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The Project Management Problem

~ By David Allen

Senior lecturer in front of his class

A vast majority of professionals think they have a problem these days, project management. Problem is, that's not the problem. Well, it is, but not the way they usually think it is. Let me be a little more vague.

I am often asked by line managers and training people if I have a good project management seminar for their people. My first response is, What exactly do you mean by project management? Very few have an immediately good answer. They've often just heard it as a need from their reports or their constituents. I then ask, Do you have people who need to know how to lay out a Gantt chart or detailed critical path for complex projects like constructing a building or implementing a new corporate information system? Or do you have people who feel like they're overwhelmed with the load of things to do, many of which can't be finished in one simple action step? Usually it's some combination of the two, but mostly it's the latter.

I call anything a "project" that is likely to not be finished with one action step, or in one sitting. A trip coming up? That's a project (finalise convention trip). Need clarification on your new job responsibilities? That's a project (clarify new job description with boss). Need to look into consultants for the website you think you need? That's a project (R&D Web consultants). My experience with thousands of people over the years indicates that most people have 20-50 of those kinds of projects at any one time.

Problem #1: I've never seen any two of those projects that needed the same amount of planning or detailing of steps to get them under control. It ranges from three bullet points on the back of an envelope in a coffee shop (usually your most productive thinking), to days of intensive planning with a group of a dozen people, with pages of outlined steps, critical path, etc. So most single project planning or project management models would under or over-plan most of our projects.

Problem #2: How do we integrate "horizontal" vs. "vertical" control? Vertical thinking is about how we detail out a single project, theme, or topic. If that's all we ever had to think about, we could feel pretty comfortable with a model that helped us think through the steps of anything. The second day of my Getting Things Done seminar gives a great Natural Planning Model for what questions to answer, in what order, that most efficiently makes things happen. Horizontal thinking, however, has to look across all the hundreds of parts of dozens of things we need to keep tabs on during the course of any 24-hour period. It often requires that we be extremely flexible in recalibrating when to do what actions on multiple things we have going at one time. The horizontal usually blows the hell out of our vertical!

The only way to really get all this together is a holographic approach to all of it. It requires that we know how to think rapidly through a project, problem, or topic as required (vertical, natural planning); capture the results of that thinking and plug it in appropriately to the whole mix of action reminders and information we might need to access; and scan the complete horizon regularly enough to trust our intuition about what we need to do and by when.

It's possible, but not an easy task. We need to think and capture as much as we need to do, to get things off our mind; and fly by the seat of our pants amidst the results.


The David Allen Company is a professional training, coaching, and management consulting organisation, based in Ojai, California. Its purpose is to enhance performance and improve the quality of life by providing the world's best information, education, and products in the fields of personal productivity and work/life balance. You can find out more about David Allen and GTD at Getting Things Done


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