Once upon a time, I used to manage fairly large multimedia projects involving anywhere from four to a dozen people. Besides myself, there were also several other managers in various parts of the company who were faced with trying to handle projects with diverse multi-disciplinary teams filled with regular employees, temps, freelancers and employees culled from various divisions. We tried a few different types of approaches for managing these tricky projects, including:

  • Gantt charts and task lists produced by Microsoft Project
  • Web-based scheduling and task management software, including three types of groupware
  • Paper-based forms, delivered each morning by the PM (the Project Manager, not the Prime Minister) and completed by the team at end-of-day
  • Outlook+Exchange for distributed tasks and calendars
  • Daily email reminders of deadlines and uncompleted tasks
  • Standing over the shoulders of employees and constantly asking, “Is it done yet? Why not?”

Being the “high-tech” guy, I generally advocated and experimented with the web-based ones, while others tried various approaches almost at random, according to mood or the best-seller flavour of the day.

So which one worked the best, on average? None of the above, unfortunately. It was a decidedly low-tech PM approach, notionally borrowed from a past A/V production department, which seemed to yield the best results. This department had a huge blackboard that it used to track personnel used for its projects. People referred to it each and every day as they walked past it (it was in a “lobby” between the offices), and there was never an excuse to double-book a team member or forget a deadline. I adapted a version of it for a whiteboard, using standard planner-style methodologies. I began to refer to it as a “warboard”, which lent a certain urgency and importance to it.

How to create one? Well, put up a whiteboard in a place that each member of the team visits or passes several times a day, such as a production room, a hallway, or even a lunch room. It should be a fairly short walk from any of the offices, and front-of-mind. It should be a large board (minimum 5 feet wide): if you only have small ones, put up two or even three. Devote half the space to the “hard landscape”, a two-month block calendar with deadlines, employee in/out days, holidays, and major resource allocations (such as a boardroom or a major piece of equipment in use). The other half, devote to the projects and team members. Write down each major project, the team for each one, and the deadline. Then for each team member, write down their next two or three actions. The PM should update these lists whenever tasks are completed or set; he or she should also have a “master list” on file for project tasks –this can come from a Gantt chart– as well as a list of all reference materials and to whom they are loaned.

A few quick tips, gleaned from experience…. Using a thin- or medium-sized whiteboard marker helps save space, and you can fit a lot more on the board in a neater fashion. Use different colours for different types of projects. Keep plenty of spare markers in your desk drawer. You can create a two-month grid using a permanent marker and a yardstick, so that you only have to wipe off the whiteboard markers each month, and the grid stays. (An alternative would be to use a very large laminated calendar, but this isn’t highly visible, nor can you fit much on them.)

It works well. For the employees, there is never an excuse for not doing your job, plus having others know your tasks is a source of both motivation and ownership. For the PMs, resource allocation isn’t generally a problem, and you know that your team is aware of their responsibilities and deadlines far ahead of time. It’s decidedly low-tech, but it’s probably one of the most effective project management tools I’ve seen yet. I wouldn’t want to manage hundreds of people with it, but it’s great up to a dozen or so, especially in a fairly close-knit organisation.

Even if I’m working solo on a project, I still tend to produce a warboard. When projects accumulate and deadlines fly quickly, and I’m in danger of verving into crunch or crisis management territory, it helps to have a whiteboard –however small– within easy view and reach. I populate it with material from my planner, so the two remain in sync.

I wasn’t aware of GTD at the time, but the process of warboarding is a very snug fit indeed.