Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Treat groups as sub-projects for a better structure

As mentioned in this post about organizing projects, a group may be considered as a project of its own, but still part of your existing project. Groups are a convenient way of organizing your data and using them as mini-projects is just one way of how you may use them to boost your productivity.

Let's take the example of a catering company who has a few regular customers, one being a company named Greedy Consumer (yeah, I know, clever name). The catering company takes care of their customers' orders using a project named "Food delivery".

Since they handle a lot of data for the Greedy Consumer, as recipes, messages and milestones for when the customer needs food delivered, they create a group named "Greedy Consumer" that holds all these objects.

It's easy to navigate inside this group, browsing only through data related to Greedy Consumer, because when a group is selected in one of the pages, the selection is persistent. For instance, if on the tasks page they select the group "Greedy Consumer", subsequently selecting the milestones page, it will show the milestones for this group.

This is just a hint on how you may use a feature in Teamness that I wanted to bring along with our sincere wishes of success with your projects in 2009, hopefully managed with Teamness.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Teamness is open during Christmas

"Stores open on Christmas day" is one of the hottest search terms in Google trends these days.

Teamness is open for business during Christmas, pointing out another advantage of a SaaS tool: high availability, even during the holidays.

Image by Balakov

Christmas started nicely and warm for me, partly because I broke down the complex administrative tasks during this time as described here.

I wanted to write this short post during a break switching from home made sausages to Christmas cookies to remind you that you may use Teamness as your data bucket for these holidays period chores, following the Getting Things Done principles.

Here are some hints:
  • Create groups for different type of activities in your project, such as "Holiday meals".
  • Invite your family members in your projects and distribute the chores.
  • Put your notes in the messages area, inside the groups you created above.
  • Use milestones as reminders and attach tasks to them.
  • Upload files to keep them together in your GTD pool, arranged by groups.
  • Star objects that need your immediate attention.
You may access your data bucket from anywhere with an internet connection, without the need to synchronize it between computers. You can even print or export everything.

Merry Christmas, folks!

Friday, December 19, 2008

Using Teamness to sell flower pots

A friend of mine wants to start a business selling flower pots and she asked me how Teamness may be of help.

I came up with a few questions to clarify her needs and I suggested some ways on how to deal with them in Teamness.

Image by cwalker71

How do you intend to sell the pots, online or in classical shops?

I would first like to start on the web, with an online store. Then I intend to collaborate with existing shops, both virtual and "physical", like flower shops, design houses.

The web site will evolve in a project of its own, having a high activity in the requirements phase, development and testing and at a slower pace afterwards, in the maintenance period. So I suggested separating its administration in a separate project called Flower pots website.

The rest of procedures of the startup can be put in a separate project called Flower pots. The name can be changed at any time, but we don't append startup or something similar, since it's highly probable that we'll use this project to track the whole business life span afterward.

What are the initial issues for this business?
  • Perform an analysis of the competition and try to identify niches, finding missing details, like alternative materials for the pots.
  • Build the requirements for a basic e-commerce website. Once having the requirements, I want to contact a few companies that could help with the whole infrastructure (hosting, server, web application etc) so I can move on to the next step.
  • Discuss with potential partners. I think it's easier to not be alone in this journey.
  • Find storage space for the pots and establish initial stock of products.
  • Contact suppliers and discuss the conditions.
  • Contact delivery companies and discuss the conditions.
  • Calculate the initial amount to be invested.
  • Micro-test the product using Google AdWords.
  • Buy ads in related web and paper magazines, like gardening or blogs about flowers.
Every point in this list is a mini-project of its own, therefore I suggested defining milestones for each.

Breaking down these points into sub-tasks offers a clear vision on the roadmap for each of them.

When she has to Perform an analysis of the competition, she needs to know which competitors to follow, hence the first task: Search on Internet and in the gardening magazines and identify 5 top flower pots resellers.

Suddenly, this rather ambiguous job of analyzing the competition has a starting point. List the type of pots they're selling (material, size, model etc) and the prices, could be the subsequent task.

