Thomas Carney
Thomas thinks of ways to make Planio grow, writes content and ponders metrics.
June 30, 2015 · 12 min read

Hacks, Tricks And Tips for Project Management With Bruce Harpham

people in a project management meeting

I sat down with Bruce Harpham from ProjectManagementHacks.com for a chat about project management, meetings, checklists and even Oktoberfest.

In the interview, you’ll hear about:

You can listen to the interview here or read an edited version of it below:

Thomas: Today I’m talking to Bruce Harpham from Canada. He’s been leading projects for universities and financial institutions in Canada. He’s won numerous awards for his blog over at ProjectManagementHacks.com. So welcome, Bruce.

Bruce: Good to be here, Thomas.

Thomas: Could you introduce a little bit about yourself and project management hacks? What do you write about? Who’s it for?

Bruce: At ProjectManagementHacks.com, I actually just recently celebrated my one year anniversary of creating the site so that was a big milestone.

My purpose in creating the site is a few kind of different purposes. My main goal with it is to share career development resources with project managers that want to get ahead in their career. I achieve that by writing articles on leadership and productivity.

Thomas: I actually was reading your article on seven habits for effective meetings. One idea I thought was great was the idea of having an agenda template.

Bruce:   Yes. So, a template like that, I find, is particularly valuable if you’re looking at some kind of a recurring meeting.

As an example, if you have like a staff meeting with the people in your media department and it occurs every two weeks or every month, having a kind of set format where, we start at two, we end at three.  

Every week we cover these kind of five broad topics so people know to kind of, “Okay, we’re going to do status updates first, next we’ll do does anyone need help on what they’re currently working on? The third might be a presentation from a guest.

Having that template — if you’re the one running the meeting, also makes it faster to prepare.

I find myself that it’s better to have a written agenda that you can kind of have in front of you and refer to. When you get to the end of the items, you can say, “Okay, we’re done.”

You could be just 30 minutes into an hour-long meeting and say, “We completed everything we’re here for and now everyone can go.” Whereas, when you don’t have an agenda, people kind of get sloppy and it goes on extra long and everyone gets more frustrated. So that’s why I think that’s quite important.

Thomas:  I know I should create an agenda for most meetings, but when I don’t have like a piece of paper or some document that I can just fill out, I tend to just let it slide so I really like that idea. I really like that idea as we’ve all been in meetings where, as you say, if you don’t have an agenda, you start going off-topic. People tend to have their own hobby idea they want to talk about. You have this great idea about parking lot technique?

Bruce:   Yeah. To kind of explain that, I’m afraid I can’t take credit for inventing it as a concept but I find it’s a valuable idea nonetheless. The idea of this is based on the premise that the meeting has a focus.

Let’s say we’re trying to fix a broken process relating to payments — something that happens kind of in the banking world — and somebody brings up, “Oh, well I have this idea that we can use or improve our smart phone app to make it give people alerts for when they have a bill or something.

It could be a valuable idea but it’s not really contributing to the purpose of what the meeting is about. The way I find that can work to address that AND keep that relationship in a good place is to take note of it, preferably on a bulletin board that everyone can see, and just call it “notes” or “parking lot”.

Then, most importantly, after the meeting when you’re writing up the notes — that doesn’t have to take long — 5 to 10 minutes — you can say in that email, “Here are two or three points that were going beyond the topic of the meeting that were interesting and we need to look into further. John raised the app idea and so I’m going to ask him to look into that further and come back to us at the next team meeting.”

Thomas: Yeah, I like it because it also doesn’t just totally dismiss the idea and telling people “shut up, it’s off-topic.” It allows them to further develop, so yeah, that’s awesome.

Thomas: You also talked about in your blog — sometimes you have different types of meetings. Some of them are maybe to brainstorm ideas, some of them are to take important decisions, and often when you try to take a decision in the meeting, things can go south very quickly if people have different ideas.

Bruce: Yeah. I find preparing for kind of a decision is often not done all that well. Particularly if it’s significant money or other resources are involved. People sometimes kind of take a bit of a casual approach to it.

I kind of view it as you’re almost kind of going in there as a salesman trying to say, “I want you to buy this project and here’s the set of reasons why it makes sense for what we’re doing right now.” And to kind of go through it and methodically like that. If you’re working in an internal capacity like you’re trying to persuade an executive or a manager, using the “Prewire approach” can also be helpful in that respect.

Thomas: Another topic I found really interesting was checklists, since I read “The Checklist Manifesto”. I’m always interested in how people use checklists. Personally, every week in my personal life I have a checklist for all the groceries I get delivered to my house. So every week I grab the checklist, hit “order”, and maybe add on some extra items. I’d be really interested to hear how you use checklists in your work.

Bruce: I use them in a couple of different ways.

