Freelancer Project Management

Project Management Advice for Productive Freelancing

Projects vs Tasks: How to Break Down Your Work and Get Back In Control

It’s easy to get bogged down in To Do Lists and feel like you’re drowning under Post-it Notes.

Especially if you have multiple projects on the go, it can be difficult to know where to start with your workload and swimming can very soon turn into drowning.  Even though it feels like you are working hard, your productivity can drop as your stress levels rise.

But by breaking Projects down into Tasks you can very quickly regain control of your work and once again feel like you’re back in your element.  With this simple method you don’t have to learn to use project management software either.

1/ Know the Difference between a Project and a Task

I have covered What We Mean By A Project on a previous post but put simply, a project:

  • Is a piece of work with a defined beginning and end
  • Has a specific goal or objective
  • Takes place within a pre-arranged timeframe

A task on the other hand:

  • Is a defined piece of work within a project
  • Can be seen as a ‘unit’ of a project: the smallest parts that a project can be broken down into.

2/ Write a List

This is the brainstorming part.

Write down everything that has to happen in your project for it to be completed.  These are your tasks.

You might like to group them into tasks and sub-tasks: for example, if you are organising a conference the task ‘ordering technology’ might be broken down into ‘ordering laptops’, ‘ordering video conferencing technology’ and so on.

This will become your Task List.

3/ Organise Your List

Re-organise your list into chronological order, noting what tasks are dependent on the previous tasks being completed.

4/ Assign Timeframes to your Tasks

Note down how long you expect each task to take.  Try to be accurate – it is worth getting this stage right.

5/ Work Backwards

Working back from your deadline, write each task down in your calendar or work organiser.

You may have to re-assess the length of some of the tasks if they look like over-running.  If they really can’t be done more quickly this is an indication you may need to use extra resources, such as paying for extra staff or equipment, to get the task completed on time.

It is best you know this now so you can plan ahead.

Remember that if a task is dependent on another one being completed, it must be scheduled after it.  If not, you can have several tasks running concurrently.

Once you have done this you can see if there is any slack time or time when you can schedule extra, non-dependent tasks to save time later.

6/ Multiple Projects

Go through the same process for each of your projects.

Once you start plotting the tasks on your work organiser you’ll build up a comprehensive work schedule that you can work to.

You can tick off tasks on your Task Lists as they are completed, giving you a feeling of satisfaction.

Hey presto!  You are in control and back in your element!

Photo by Flickr user WJ (Bill) Harrison

Your Story: Freelancers Using Project Management

Are you a freelancer who uses project management techniques to organise your work?  If so, I’d love a guest post from you on what sort of work you do, how you manage your projects, what sort of software you use, the problems you typically face and how you overcome them.

Please email me at if you are interested.

Photo by Flickr user Fidelio

What Makes an Effective Communications Plan?

As a freelancer running a project, you should consider having a communications plan to share the progress of your project with your client and any other stakeholders.

Having a regular reporting schedule means that your client can be assured that they don’t have to waste their own time chasing you up – they know that the information they need will be delivered to them when they need it in the manner that suits them.  They can see when to expect updates.  If you establish a communications plan from the outset they know that you will raise any issues with them before they become problems.  That leaves you to get on with the job.

The key to a good communications plan is that it should deliver the right information at the right time to the right person in the right way.

The right people: people with a stake in the project are called stakeholders.  Freelancers need to identify who are the key stakeholders and how they should be informed of the progress of the project.

The right information: stakeholders closer to the project will need more detail than those not directly involved, who only need the headlines.  They need to know whether the project is on target and of any potential problems that they need to deal with personally.

The right time: Stakeholders closest to the project might need daily updates, whereas those not directly involved might want updates only once a week or once a month, depending on the length of the project and that person’s involvement.

The right way: Phone calls, emails, electronic newsletters and meetings are all ways you might choose to communicate with the project’s stakeholders.  You need to decide which method is appropriate for each level of involvement.