The result of the analysis above goes into separate messages: List of competitors, Possible niches for flower pots, which also lead to further steps in terms of milestone, like Contact 3 flower shops as a client and ask them why they're not selling a certain type of pot.

Who's going to be involved in this and what are the roles?

For starters, me, then my partner and afterward, an accountant who will take care of the legal finance issues.

My partner will take care of the administrative issues, like finding storage space, dealing with the company building the website and the delivery company.

I will be discussing and making the contracts with the suppliers; I'll design the first set of pots and take care of the advertisements. I also intend to outsource the whole process behind the website, including the hosting and the setup.

The partner is not known at this time, so he/she will get an invitation in both the website project and the administrative one at a later time.

The accountant can be welcome in a separate project, dealing with financial data, since it's not necessary to be involved in all aspects of the business, like brainstorming about the types of pots.

Creating more granular projects for different types of activities offers a clearer way of administrating the work done. People from the company involved in the website work don't need to know the data the accountant works with, so separating their work is more helpful in getting a good grasp on each part.

Also, once a project is completed, it can be archived, leaving more room for active ones.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Break down complex tasks with milestones

Is there any task in your project that seems un-doable? A task that causes you repugnance and makes you pass over it all the time when considering your next action? As Merlin instructs, break it down.

Sometimes what we think to be a task is actually hiding a sequence of things that need to be done. Drilling down and revealing this sequence is an incentive to get going with the work.

With Teamness, this can be easily achieved with a milestone. Make a milestone out of that task and tie a list of sub-tasks to it. Even more, by using messages you can store more information and brainstorm with your colleagues.

Let's consider an example of a couple, John and Jenny, who decided to throw a Christmas party for their family. A part of this project is the task of preparing the food.

They made a task called "Think about the food" which got assigned to John, since he's a better cook, about 2 weeks ago when they announced they're going to host the party this year.

But the task didn't seem appealing to him. Only the thought that he has to think about preparing food for around 12 persons made John scan quickly over this entry in the tasks list.

Image by Aim and shoot!

The time was getting short, so John had to stop and evaluate what he needs to do. He realized that the action of thinking about the food, as was first noted in the task, is in fact a list of actions.

He made a milestone called "Planning the meal" and assigned it to both him and Jenny. The due date for the milestone: December 23. By then, they have to have everything sorted out.

"Make the list of guests", "List their culinary preferences", "Create a list of 6 dishes to prepare", "For each dish build a list of ingredients", "Make a cost estimate for the groceries", "Prepare a list of drinks", "Select wines according to the dishes" were all tasks for "Planning the meal". John distributed them to him and to Jenny and tied every one of them to the milestone he just created.

Image by abbyladybug

He spent some time on the web to find a few pages with hints for the above tasks and put them in separate messages: "Blog posts with Christmas dinner ideas", "Recipes for the Christmas", "Red wines" and "Christmas deserts". He also attached the messages to the milestone.

By creating a small mini-project out of the tedious task from the beginning, John made it easy to grasp the actions needed to complete this chore.

Creating a milestone offers a couple of productivity benefits:
  • tying a list of sub-tasks to the milestone you actually build a list of actionable things to do
  • using messages you can keep a lot of information and brainstorm on it with your colleagues
  • having a due date for the big task works as an incentive to do it

Friday, December 12, 2008

Organizing projects

What is the structure and behavior of your organization? was the first in a series of 5 questions to ask yourself when evaluating project management tools, a post in which Paul mentioned the distinction between project-driven and functional-driven organizations.

The structure of an organization strongly influences the way its projects are organized and in this post I'm writing about some options you have when doing this structuring.

Image by Thomas Hawk

Generic or specific projects

The project-driven organization may be more inclined toward creating more generic products, while the functional-drive one may opt for more specific ones.

