Project management for beginners

A long time ago I did a four-day project management course at the Graduate School of Business in Cape Town. At the time I was on the staff at a large news website, and working with technical teams in various aspects of changing or launching websites. Project management was happening all around me.

These days, I am project managing the production of a book for a local publisher, and glad of the skills I have gained over the years.

Some projects are obviously much more complicated than others: the construction of an office block is a lot more work than the construction of a small garden shed. But the same principles underpin all of them.

Project management is a big field, and I absolutely do not pretend to be an expert. However, there are some fundamentals that might be a useful starting point for anyone who is about to take on project management for
the first time


1. There are three key strands in any project: time, money and scope (the size of the project, and how many features it has). They all add up to quality (or lack of it). A project manager needs to keep an eye on all
three elements, and understand which of them takes priority in any given project. If it doesn’t matter when the garden shed is finished and ready for occupation by the wheelbarrows, then you can take a relaxed view when the client decides they want the garden shed to be a double-storey. If budget is the most important factor, then you must keep the scope rigidly in check so as not to increase the cost. Project management is essentially a balancing act aimed at an end result that is a quality-driven as possible.

2. Relationships are key. Conflict or poor communication can derail a project faster than any other factor, so the project manager needs to make sure that all parties are equally respected, valued and kept informed of all
the things that affect them. The person who is expected to lay the foundation for the garden shed needs to know what day it must happen – and should feel that they are an integral part of creating the whole.

3. Keeping track of all the elements is next on the list. Whether it’s a complex spreadsheet or a battered notebook, there must be one central place where all the strands are held together, and a calendar (physical or digital) with
all the milestones noted. All this documentation needs to be maintained and changed as things go along.

4. Understand that something will go wrong. Add in time to allow for things going wrong. If you think it will take two weeks, assume that it will actually take three weeks. Seriously – there is no getting around this. Unexpected things will happen, and your plan will change.

Why I love poetry (and how you can too)

Sunset over a river

Sunset on the River Medway. Picture: Chris Child, Unsplash

Dealing with email can be a daily organisational chore – but it can also bring joy.

In my daily emails, in among the serious stuff about the state of journalism and the endless promotional emails from Clicks (no matter how many times I unsubscribe, they find a way to send me more), is the Poem of the Day from the Poetry Foundation.

I don’t remember now when I first came across the Poetry Foundation, but I am grateful I did. Their website says they are “an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture”. The foundation, which publishes Poetry magazine, is based in Chicago so its emails hit my South African email box in the late afternoon, and I often only read the poem a day later. But this is the one email I always open, and always read – even when I have no idea what the poem is about (which happens quite often).

What is a CMS? What does it do?

CMS graphic
Picture: india_7/Flickr © SEO Link Building)

People who work on newspapers or on news websites speak often of “the system”. Sometimes they mean it in a general sense (the way in which the world is run, or how their company works) – but mostly they mean the computer program that they use to write or edit their articles. These staffers sometimes don’t know that the system (which is often hated) has another, longer name: it is actually a content management system, or CMS.

The CMSes used to make newspapers or big news websites are complex affairs because they allow many people to work on various pieces of content at the same time. That multi-user setup requires various levels of access to the system, and the ability to move pieces of content to different departments, where people will do different things to each piece of content. An article may be written, then edited, then illustrated by different sets of people.

How the Sunday Times issue shames all of journalism

Sunday Times apology

The apology page in the Sunday Times, October 14, 2018.

This last weekend, the editor of the Sunday Times Bongani Siqoko issued an apology for the reporting done by the newspaper on the Cato Manor death squads and the Zimbabwe rendition saga.

And two years ago, the same editor apologised for the SARS “rogue unit” reports.

The latest apology has led to a range of commentary and opinion, and a lot of outrage about the state of South African journalism in general, and about the Sunday Times and its reporters in particular.

I too am outraged. But not for the same reasons as everyone else. Mine are specific to the traditions of the craft which has been my lifeblood for almost 35 years.

Filter, filter, filter – the key to email organisation

Picture of full inbox, empty outbox (email)


Organising your email is probably one of the most written-about topics there is.

There’s a reason for that: unlike snail mail, email is cheap and instant – so people send lots of it. It’s also a way to keep tabs on things, and to record important conversations, and so on. But mostly it is a way to have a world of trivia appear on your computer screen, all day and every day.