When I’m preparing say, a monthly financial package, I have kind of a short checklist that looks at what are the most likely causes of failure and that’s, to a significant degree, informed by past experience.

So, if I saw a given section of the spreadsheet tends to malfunction because it’s quite complex, I’m going to take two — a couple extra minutes and look at that area that is malfunctioning. I like the idea of kind of designing a checklist that is fairly small because if there’s like 200 items to check, that can get kind of discouraging.

But if there is just sort of like, “Here are the five biggest things that tend to cause problems” for a recurring activity like that, that can be helpful.

I’ve also used it to a degree in terms of preparing for travel. I kind of have a rough checklist that I used to make sure trips go smoothly.

Thomas: I tend to have like a packing list of all the stuff that I need to make sure is in my bag and it works out quite well.

Thomas: A lot of people who use  Planio are software teams. Some of them use Agile techniques and building an atmosphere of trust within the team is very important in the Agile world.

Bruce: The area of building trust is quite an intriguing one. If we go back to “The Checklist Manifesto” book just as an example for a moment.

 One of the interesting ideas raised in the book on the concept of medicine, but I think would also apply to software development, is the idea that simply assembling a group of very knowledgeable people is effective to a degree but it’s not the full picture.

That includes — you actually need to set aside some time and perhaps even money to help the team come together. It’s often easier to trust people in a work environment if, to some degree, you can kind of get to know them a little bit personally.

So, some of those games and team building activities can work but actually the thing I find that helps most in building trust is actually getting out of the office for a lunch or drinks, even if it’s just like three or four times a year. Like, if it’s summer and there’s patios and stuff where you can kind of enjoy a bit of the sun and have a beer or something, that adds quite a lot to that sense of “this is a good guy and I can trust him to get work done for me.

Thomas: I used to live in Munich and most companies in Munich, they sponsor places at Oktoberfest, so it’s possible that this is the reason for BMW makes such good cars is because they all go to Oktoberfest together.

Productivity is a big topic in the software world. You’ve written quite a bit about productivity on your blog. You mentioned Pomodoro technique, which is also a technique that I really enjoy using myself. I have an app for Mac. It’s called Pomodoro timer or something, but yeah, I use that every day.

Bruce:   Well, I find that actually in my experience of using that technique, it works best when I’m working on a task that I don’t really like or that I find frustrating.

Like, if it’s doing a Q&A check and that’s not really my favorite activity and I know the whole task is maybe going to take me an hour to do but I kind of hate doing it. I really like to use that technique because I’ll set a timer for, let’s say, 25 minutes and then I’ll put away my phone and my iPod and stuff and I’ll close down my email app and I’ll just work on that activity as close as I can for 25 minutes.

Then I actually set another timer after that finishes for like a five-minute break so it’s a little reward that I’m giving myself for having done part of this irritating activity. I’ll read a few pages of a book and I’ll get another cup of coffee or just kind of walk around a little bit and then I’ll do another round. Usually, I’ll come to the end of the task at that point. So, it can be really helpful for focusing on something that might be important and valuable, but you just kind of feel, emotionally, that this is boring or frustrating to work on.

Thomas: Sure, it’s a high focus but not always a high enjoyment. I actually find I use Pomodoro probably in the morning. I do many more Pomodoro’s in the morning than I do in the afternoon. I don’t, like, strictly do them all day but I thought it’s a good way to start the day.

Bruce: Yeah, and speaking of morning versus afternoon, I think it also makes sense to kind of pay attention to how energetic and alert am I at these different times.

So, if a large percentage of people tend to have more energy in the morning — not necessarily like 6 AM the let’s say like 11 AM, people tend to have more energy than later in the day. I often try to keep that in mind if I have to make a very important presentation. I tried to get that done before noon because if I’m doing that at like 4 o’clock, I’m going to try to be focused but it’s just going to be more difficult. And a lot of people are already thinking about going home that late in the day and the focus is just not as good most of the time.

Thomas: So, I’d love to know like for project managers, what do you think is important in terms of career and advancement in developing their career? I have actually a brother of mine who works in Calgary in the oil and gas industry there. He works in a project management role. As you said, he always tries to develop relationships with people in the office, so a big part of his day is he’ll often just go around and talk to different people.

I’d love to hear little hacks that you would do for careers for project management people.

Bruce: In terms of advancement, I think there’s a couple of pieces to keep in mind. Let’s say I’ll take a scenario of somebody who’s been a project manager for say, 1 to 2 years and prior to that they were a developer and that was kind of their area of focus — in development of some kind.

What I sometimes find, and sometimes it’s a case of how the project is set up, that when somebody is making that kind of transition and they’re still fairly new and it, they sometimes have a tendency to think, “If a problem happens, I should personally jump in and fix the code.” If the project is kind of short-staffed, sometimes that’s kind of unavoidable but the challenge with that is that it can slow you down in terms of operating at more of the manager level in terms of like — if you’re allocating 25% of your time to debugging, that’s time you don’t have available to develop relationships with other managers.