Some examples of generic projects:
  • Product development
  • Website
  • Wedding photo assignments
Examples of specific projects:
  • Search engine optimization for blog
  • Photo assignment - Clara and Brad's wedding
  • Library lawsuit
In any case, depending on the current needs, it's a good practice to try both specific and generic projects to see which works better in a certain situation.

Naming the projects

If you deal with multiple projects or if you decided for a more granular approach, the names of the projects must follow some rule to allow easy scanning and referral.

One way of doing this could be to name a project as following: the initials of the company for whom the project is done, the year when it was started, a numeric index and description:
  • IMA - 08 - 012 -Web pages optimization
  • KD - 07 - 010 - Staff management
This naming convention is also useful if you put labels with the same identifier for written documents, like invoices. This way it becomes more easily to find a certain paper a few years after the project completion.

The granularity of the projects

The complexity and the level of activity in a project is also a factor on how it should be organized. Here are some variants you may take into account with Teamness:

Granular projects - a small project might be created for a part of your work. For instance if you want to launch a business for selling t-shirts, you may divide this big activity in 3 smaller ones: a project for the administrative process of the business, a project for your website and one for an eventual blog.

Groups in a single project - if you feel the granularity described above is too intricate for your activity, then you may create a single project in which you create groups for the processes: a group for sales, one for marketing, one for the website and so on.

Mini-projects with milestones - a milestone with tasks and messages tied to it might be regarded as a mini-project or, if you prefer, a sub-project. Going back to the blog example, it can be seen as a sequence of milestones for posting activities, with tasks tied to each representing the ideas for posts and messages containing drafts.

Projects durations

Some projects are perpetual, like the maintenance of a product, while others have a limited time span.

In Teamness it is possible to archive a project and you may want to do this with a project that doesn't have any activity anymore, due to its termination or if it's in a paused state. Archiving a project will free up another spot for a new project within the current plan limits.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Focus on the outcome for success

One feature frequently requested on Teamness support was to display all the items assigned to a milestone. We also felt the need for an overview of all the tasks and messages that belong to a milestone, therefore the page View milestone was born.

Why was it needed?

First of all, let's think about what a milestone is. It is an objective that must be met during the development cycle. An objective is met by doing work, which is translated into tasks.

In Teamness it was possible to assign tasks and messages to a milestone, but there was no way to aggregate all these together.

How to use this feature?

One of the most powerful concepts of David Allen’s GTD system is outcome-based thinking, as Merlin Mann points out.

Setting the outcome like Merlin describes in terms of "I need to $FOO because I want to $BAR" gives you something you can use. It clearly shows the goal. But in order to avoid procrastination to settle, a listing of the steps to get you to this goal is required.

How about an example?

Christmas is coming soon. Santa Claus didn't reply to my letters, so I have to take care of the presents for my family this year. But doing Santa's job is a piece of cake with the use of the new View milestone page.

First, I'm setting the milestone, Merlin Mann style: I need to buy presents for my family members because I want them to feel the Christmas spirit.

Now that I have my goal set in clear terms, I need to build the list of steps. I create the following tasks and assign them to this milestone:
  • Make the budget for the presents
  • Find a nice blue shirt size 42 for dad, since I heard him saying he needs one
  • Decide if I buy my mother some piece of jewelry or an electronic photo frame
  • Look for websites where I can order that thing my girlfriend was dreaming about for months
Where does other stuff fall in?

While working towards completing the tasks, often you need to store various bits of information to help you in this journey toward the goal. Teamness allows assigning also messages to a milestone.

I used this feature to store various related information, like the followings:
  • I built a list of websites with Christmas gifts ideas.
  • I took some paragraphs from some blog posts about what others are considering buying for their family members.
  • Talking to my friends I asked what they are buying for their parents and then put all the notes down in a message named "Presents my friends are considering".
Here is how it looks like (click on the image for a bigger version):

We hope you'll find this feature useful and that it will considerably improve your workflow.

Monday, December 8, 2008

5 options for text delight with Wordle

The image below contains the 20 most used words on this blog. It's made with Wordle, a tool that generates word clouds from text.