Example:

Lee, a freelance events organiser is hired by an national supermarket chain to plan their annual conference.  The Human Resources department are in charge of planning events and the specific contact there is Cindy.  Cindy, her manager Terry and Laura, the head of HR, all need to be kept updated on the project, as do several of the company’s senior managers.

They don’t all need the same level of detail or regularity of updates.

Cindy needs a brief conversation by telephone each morning to discuss the day-to-day progress and an email at the end of the day giving an update.  Lee shares the project plan with her whenever it is revised so that she can report on progress and budget to her department.  Cindy’s manager, Terry, needs to be copied in on the daily email and should have a quick email at the end of each week to show progress and flag up any concerns.  Laura, the Head of HR is also copied into this.

Lee produces a brief bulletin twice a month to give an overview of the project for Laura and the senior managers.

Lee develops his communication plan with Cindy, as she can identify the key stakeholders and how they should be updated.

Lee’s communication plan looks something like this:

Stakeholder Medium Frequency Information
Cindy Email/phone 

Project plan

Daily 

When updated

Details of costs, schedule, problems, solutions
Terry Email 

Email

Daily 

Weekly

Overview of costs, schedule, problems, solutions
Laura Bulletin (by email) Twice monthly Overview of costs, schedule, high-level problems and solutions
Senior manager Bulletin (by email) Twice monthly Overview of costs, schedule, high-level problems and solutions

As the project progresses other stakeholders become involved and the communications plan is reviewed as necessary.  As a freelancer, you will find that each organisation you work with has different reporting mechanisms and preferred methods of communication.

For more on project communication within your project team, see Project Communication: 10 Top Tips

Project Communications: 10 Top Tips

Good communication within the project team is essential for dealing with issues before they become problems, identifying risks, setting priorities and preventing the timeframe from slipping.

Freelancers are likely to be managing a virtual project team, one that is not located in the same building and often made up of other freelancers.  They may not even be in the same time zone or country.

Freelancers work outside the normal reporting mechanisms of a company – often physically outside the building, as well as outside the organizational structure.  Being outside the normal communication channels can bring challenges for project communication.

10 Top Tips for Effective Communication:

1/ Be sure that the whole team understand the project’s objectives and priorities from the outset.  They will appreciate their role within the team and will be better able to identify problems early on.

2/ Language barriers can be an issue, even within English-speaking countries.  Clarify terms and jargon in the initial stages to ensure that everyone understands what is meant.

3/ If you are sharing project documentation with the team, make sure they are able to open the files.  Use software that everyone is able to download.  You could use a system such as Dropbox to share large files and folders.

4/ You will need to share the project plan as it is updated – be sure all your team members have access to the right software so they can view it.  You may need to spend some time on training to ensure the whole team is comfortable using it.  The Useful Links section of this site has links to free project management applications.

5/ Often, your team members will not be able to physically get together in the same room.  While face-to-face meetings are often viewed as an important part of a successful project team, especially in the initial stages, technology such as Skype and VoIP can enable video conferencing and conference calls as an inexpensive way of arranging team meetings.

6/ Be aware that your project team may very well have other projects on the go other than yours (especially if the team consists of freelancers).  Establishing regular updates from your team can help keep your project on track.

7/ If you are working with a team from other countries, pay attention to cultural differences.  A team member may be not be as overt as you in highlighting problems.  Be sensitive: what are they really saying?

8/ You may need to work harder to boost the morale of your team members if you cannot physically get them in the same room.  Using the phone instead of emailing or holding video calls can help bring some personality to your communication.

9/ Setting up a private forum such as Google Groups can help bridge time zones for discussing non-urgent aspects of the project with the whole team.

10/ Keep reviewing your communications to ensure that they are working effectually.

Planning your Project: Using Internet Forums as a Resource

When I was young we had a fascinating book called ‘How To Do Just About Anything’.  This was the book you went to for step-by-step advice if you wanted to hem a curtain, change the oil in your car, treat insect bites, shuffle cards professionally or clean a hot tub.  You didn’t need to be an expert, you just needed to know where to look.

