning projects, experience matters in estimating the duration of time needed for your tasks.  But even the most experienced freelancer can get overly optimistic when taking on an exciting new project and rush in without considering all the variables.

Tip: Doing a risk-assessment at the beginning of each new project can help you think around each aspect of the project.  It doesn’t have to be anything fancy, just sitting down and brainstorming the sorts of problems you might encounter can really help get your project in perspective.

5/ Moving goalposts

We’ve all been there.  You think you’ve got your project under control, things are rolling along exactly to plan… then the phone rings.  It’s your client and they ‘just want a few changes’.

Moving goalposts are one of the top reasons projects overrun their deadlines, and this is outside your ability to control.

Tip: The good news is that you can do something about it.  Setting out an agreement at the beginning of the project can help protect you from moving goalposts.  You can specify that changes to your agreement will need to be considered separately – either you can charge more for the amended project goals or agree an extended deadline, or both.  Don’t be afraid to be assertive from the beginning – it is better than missing deadlines later.

Photo by Flickr user Just Chaos

Managing Multiple Projects: Problems and Solutions

Freelancers often work on several projects at once, and working as a freelancer can bring some unique challenges.  But just how do you keep all the balls in the air?

Problem #1: Project updates are taking over your life

Problem: You have three clients who all phone you constantly to get project updates.  They all want assurance that their project is getting top priority but you are spending so much time giving updates you are falling behind.

Solution: You need to put a Communications Plan in place so that they know when to expect progress reports.  Good communication doesn’t necessarily mean frequent communication, it is about making the client feel reassured that the project is on track.

Problem #2: Unbalanced workload

Problem: One of your projects is taking over.  You never seem to have any time to deal with the others and the work is piling up whilst deadlines are looming.

Solution: Time management is key here.  Breaking projects down into tasks and scheduling them in a calendar can help you see what time you have for each project.  If it looks like you really aren’t going to meet your deadlines you need to talk to your clients to decide how to prioritise you time, quality and costs. Discussing problems early on means that you can start creating solutions – don’t wait until after the deadline when it is too late.

Problem #3: Work overload

Problem: You’ve bitten off more than you can chew: you have more work than hours in the day, but you just don’t feel you can turn projects down.

Solution: You need to introduce some project planning to estimate your capacity before you take on more work.  Create project plans for each of your projects and put them together to make a master-plan.  You can use a low-tech approach with a simple wall planner or else try one of the many free or low-cost project planning software packages available.

Now when a client comes to you with a project you can look at your master-plan and see if you have any spare capacity.

N/B Clients are generally much happier to be told that you can’t take on a project outright rather than dealing with missed deadlines or sloppy work later.

Photo by Flickr user Helico

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