At first glance it can be considered fun and that's it. But the useful thing about Wordle is that it actually points out the essence of a text collection.

Here are 5 ways in which Wordle may be used:

1. Writing habits
Find out if you repeat too much some specific words when writing a blog post.

2. The gist of an article
Copy and paste the text from an article or a blog post in Wordle and you can see a word summary.

3. See the word core of a blog
Paste the URL of a blog in Wordle and it will build the word cloud from that blog. This is how I generated the first image.

4. Display text with various sizes
Using Wordle advanced, you may input word-weight and colors for the text, to get various sizes which may be used for different purposes, like a business card:
5. Educational
This post contains a few useful hints for educational usage of Wordle.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Tooth brushing techniques for geeks

The tooth brush industry seems to be the most dynamic there is. Every time I need to get a new one there is a whole new generation on the shelves. The classic "normal" ones are long gone.

Image by silent7seven

Now you can find weird flexible ones, dragon style tooth brushes that clean both sides of the mouth at the same time and tooth brushes with plastic extensions that massage your shoulders while you use them.

But isn't the conscientious usage the key here?

Yesterday I attended the GeekMeet in Stockholm. Mingling with people in between presentations by the wise redheaded Chris Heilmann, I noticed that even the geeks consider a bit overwhelming the amount of web tools that pop up every day.

Is this good or bad? I think it's like the tooth brushes. Get a fancy one or get a more classical one, but use it religiously.

One of the presentations was called Playing With The Web in which Chris advocates for reusing already built APIs and tools in web development. There are a couple of nice existing platforms to build upon out there. Using them gets even easier to make new products. And that's a good thing because it generates more options for us, the users.

But I think we're becoming sloppy in what we're doing. We're buying too many clothes and not using them, we're changing our mobile phones every other month for a newer model, even before using the one we have to the full potential and we're also just trying out new web tools without getting the best of those we already use.

Or maybe it's just me. I have to get this.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

10 practices to be efficient in a virtual team

Following Sorin's post about working in a virtual team, I decided to write about 10 practices that in my opinion improve a lot the efficiency of a geographically dispersed team, which is using the online medium for business.

Image by SpoiltCat

1. Be strict with email
Don't eliminate email but be disciplined in using it. Also, you don't need separate accounts for personal and business use, but make use of filtering. Keep all the conversations for later search.

2. Use a project collaboration tool
A project collaboration tool must help you keep all your stuff together: tasks, milestones, notes, messages, documents. Sometimes it's easy to let go of this idea, with excuses ranging from: "but what we're doing is not actually a project" or "we use email and we're fine". Email cannot replace properly the role of milestones or tasks, for instance.

3. Write everything down
There isn't a straightforward replacement for the water cooler in a real office. But in a way, this might be an advantage. It happened to me a lot of times to discuss on ideas with my colleagues, only to notice later that we remember less than half of the ramifications our conversation took.

4. Brainstorm and expose
Save any idea that comes to your mind and share it. Let your colleagues "play" with your notes. In turn, find different approaches or fine tune your team mates' proposals. A thing to be careful about here is to avoid going too deep in one direction, since this can be the recipe for getting nothing done.

5. Keep documents in one place
Resist the temptation to send documents as attachments to emails, but upload them in your collaboration application. You don't need to build a hierarchy for the files, just use the search approach.

6. Turn limitations into advantages
In a real office, if someone has a question for a co-worker usually goes to her desk to ask. This is bad, since it creates interruptions and breaks the flow. When working in a virtual team, don't try to mimic the same behavior. If the colleague is not online on IM, don't wait for her but leave a comprehensive message, preferably in the collaboration tool.

If you have a question don't just ask it and wait for an answer, as this may lead to very long conversations. Instead provide all the options you thought about as possible answers, specifying why you like or dislike each of them. This diminishes the time spent on an issue, thus increasing efficiency.

