project management, aka, your hand is not your day planner

Day planner of 17th- century scholar Placcius.

“Day planner” of 17th- century scholar Placcius.

ah, what to say about project management and grant writing?  that they are necessary evils?  sorting through the links and info pages in this week’s reading had that same queasy, fluorescent light feel of trying to survive eight hours of screen staring during the data entry desk job. if only money appeared out of nowhere and projects unfurled by the magical force of their sheer worth.

my relationship to that which we are referring to as project management is one of reluctant hope.  people, it seems, forever and ever, have been looking for ways to best organize their time, thoughts, activities, resources, collaborations, etc.  the 18th century puritanical preacher jonathan edwards used to pin his notes to clothes so as not to forget.  emerson kept an intricate and extensive journal system that allowed him to cross reference one book to another.  the 17th-century scholar Vincent Placcius turned his notebook into a hulking piece of furniture (see above).  and who can forget memento, whose protagonist inundates himself with tattoos, stickies, & polaroids to combat an amnesia that seems, metaphorically, to parallel the inevitable forgetfulness of the information-overloaded subject of today’s world.

sure some of this may sound more like notetaking rather than official project management, but who’s to say where one ends and another begins. despite my attempts to enforce a logic on my many different types of lists of thinking and doing, my projects/tasks/notes-to-self currently exist in so many different forms that i begin to wonder if i would not do better with none of them at all.  i know i’m not alone.  after the research management workshop last week, students asked whether there might be workshops on just calendars and organization.  i can’t imagine a less sexy topic.  yet it seems, if we could just sort out these two little things, the world would be ours! and so, i can see why an entire institute (PMI) has arisen over this otherwise banal topic even if i’d almost rather read ten pages of source code.

there is of course project management of one’s life and all its many cubbies, and group project management. they are not so wildly different. one of the problems is not so much writing tasks down or keeping up with tasks that are laid out before one — the problem is keeping up with all the different places one orchestrates their project management.  personally, i have a paper day planner, a phone calendar with alerts, a list making app and a note taking app on my phone, multiple groups on the cuny academic commons, stickies on my desktop, evernote to-do-lists, a membership with the project management tool asana for my fellowship duties, a membership with the digital tool trello as of five minutes ago for experimental purposes, and of course, for those few not-to-be-forgottens-!, the back of my hand which currently reads “blog post.” (the latter is reserved for only the most pressing (read late) as it is a practice i detest!) it seems it would take me an entire day just to go through all these different places and so i don’t and the result is that on top of all this technology, at the end of the day, the main task master is exactly what i’ve been trying to supplement — my memory.    though the idea of one universal “project manager” is wildly appealing (and one that many of the tools we’re looking at this week promise), it seems flat out impossible.  my day planner doesn’t come with alerts and can be misplaced, my phone calendar isn’t as accessible and flexible as my day planner, only the online platforms enable discussion functionality with collaborators through email, etc etc.  furthermore, i’ve become increasingly wary of trying new tools and systems for there is always the certain risk (or near promise) that despite the time one puts into the new tool, they will only further fracture and confuse one’s already too-complex ecosystem of project management methods.  and when one already has so much to do, who has time to adopt to a new system!

this is not to say that i think improvements are impossible, only that they will take a lot of research, time and experimentation to find out, and that one must make peace with the fact as soon as possible, that a) neither will the tools be the final solution nor b) will there ever be a utopian solution. while i think it’s great that terry smith’s fourth grade class had a positive experience with project management, i think that has more to do with terry smith than with the tools employed. i can easily see the same project-management inspired classroom becoming a total bureaucratic nightmare. for while writing about project management, and acknowledging its worth and necessity (in our social/economic context), i’m also wondering what this increasing cultural obsession with project management and its tools reflects. it parses individual and social activity into something that can always be boiled down into a mission statement, time frame and dollar sign. great for getting projects done, meeting deadlines, satisfying the bottom line, etc, but not so great, at least personally, for feeling enthused about a project. is this a sign of something else in decline? am i just being whiney? is there room to interrogate this a little?

i have little to say at the moment on grant writing.  the literature here will be much more compelling, i imagine, when using it to apply to the actual writing of a grant which it seems we will all have ample opportunity to consider as we formulate our itp projects.  for someone who finds the construction of even the most minute forms of professional correspondence to be a rather mind-paralyzing activity, these examples look particularly helpful in breaking down the immense task of grant writing into a sort of manageable paint-by-number activity.  at any rate, here are a few more questions:

what project management tools/systems do you use, whether for personal projects or group projects? 

has anyone had experience writing grants?  how do you approach it? are there ways to make the task less daunting, more personal? 

