[Interview] Elizabeth Harrin on her professional project management workflow

By September 7, 2015Project Management
Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin

Hi Elizabeth, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. Can you start by telling our readers who you are and what you do?

Hi. I’m a project manager and writer. I’ve written three books on project management and I also write the blog A Girl’s Guide to Project Management. That talks a lot about communication, teams and stakeholder management because I think those are the areas that are important if you want to get work done. The technical side of project management is all well and good, but my particular interests lie in how we can use leadership and soft skills to get the best out of people.

I coach project managers too, and work as a project manager, so I always have one foot in the real world.

So you manage projects and coach others too, as well as writing about them. You must be busy! What tools do you use to stay on top of your client projects? Software? Emails? Phone calls? Paper and pen?

Ha! Yes, I rely heavily on paper and pens, maybe it’s the writer in me. I even have special pens for special occasions.

I use everything you’ve mentioned there. I do send a lot of emails, probably because a lot of my clients are in the U.S. and I’m at work before they’re even awake. But I also use spreadsheets and scheduling tools, and I am trying to do more and more over the phone because it’s a nicer way to stay in touch.

How do you send status updates to clients?

I use a variety of methods because I think it’s important that you tailor your communication to the audience. So for my immediate team, we’ll get more detailed status updates from each other and they make a lot of sense. But the information in them wouldn’t make sense for the company’s senior managers. My job often involves stripping out the jargon, paring back the updates until they are simple and clear. Then that’s what gets sent on.

In terms of tools, I use email, Word documents and formal and informal templates.

What works about that process? What could use work?

What works? Well, the right people get what they want to know in a format that they can use and open on their smartphones, at a level of information that makes sense for their involvement in the project, so that’s good.

The bit that could use work is that it’s very directional. Sending updates via email means you never get much feedback about whether the process is working or whether the recipient has understood it. I’d like to be better at including that feedback loop.

Great, thanks! One thing we recognize in the digital world is “project management” is often used synonymously with “task management”. How would you explain the difference to someone whom you realized was saying “project” but meant “task”?

I’d tell them it wasn’t a project, it was a task, for starters. And explain that it’s important we all use the same terminology because that helps foster better understanding. I reckon I could do that in a way that doesn’t make them feel undermined!

A project has a start, a middle and an end and delivers something that is a clear output. Generally it’s done by more than one person. Project management is the role of making sure the right tasks happen in the right order by the right people.

A task might be huge, but it doesn’t have the same complexities as a project.

The best way to explain it could well be to think about task lists and project plans. A project plan is a collection of tasks in a logical order, and they are all connected to achieving the same outcome. A task list is also a collection of tasks, perhaps in a logical order, but they could be related to anything. At the moment my task list includes ‘Install PDF tool’ (something I bought months ago and have done nothing with) and ‘Write letter to pension company’. They aren’t connected at all.

Makes sense! Among the PM community, do you see a large difference between the needs of project owners who have clients as stakeholders versus project owners of internal projects?

Yes, but I don’t think there should be. I’ve written a fair bit about customer-centric project management and how you should view internal project owners as clients. It’s a mind-set change, but if you adopt that attitude then you move project management from a cost-centre to a customer service division, and that means better listening and better partnership for everyone.

Where do you see project management software going in the next decade?

I’m already seeing more interoperability between systems and that’s something I’ve been talking about for a while. I had predicted a portal or wrapper where you’d go to access all the different tools you used, but it’s actually through services like Zapier that we’re seeing connectivity between tools. I don’t really care how it happens, I’m just glad that it’s there because we have a huge proliferation of tools.

As the potential customer for project management tools I’m torn between all in one enterprise systems that offer a lot but perhaps some of that functionality isn’t perfect and bespoke niche products that offer deep functionality in their domain. Interoperability means I don’t have to choose and I can use the best tool for the job, then link them all together.

Thanks for taking the time, Elizabeth!

About Elizabeth Harrin, MA, FAPM, MBCS: Elizabeth is a project manager and author, and the Girl behind A Girl’s Guide to Project Management. Find her online on Twitter or Facebook.

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