7. Set a working schedule
Everything is set up regarding the way you interact with the colleagues and you're enjoying the flexibility of your own schedule to do the work. But in time, this can get out of control if you don't establish a working schedule for yourself. Spreading the working hours throughout the whole day may affect your personal life and you'll end up "working" all the time, not knowing when it's enough for a day.

Having a schedule also helps the other members of the team, since they would have more accurate expectations on when you're going to do various tasks.

8. Set iteration milestones
Working in iterations is a good practice to have a clear overview of what needs to be done next. It also helps to see if the deliverables were met. Weekly iterations offer a convenient time frame, but depending on your team this may be reduced or extended. However, extending them too much would be like not having them at all.

9. Stick with a given workflow
If you started to use a collaboration tool, keep everything in there. Don't scatter discussion about features of the product in emails, but use messages in the tool. Don't ask for things on email or IM, but set tasks.

10. Get to know your colleagues
If it's possible, meet your team mates personally, go out for a drink or make weekend trips. Getting a glimpse into their personal life and also exposing some of yours helps with the work. If that's not possible, try to connect with them on social networking websites. Find out their hobbies, maybe they match yours, and exchange thoughts about them.

I would not state that this list is exhaustive, but I think it covers 10 important aspects that lead to easier communication and a better workflow in a virtual team. Almost all of the points rely strongly on self discipline, but once it's achieved, it's easier to keep going.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Overcome procrastination with Teamness

Regarding procrastination, I think there are two types of people: those who procrastinate and those who declare they don't.

Putting off things needlessly is a common thing most of us do. How many times did you postpone making an appointment for the dentist, even if you knew you're going to do it eventually? And how many times did you start working on different things, just to delay a burdensome task?

Image by celie

All of us have good business ideas. Most of the time we reject from the start and I think one of the reasons is that we procrastinate on thinking about a roadmap. When thinking about it, the path seems complicated and we tend to see mainly the obstacles.

In this post I'll present a simple way on how using Teamness and mind mapping one can get a better grip on how to pursue a new opportunity.

It all starts with an idea

For the sake of the example let's consider a guy Robert, which was on a holiday in France and bought a funny hat. At least he considered it to be funny, but he was asked a couple of times on the street where he got it from.

One day he asked himself what if he started to bring those hats from France and sell them. When he was about to let go, due to unanswered questions in his mind about the manufacturer, target market, shipping issues and so on, he makes a last effort and decides to give it try.

Turn the idea into a project

One of his friends recommends Teamness to Robert. "But I have no project to run, it's just an idea", was Robert's answer. That's exactly the point. Turn the idea into a project.

Robert creates a project in Teamness and calls it The funny hat. The purpose of the project is to investigate this business idea.

Brainstorming is the first step

He creates a new whiteboard in the project and starts writing all the things that comes into his mind regarding the process: existing products on the market, prices, target demographic, manufacturer, producing prices, shipping costs, storage and all other things that pop into his mind. Using mind mapping is really helpful in this process.

Time for tasks

Robert starts now to formulate questions based on the things he brainstormed about, like "What are the existing products on the market?". This question easily becomes a task: "Make a list with similar products on the market and their retail cost".

One by one, almost all of the other issues start to take the form of a task: "Call the manufacturer and ask for the price; try to get a discount for multiple purchases", "Identify areas for advertising for this kind of product and the target demographic", "Make a plan to microtest the product with PPC advertising" and so on.

Make the roadmap

Now Robert creates milestones. He makes one called "Target market analysis" and assigns the tasks related to his market to it. He sets this milestone to be due one week from now, based on some rough estimations on his free time.

As the project rolls on, information is collected in The funny hat project. Links, lists of prices, contacts, scans after brochures, screenshots made on some websites and so on are now all in one place and the idea turned into something more consistent. It's more clearly now what the good direction might be, based on real investigation rather than fuzzy assumptions.

Having a clear picture on how to continue, it's possible now for Robert to even delegate some of the tasks to a virtual assistant, which can help with some time consuming chores, understandably defined.