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

THE FUNDAMENTALS

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.

Filter, filter, filter – the key to email organisation

Picture of full inbox, empty outbox (email)

Picture: pxhere.com

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.)

THE FIRST STEP

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).

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.

 

Five tips for a happy email life

Scrolling idly through Facebook (in a way in which I had sworn I would not do), an article about the best way to end off an email surfaced.

The article is long, and too detailed… so I will tell you the punchline: the recommendation is to end emails with the word “Best”, followed by your name. It is said to be one of “the safest possible choices, inoffensive, and almost universally appropriate.”

Hmmm.

My own favourite – “Regards” – is either hateful, or nice but too formal, according to these experts.

Things I have learned in a year of running a business

Red moleskine notebook

Picture: Sean McGrath, flickr

I’m a member the South African Freelancer’s Association, and the current acting chair of the Western Cape committee. In that capacity, I was asked to talk to a group of film-making interns at Reel Partners about freelancing and entrepreneurship.
I duly sat down and made a list of my five top tips for freelancers – you can read them here.
The talk went down well, I hope, and it got me thinking about what I have learned on a more personal level. It turned out there was quite a lot to excavate from the past year. Here then are the “deeper” learnings:

DON’T MAKE ASSUMPTIONS

When I first set out as a freelancer at the end of 2016, I came to it from a long career in journalism, with a depth of experience and a modest reputation in the South African industry. I did do some thinking about what the market might want, and where there might be opportunities for me – but I realise now that I did assume that my reputation alone would mean I could secure work.
Instead, it was a personal connection with someone who I used to work with that landed me my first big contract – working on news at allAfrica.com.
I have concluded that marketing is much more important than I thought it was – I have to work to make myself known to potential customers. I am on a steep learning curve there, kick-started by buying Louise Harnby’s book on marketing.

PICK A DIRECTION – AND THEN BE PREPARED TO CHANGE IT

My initial idea was to pitch my services as a trainer of journalists, and as an editor and proofreader. The training side of things was based on my knowledge that I am a good trainer, and my passion for journalism – this is the thing I love, and it made sense to me to pursue it. Editing and proofreading is another strength of mine and I thought that together these two skills would lead to my two main revenue streams.
I deliberately did not put myself into the market as a writer (even though I can write) as I knew there were many, many good writers already in the mix, and fair number of new ones entering the market in the same batch of retrenchees that I was part of.
Those thoughts still make sense to me. But in reality, training work was hard to secure: my assumption that media houses would want to hire me foundered on the fact of shrinking budgets in the industry. And editing and proofreading proved harder to break into than I thought. In both cases it has taken a year to start making some headway.
And in the meanwhile, I have actually been making money out of my news production skills, even though I had not thought of that as a direction to take.
Life is what happens when you are making other plans, said John Lennon (or maybe The Reader’s Digest, says Wikipedia). And so it has proved. I’ve learned that its important to keep my eye on the ball no matter what my plans may have been, to stay flexible and to be aware of trends in the market.

MAKE A BUSINESS PLAN

I did not make any formal plans at the beginning of 2017, though I did have some things I knew I needed to do. So I had an informal mental list – maintain a website, beef up my social media profiles, contact people who might have work for me and so on.
I now see that what that meant was that a lot of the time I was not necessarily using my time well – not having a strict focus meant that I opened the door to procrastination and confusion. I went back to the drawing board late in 2017, and am starting 2018 with a yearly goal, which I will break down into monthly targets.
I also have a business plan (forged in a barter deal with a former colleague Quentin Wray: he helped my think through my plan in exchange for a WordPress site).
This means – I hope – that I will make better use of my time this year. And if I don’t, I will have clearer idea of what worked and what didn’t because I will be able to track what I have achieved and what not.

MOTIVATION, DISTRACTION, WORKING HOURS

I am universally acknowledged as an organised and disciplined person, one who gets things done and is reliable and work-driven.
So why are there days when I have no idea what I am supposed to be doing, or days when I simply can’t spend another moment at my computer, or days when I persuade myself that grocery shopping is a much better use of my time than writing a post for my website?
This one took me a long time to process: it turns out a lot of my discipline when I was in full-time employment was created by the boundaries of my job, the expectations of my colleagues and sheer habit.
Take that all away and things fall apart – even if just a little.
So, I made the above-mentioned plan with goals, and have mapped out a working week with slots where I am expected to be at a desk. I have time management software in which I must log 40 hours a week. In other words, I have changed my mindset: I am running a business to which I am accountable, rather than personally deploying some skills for clients.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN THERE’S A CRISIS?

When you work full-time, you get up and go the office, no matter what is happening in your personal life. There is a built-in containment in that. But when you are freelancing, there are no such comforting rituals.
There have been some derailing family events in the last year and I have been taken aback about how easy it is for three or four days to go by with nothing happening on the work front, while other fires are being fought. And by how much time it takes to get back on track.
I’ve learned that it is important to have one or two things that must get done every day, no matter what (even if is just checking and answering emails). That way you have your own in-built safety rituals.

FEAR

This is always with me. What if I can’t find enough clients, make enough money? What if I fall ill and can’t work? What if I can’t pay the school fees? What if all my computers die at once? What if there is a once-in-a-lifetime fulltime job out there and I should take it and I miss it (that fantasy dies hard!)?
Then I remember that my fulltime job disappeared from under me, and that I had no control over that either.
And I take a deep breath, do a 10-minute Headspace meditation and make another list.
It will be alright. I will make this work.
And that is the key thing I have learned: I can and will make this work.

Five tips for starting your own freelancing business

Business plan notebook

Picture: StockSnap, Pixabay

After a festive season break and a period of organising, planning and reflection, Safe Hands is ready to start a new year!

First off is this bullet-point list of my learning over the last year, written originally for a presentation I gave to a group of interns. It’s a “mind dump” of sorts, listing all the accumulated knowledge I have acquired with an eye to trying to help young people who are just starting freelancing in the creative/media world.

YOU ARE A BUSINESS NOT A FREELANCER
  • So do some planning – what do you offer, who do your offer it to, how will you find those people, how will you market yourself? What can only you offer? What is the name of your business? Decide what name you are going to use across all your branding at the very beginning.
  • Have business-like documentation – invoices, letterheads, an email signature, business cards.
  • Get a proper email address.
  • Figure out a way to keep track of the money – even it is just a notebook where you write what you have spent and what you have earned.
  • Set yourself some goals.
  • Work out what you need to get things started – make a list of all expenses you think you might have.

Journalism “legals”: when is something in the public interest?

keys on keyboard

Picture: Pixabay

A Mediaonline article published this week does an excellent job of laying out some of the legal considerations governing the publication of sensitive material in South Africa.
The article carries interviews with the people involved in looking at the legal ramifications of Jacques Pauw’s book, The President’s Keeper, (one of whom is my sister Gill Moodie) and notes that while something may ordinarily be dangerous to publish, the factor of “public interest” can come into play and make publication justifiable:

The next step is to ensure that what the journalist/author intends to publish is of public interest. This is vital because it can be used as a defence in a number of instances. De Klerk explains, “The law protects privacy for example, but privacy can be overridden if there is an overriding public interest present”.

In other words, you could argue that you published something defamatory or illegal because you believed it was in the public interest.

But what is “public interest”?