Many approaches to email self-help focus on how to control the emails that have landed in your inbox. A good article that covers much ground in sorting out email overload problems is this one: Email overload: here are 6 approaches I’ve found useful for managing my inbox. (And read my tips on how to write good emails.)


That article touches on an important step to take before you start dealing with the avalanche: get the system itself to do most of the work. You can use almost any email system to take an incoming mail and put it in a place, or a folder, where you deal with it if and when you want. And you can sort the important messages (from your boss, or clients) from the unimportant (newsletters that you want to scan at some point).

Why businesses need editors: it’s in the details

Editors like to say that their work is invisible. An editor should leave things better than they were before, and no one should know they were there. Because that is true, most people don’t really know what editors do, or where they work. I would guess that the general public thinks of an editor as someone who works at a publishing house, or at a news publication – and indeed you will find editors in those places.

But wherever there is the written word, there is the need for a second eye, an editor who checks what has been written and applies a particular set of skills. Don’t believe me? Dear reader, I will now demonstrate.


A local supermarket in my Cape Town suburb has a sign above the area where you find bread, cake and pastries which says “Confectionary”. It was put up two years ago as part of an extensive and expensive revamp.

sign with word confectionery spelled wrong

The wrong signal?

It does the job – it tells you from across the shop where to find your sugar fix.

But here’s the thing: that’s not how you spell the word, and it is dubious whether it describes breads and cakes at all. It should be spelled Confectionery, which, strictly speaking, refers to sweets and chocolates. There is a United States reference that says pastries are included in the definition. Confectionary is either not recognised as a word at all (in my premium version of the Oxford English Dictionary), or it means the place where confections are created, or it is an adjective. What would I have recommended? The word Bakery, which accurately describes that part of the shop.


I belong to a closed Facebook group in which editors commiserate with each other about their jobs, and sometimes share instances where they wish an editor had been employed. (An aside: There’s not a sense of laughing at other people’s mistakes – rather there’s irritation and outrage and a desire to have seen the thing fixed.) A member recently shared photo of a web page for UK bistro, which was enticing people to join its Loyatly programme. The page in question has been amended, but here’s the evidence:

Loyalty spelled wrong

Picture used with permission.



Infected by the editor in its midst, our family scrutinises the flyers that drop in our postbox and rates them by the number of mistakes. This one arrived recently, prompting speculation as to what precisely a dump wall is:

Postbox flyer

Postbox flyer


There’s an argument to be made that in the grander scheme of things these things don’t really matter. The shoppers or potential customers understand what is meant, and no harm is done.

So why not leave things as they are?

You could, but I think that from a business point of view there’s a reason not to make small mistakes like this. In all three examples above, good money was spent on producing branding material of one kind or another. And it was spent on something that was not quite as good as it could have been.

And at least some of a business’s customers will spot an error and possibly dismiss that business as one which does not pay attention to detail, or which was too cheap to get it done properly. In today’s competitive world that’s not what any business wants.


That local supermarket has a core business, which is to sell goods to customers. They are not expected to understand the finer points of a word like confectionery. But if they had employed a professional editor, they would not, two years later, still have sub-standard branding in their shop.

Error-free signage, brochures and promotional materials are a matter of hygiene: no one will notice if you get it right, but some people will notice if you get it wrong. That matters. The cost of having a professional editor look over your material is negligible when compared with the cost of printing the brochure, or having the sign made.

Don’t be afraid. No one likes having mistakes pointed out. But a professional editor will not make you feel small: they will be glad to have been asked, they will make your words beautiful and they will be discreet.

Editors rule, OK?

PS It is possible that you will find mistakes in this article! Editors make mistakes too. Please let me know, either in the comments below or via my Contact Page.

A tip for working with multiple tabs in a browser

Last week, I wrote about my system for getting things done.

This week, I thought I would share a tip for keeping a lid on PC chaos – specifically, how to stop browser tabs from multiplying to the point of madness.

It is apparently possible to have 9 600 tabs open in a Chrome browser. That’s too many!

Message saying too many tabs open

Picture: davidak, Flickr

When your job involves looking at multiple sites or using multiple browser-based tools, it’s easy to end up with so many tabs that you can no longer see what they are. That means you may end up clicking many, many times to find what you want.

This is my system.

I know that there are certain sites I will use often. I open them in the same order every day, and keep them in the same place. So email is always in the top left hand corner. Then Twitter and Facebook pages manager. As I open sites relating to a piece of work (writing a blog post for instance) I open them all to the right of those first three. And when I am finished that piece of work, I close all those tabs and start again.

As simple as that.