These days we have the Internet as a research tool, which is a vital resource when project planning.  A successful project depends upon accurate planning, especially in predicting the duration and cost of each task, but you don’t need to be an expert to plan accurately – you just need to know where to look.

A freelancer who is planning a project may very well need to research tasks of which they have very little experience.  Making guesses at this stage is going to lead to problems along the line which can be easily avoided with some research.

Internet forums for freelancers are a great place to get advice and ask questions if you need information in your project planning stage.  For instance:

  • They are invaluable if you are putting together a team of freelancers from other disciplines to your own.
  • You can use them to get an idea of costs if you are calculating estimates.
  • You can get advice if you are new to running your own project team.
  • Other freelancers may have very different ways of working to you – you may need to understand work practices before committing yourself.
  • You can ask questions about technical specifications or other considerations that you are not familiar with.

Listed beneath are five forums specifically for freelancers:

Talk Freelance
Freelance Switch
Freelance UK
Freelance Forum
Why Do Work

It is worth taking your time to get your project plan accurate now; what you skimp on in the planning phase may well cost you time and money later.

New Year, New You: Using Project Management to Find Yourself

It is January, the time many of us take stock, look around and examine the year behind and the year ahead.  Not for nothing was the Roman god Janus from whom we take the name depicted with two faces, one looking forwards and one looking back.

Project Management can be a powerful tool for taking control of our work and becoming more organised and therefore more productive.  We can identify slack time and build in extra tasks.  We stay two steps ahead and anticipate problems, identifying and implementing solutions before they hit.  We can stay calm and focussed.

For freelancers, using Project Management to organise our workflow can lead to new opportunities that we didn’t think possible.  If we begin to see our whole lives as a series of tasks and blocks of time to be organised and arranged, we are able to identify the slack time in our lives as a whole where we may have room for growth.

Many freelancers work from home with non-specified hours; we don’t have to worry about putting in the ‘face time’ many office workers have to.  Working on a project basis means that we work to each task: once the task is done we move onto the next one.  This can be a very efficient way of working.

While we have hours in the day when we are typically more productive, we may have other hours which would be put to better use doing something different.  If we see these as slack time, we can build in other, non-work, projects.  Education, fitness, social… it’s up to us.  As long as we manage them like we would every other project, there’s no reason why we can’t fit in some extra-curricular activities in the times when our office-based colleagues would be chatting at the water-cooler, surfing the internet or even commuting.  Maybe we can work later to compensate if we need to.

Freelancers can make the most of not being tied to the standard work day and start to think outside the 9-5 box.

Project Management Basics Downloads

I have added three new documents in the ‘Useful Downloads’ section to the right of the blog:

Basics 1: Defining a Project

Basics 2: The Project Scope

Basics 3: Prioritising Quality, Time and Cost

These are all aimed at freelancers who haven’t had much experience with Project Management before and want to learn more.  Each one contains a short exercise to apply to your own work to set you on the right path.

Next up, we’ll be looking at breaking a project down into tasks to aid planning.

 

Further reading: Project Management Hut has some good articles in their Project Management For Beginners section.

The Freelance Folder: 10 Free Project Management Applications

Here is an excellent post from The Freelance Folder I found which lists ten free Project Management software applications, plus five paid-for packages if you need something more.  It is written by Laura Spencer, who blogs about freelance writing here.

I’ll be going into more detail about software in later posts, but for now this is a great starting point.

Also, check out the ‘Useful Links’ section (right) for more information about project software.

Project Management Basics: The Project Scope

Outlining the Project

One of the features that sets project management for freelancers apart from project management in large organisations is how we are expected to outline a project.  In large organisations there will be standard template Project Initiation Documents that will help managers work through the various steps of the outlining process.  These will be agreed and signed off by the managers or contractors involved.  Decisions about quality, cost and time are typically made at this early stage.

When freelancers take on a project there will usually be some sort of meeting to discuss what the client expects from the project, and usually a contract is signed, but the sorts of questions posed by a Project Initiation Document might not ever be discussed.  This can have major consequences later: the client and the freelancer might have very different ideas about what is expected from the project.  If something goes wrong should the quality or the timescale slip?  What about cost?  The freelancer might not want the quality of their work to suffer but the client might prefer to bring something in at extra cost if it means delivering on time.
Not asking these questions at the beginning can have huge consequences for the project later on, or can permanently damage relationships between the freelancer and the client.