If you kind of only go to those higher ups when you need something from them, that’s okay, but it also makes sense to spend time with them to see what projects are they working on, how can I help them achieve what they’re working on, and also think about things like, “Our product launch is going to be in four months and after that, what is my team going to do?

So kind of that longer-term planning is one of the qualities that helps people develop further ahead. When I look at managers that I know who are at a fairly senior-level, they’re planning for their departments in kind of 1 to 3 year increments whereas a lot of individuals usually don’t look past one year. Often, they kind of work on even less than that. Those are some of the factors to consider removing from an analyst-developer kind of role to a PM role as your first management level job.

Thomas: That’s interesting. Developing relationships and not just going to people when you need something from them and thinking more strategically long-term.

Bruce: Yes, I mean, if you kind of spend all your time working on code and stuff, it sometimes gives you the mindset that like, “I just issue a command, the computer processes it, and I’m done.

Some people are actually okay with that — they’re highly task focused, but a lot of people tend to be more cooperative if you can spend a little time developing things. This is actually something I’ve recently started doing myself. I work with people that are one floor down in the building that I’m in and I predominantly interact with them by phone. We have like a lot of phone meetings but they’re only one floor down.

 Now, once a week, I actually walk by and just say “hello.” This takes less than five minutes and I’m not trying to — I’m not asking for anything or getting angry about anything, I’m just sort of saying “hello” for a few minutes and kind of deepening that interaction beyond only phone calls and email. I found that that has helped.

Thomas: There’s  the whole question of certification in project management. On the Agile side you have all sorts of Agile, scrum, and certifications, and you also have PMP certifications. You recently actually became a certified Project Management Professional

Bruce: Yes, I recently earned the project management professional certification in April. That was actually one of my nine goals in 2015 — to earn that. So I was very pleased when I got that. It was a good day.

I think it’s quite valuable, especially in organizations where a large number of other people have that background. So, I think if you’re trying to decide does make sense for you to pursue PMP or perhaps the certified scrum masters — another popular one in the software world. They do take some time and money to earn this and if your goal is, “I want to become more effective and structured in my approach,” they’ll absolutely give you that benefit.

However, if your goal is more, “I want to pursue this so that I get a salary bump or so that I can take on more demanding responsibilities,” it makes sense to think about, “Does anyone in my organization care about the certification? Do I know anybody who has earned it?

For example, PMP is fairly popular within my organization, however, the scrum certifications are not as popular. So, you might make sense to start with the PMP in that case and then kind of give some thought to, “What benefit in my going to get from adding another one?”

Thomas: Yes, that’s interesting – thinking about in your organization, who else has it because then you might be able to engage with them better because you can use the same terminology. That’s kind of interesting.

Bruce: I think the PMP, as an example also gets quite a lot of respect because it’s a fairly complex application to obtain it. There is a course requirement, there’s work experience requirement, and an exam. I mean, I know that there’s also some information security certifications that are similarly complex, and I find that from people I’ve interacted with in the corporate world, the certification is more challenging to earn, then it tends to get you more respect and other benefits. So that’s a principle to keep in mind.

Thomas:  Final question! What draws you to project management? What do you really enjoy about it?

Bruce:  Well, I like the idea that there’s a high kind of novelty factor in that you’re working on new things. That’s kind of the first aspect of it that appeals to me.

Going beyond that, I like it as a structured approach to getting work done, so I like it as a framework to do planning and execution and then you kind of do that “lessons learned” kind of activities at the end. I like that kind of structure and framework to work within, that’s very satisfying for me.

And I guess the third piece is that often the most exciting work in organizations happens through projects. That’s, “we’re building a new smartphone app or launching a brand-new product for the very first time.” You kind of have that excitement where you’re trying to meet a deadline and you’re trying to bring together all these people who’ve never worked together. That kind of gives an added energy and lift. Those are kind of the reasons that I find it to be an interesting field.

Thomas: I remember in Munich I had a good friend who was a project manager. He applied it to his personal life so that he would have like an Excel sheet and stuff like that. He found it an effective tool for getting almost everything done.

Bruce:  Yeah, I think it’s interesting sometimes people view it like, “At work all be highly organized and outside of work I’ll just kind of do whatever I want.” Which I guess is okay to a degree, but if you’re doing something in your personal life that’s kind of challenging like you’re running your first marathon or you’re going abroad for a long trip, having that more disciplined approach is going to make the whole experience a lot more fun.

Thomas: It’s almost like if you’re quite organized, you almost have the freedom to take a little bit more risk.

Bruce: Yeah, for sure.

Thomas: Great, Bruce. It was really interesting to talk to you!

Bruce: Yes, likewise.