7 thoughts on “project management, aka, your hand is not your day planner

  1. Julie Fuller

    Erin, I agree with you about the problem posed by trying to stay on top of “all the different places one orchestrates their project mangagement.” I think this is also complicated by the fact that project management is often project(s) management. I find that I am often forced to work on an “order of operations” structure, tackling whatever project or whatever aspect of a project is due most immediately and then queuing everything else up in accordance. I’m thinking of all the times during the semester when I tell myself, “If I can only get through the _____ I absolutely have to get done by this week, I’ll finally have time to focus on _____.” So I am usually working on several projects at once, but am only able to devote attention to any one in fits and starts.

    The thing I find challenging about this is not just trying to juggle the management of multiple projects. In my experience there is often a misalignment between getting inspiration on a project and finding time to work on it. What I mean is that often an idea about a project (usually in the form of a research paper) comes to me when I am not actually sitting down to work on the project, usually in fact when I have something else entirely that requires priority in my order of operations. So I jot down a note about the idea–and generally misplace it because I’m notorious for scribbling on random scraps of paper (coming back to Erin’s point about the difficulty of staying on top of all the places we orchestrate our projects). By the time I do get to sit down and work on the project, part of that inspirational excitement behind the idea has passed. Sometimes I can get it back, sometimes I wonder if it would have been better to stop what I was doing and dive in headlong whenever and wherever inspiration strikes. But that would approach would really do a number on my order of operations!

    I guess what I’m saying is the practicalities of project management are a drag–as you point out, Erin, calendars and organization just aren’t intellectually sexy. So my real question about project management is: how do we manage and sustain the (much sexier) intellectual inspiration that undergirds our projects?

    1. Julie Fuller

      Oh and to make all of this digitally relevant…can technology help us capitalize upon the stimulation that sustains our excitement about projects? I’m no so sure…

  2. Philip

    Erin, I enjoyed reading your brief history of project management, especially that “chair planner”! Google Calendar is one tool that has really helped me organize my personal projects, like part time ed jobs, adjuncting and my research. It does seem a little banal to be talking calendars, but I think there are a few key affordances to the calendar in the cloud.

    Relating to Julie’s post, perhaps the greatest difference between the G Calendar and a typical pocket planner is the that I never misplace it (though sometimes I do enter things in the wrong date like March 2030 instead of next week).

    In addition, I much appreciate being able to update it from nearly anywhere, and then it sends me an email, a day or an hour before, depending on the setting. Often I don’t need that email reminder because the act of entering in an appointment into the calendar is a way of enforcing memory in itself. In addition, having entered the info allows me to ‘feel’ more organized and then I am able to focus on the task at hand in a more productive way.

    Finally, I don’t use my G Calendar for collaborative purposes but have occasionally been sent invites that show up there and have friends who report they share a calendar with their partner, and then have a calendar that is their own too. So I imagine this could work for research projects too.

  3. Anderson Evans

    Really loved the interesting historical highlights of project management innovation! I find there is some major irony in the world of Project Management these days. I don’t know how many books I’ve picked up that give instruction on research project management, and the saddest part is, I always have to put them down before I am through because the subject of my research must be read and studied before I ever finish those damn tomes. This becomes a microcosm of my entire absurd process. It is only when I am employed that this system is replaced by a less absurd one, as I have that golden-ring called a pay-check to wrangle my attention.

    I am very good at organizing things as a singular task, but can never seem to keep the whole of my “work” organized. My desktop for instance is a mess of very organized folders that necessitate about 5 other organized folders (some of which are repetitive) to get a complete view of any singular project (which is almost always unfinished… ah we children of the 80s and our ADD).