Asking the Right Questions

Just because you don’t have standard documentation that everyone works through and signs off on, doesn’t mean you can’t ask the right questions at the initial stages of the project.

Scope

The freelancer and the client both need to agree at the outset what is the scope of the project.

By scope we mean defining the boundaries of the project.  This takes the Project Statement explained in the previous post a step further.

Example: A website launch

A business called ‘Kitty-Kat Industries’ takes on several designers to deal with different aspects of a new website for the launch of their new product, ‘Eco-Kat’.  If the graphic designer is expected to design nothing more than the logo it is a waste of his time to go further and design the entire colour scheme and themes.  If the designer’s contract is for him to charge by the hour the misunderstanding could lead to some big problems if the client refuses to pay him for his extra  work.

If you clarify the scope from the outset of the project it will help you deliver what the client wants at the end.

The graphic designer’s project statement might look something like this:

“The project is to deliver a new logo for KittyKat Industries’ ‘Eco-Kat’ product launch by 1st May 2011 for $500, to the industry standard specifications.”

The scope would be an expansion of this, and would list resources he is using, both man hours and physical resources, more details about the size of the project, the budget and time:

“The designer will have the use of one of the desks at KittyKat Industries, but will provide his own laptop and software.  One of our interns will be made available to him for 10 hours per week for the duration of the project.  The logo will be delivered as a JPEG file with a minimum file size of 6MB utilising the ‘Eco-Kat’ standard colours.  The fee of $500 is to include all other resources and materials.”

Exercise:

Can you expand on your project statement to produce a project scope?  If you have difficulty it may be becuase aspects of the project are not clearly defined at this stage.  You may need to clarify these before you go any further.

 

For more information about prioritising quality, cost and time, please see the download Project Management Basics 3: Prioritising Quality, Cost and Time.

Project Management Basics: What we mean by a ‘Project’?

A project:

* Is a piece of work with a defined beginning and end

* Has a specific goal or objective

* Takes place within a pre-arranged timeframe

What makes freelancing so appealing is that freelancers are usually hired to work on a project-by-project basis and get the satisfaction of a completed job, rather than work the routine day-to-day slog so many salaried workers complain about.

Examples of projects:

1) A freelance documentary director is hired to work on a one-off documentary about hats.  The objective is the finished documentary.  The project runs from the time the director is commissioned by the producer, to the day that filming is wrapped (or whenever their services are no longer required).

2) A wedding planner is hired by a couple to plan and organise their Big Day: that is the objective.  The project starts when the couple hire the planner and finishes when the wedding day is over (or shortly after if the planner is dealing with the photography albums etc).

3) A graphic designer is hired by a company called ‘Kitty-Kat Industries’ to design a logo for the launch of their new product, ‘Eco-Kat’.  The objective is delivering the logo to the required specifications.  The designer’s project would be finished once the logo and any associated material has been delivered.

 

Multiple Projects:

Of course, many wedding planners, writers, artists, PR consultants and other freelancers may take on several projects at once.  This is where being able to effectively manage your projects really comes into its own.

 

Exercise: Writing a Project Statement

Your project statement can help you focus on what is important and should be agreed by you and your client before you begin.  You should be able to define your project in one sentence.  Keep referring back to your project statement if you are getting bogged down in the details of your project.

Unlike in the world of big business, you most likely won’t sign off on the statement, but it will form the basis of your contract.  It is more for you to help condense the project down into its essentials.

The project statement defines:

  • the objective
  • the budget
  • the timeframe
  • the quality expected, if appropriate

Example: The graphic designer’s project statement might look something like this:

“The project is to deliver a new logo for KittyKat Industries’ ‘Eco-Kat’ product launch by 1st May 2011 for $500, to the industry standard specifications.”

Have a go at defining your project in one sentence.