I had an odd moment this past weekend in which I realized that something I vociferously teach in my classes was being summarily ignored in my own life. Of course, once I tell you the subject, it might seem a little more forgivable.
Among the programs that I teach, Microsoft Project is one of the more fringe ones. Some of you might have just dipped into your Start Menu to look for it on your computer, only to discover that it’s not part of the Standard or Professional or Ultimate or Supreme or Divine Office Suites. It’s a stand-alone Microsoft Office program designed specifically for project management and scheduling. I describe it as a mix of Excel and Access with data fields specifically used in projects. And yes, it is as fascinating as it sounds.
When scheduling a project, you enter all the tasks, the durations for those tasks, the date constraints for the tasks, and the people who are going to accomplish the tasks. Once you’ve put all of that information in and before you start the project and mark some of the tasks complete, there’s a very important step that often seems insignificant to beginners. You take a snapshot of all the plans you’ve made and save it into the schedule. Across the life of the project, you compare the actual completion dates of your individual tasks to the snapshot. In project management, the name of this snapshot is the baseline.
The baseline is vitally important to the scheduling of the project. You use it to see how close your plans come to what was actually accomplished. If they vary widely, you explore the reasons why. Did your people resources work harder to finish the task sooner? Did you greatly underestimate the amount of time it would take to meet your goals? Was there an unexpected disaster that tacked a few more weeks onto a task that was supposed to be only a few days? Without a baseline, you’re flying by the seat of your pants and hoping for the best. You have no way to see if your goals are being met efficiently.
The interesting part about the baseline is that it isn’t so much a functional tool as an informational tool. Once you mark your baseline, the project often takes on a life of its own that cares not for your initial plans. Marking a baseline won’t make people work harder or have tasks get finished any quicker. In most cases, it’s something to come back to after the project is finished to see how future projects can be improved.
So as much as I stress the importance of setting a baseline and using it as an informational tool in my classes, I found myself floundering a bit in my personal life. As I’ve mentioned recently, I’ve been trying to find ways to optimize my time to find time to do the many projects that are important to me. The idea of setting a baseline, though filled me with trepidation. Even in that last post, I found myself panicking that marking down my proposed goals would lock me into a routine that I might find unsustainable. I was looking at my attempts to organize my time as a functional tool instead of an informational tool.
To be fair, schedules usually are functional. They tell you where you have to be and when. If you miss an appointment on your schedule, you are often breaking a commitment you have made to someone. When I was planning my own schedule I was making the mistake of considering adjustment to my planned activities as breaking commitments to myself. Then the ensuing guilt would roll in. Rather than have to deal with letting myself down, I opted not to make the plan in the first place.
Planning this kind of schedule is different though. It too is an instructional tool to figure out what works and and does not work in how I plan my day. A baseline in a project is never good or bad. It’s just something to analyze and compare to the actual activities. Likewise, my scheduling should be free of judgment. I can plan my hour/day/week, then I analyze my plans and compare them to what actually happened. I can figure out the activities that do work (tuba practice in the morning works great!) and what doesn’t work (I’m far to emotionally exhausted to write songs after a full day at the office). Then I can use that data to better plan my activities for future schedules.
What it comes down to is that by changing my perspective from taskmaster to observer, I reduced my scheduling stress and enabled myself to get more out of the process. As soon as I realized that my goal was just to set a baseline and see what I accomplish instead of to accomplish everything on the first try (do everything, and if you can’t, you’re a bad person!), it becomes a fun learning activity. Despite teaching this important concept in every Project class, I glossed right over it when it came to my own life.
Microsoft Office… is there nothing it can’t do?