    “By the time I do get to sit down and work on the project, part of that inspirational excitement behind the idea has passed. Sometimes I can get it back, sometimes I wonder if it would have been better to stop what I was doing and dive in headlong whenever and wherever inspiration strikes.” — All I have to say to that one is DITTO!

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  5. Jennifer Stoops

    The Urban Eduction online journal, TRAUE, has certainly struggled with project management. In addition to the very basic issues of scheduling and time constraints, the editorial department represents a pretty vast spectrum of technological know-how to add to the challenges it faces. There are some folks who have dipped their toes into digital communication & feel fairly comfortable with email on one side to experienced coders on the other side.

    Without buy-in from a group (whether it’s two people or 50), no planning tool will be able to transcend the chaos. To varying degrees of success, I think TRAUE has used, as a means of communication and document management, the following tools and social media:

    Wiggio, Trello, CUNY Academic Commons group, Dropbox, Google drive, Doodle polls, email, Facebook, Twitter, OJS, WordPress (thru the Commons)

    In my observation, folks have experimented with various tools and then have discarded them. It’s an ever-evolving process of purposeful play, but certainly not efficient. I would be curious to know more about how JITP manages itself and how the editorial collective has been able to publish more regularly than TRAUE, and what structures were absolutely essential to facilitate buy-in and consensus.

  6. Bronwyn

    Erin asks “I’m also wondering what this increasing cultural obsession with project management and its tools reflects.” Lord knows I’d rather think about that than about actually planning my dissertation project, so here are some thoughts …

    First – the conditions under which we are laboring. This need to manage and multitask has to be in some way connected to the fact that most people’s jobs are increasingly precarious, and more people have to do more than one job to make a living, right? As CUNY grad students, for example, we have this 5-8 year project we have to complete, and in the mean time we patch together work in the form of grant-based fellowships which have different sets of time frames, we try to write journal articles to plan for the future, and we teach in yet another time frame, and then sometimes we have personal time left over. We don’t have guaranteed income and we don’t have the time/space to focus on any one thing in a big-picture sense. We are self-managers, but only to the extent that we manage how to spread ourselves across the many jobs we have to do to survive. Remember that EP Thompson piece we read in Core II about industrialization and time-space compression (or something)? That is what I am vaguely recalling here, I guess. Our sense of time is structured by the conditions of our work (duh? I don’t know…)

    Also, when I think about project management and read these project management “tomes” (as Anderson named them) I think about the NGOs I’m familiar with being increasingly subject to project-management guidelines because the grant-based funding structures they exist within force them to define scope, identify timelines, and anticipate and measure outcomes. This effectively depoliticizes projects that usually start out with some kind of social justice orientation. These constraints shape the world we live in by re-directing the work of these organizations toward working to sustain the organization itself.

    It is all so NEOLIBERAL. I don’t know what that means, really, but to me, here, it means that a particular type of discipline and rationality is being constructed through these project management enterprises. Projects are being constructed as things to be managed, and management is constructed as a technical skill. Well-managed projects have clearly defined inputs and predictable outputs, conflict is risk and is something that can be avoided through proper management.

    What if group projects are just always going to be difficult because people have different interests and ideas that conflict? And because the struggle between structuring space for autonomy while sharing a common vision is, like, a fundamental political dynamic that is never settled? What if a dissertation is difficult to write because it requires we make tough value-based choices about what to pursue/what not to/what to include/what to leave out? It’s not like there is academic agreement about what a proper theory-method-outcome plan looks like. In the project management literature these things are talked about as if there “a way” and that you can learn it by buying a $65 project management book (and if you have the 2nd edition that probably won’t work, go pick up the 5th). We all need pointers about how to play the game of writing and getting grants, but it is a (political) game, not a science.

    I would be really relieved to have a tool that helped me manage my work better. My systems of organization tend toward the ones Julie and Erin described (ex. lots of writing on my hands at all times). But I think it would also maybe be a relief to think about these things as difficult because they involve a bunch of decisions without right or wrong answers, not because we’re disorganized.

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