Planning a Successful Project: Five Great Tips

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Planning a successful project involves managing a number of moving parts, ensuring that everything fits together to create a beautifully engineered whole which runs smoothly along to a well-managed conclusion.  These five tips will help you to ensure your next project does exactly that.

Have a breakdown

No, not a nervous breakdown.  A breakdown of the project.  Break the whole thing into component parts.  This will allow you to work out timings for each discrete section as well as identifying which parts are dependent on each other.  You can then start to look at the order in which you will tackle the elements of the project as well as who will be responsible for each area and which tasks are dependent on each other.

Knowing which parts are dependent on each other is critical to designing an effective and successful project plan which delivers maximum productivity with minimum delay.

Plan for Failures

By which I don’t mean plan to fail, but rather examine your project for weak points, problem areas and dependencies that might trip you up.  If you have examined the areas where you think there could be a problem and have contingency plans available to mitigate the risk of failures in these areas, you will feel more in control of your project.

Order, Order

Task sequencing and expected task duration are key to a well-run, successful project plan.  There is absolutely no point engaging the kitchen fitter for Tuesday 10th if the electrician isn’t due to finish the rewiring of the room until Thursday 12th and the plumber won’t finish the pipework until Friday 13th.

By constantly monitoring the project, and the order in which you need or want tasks to happen, you can also see clearly when things start to go off track and take corrective action to bring the project back onto track.  This might involve changing the order in which tasks are completed.  Perhaps prioritising a particular area of the project to ensure it completes to time and does not delay other parts of the project which are dependent upon its successful completion.

Communication

Keeping up to date with everything that is happening on every strand of the project is crucial to success.  Making sure you know if something is delayed, has hit a problem, or is on target to complete more quickly than expected.  Ensuing people have the information they need to solve any problems.  Putting people in touch with each other when their work has dependencies.  Negotiating day to day changes to the project plan to take account of issues arising whilst still ensuring you can deliver the full project to time and budget.

Choose the Right People

Engaging people with the right set of skills to complete tasks well, to time and budget, is a critical element of successful project control.  If you have to re-do an element of the project this will generally take three times as long as planned.  Poor work is done, discovered, undone and then re-done correctly.

Time is money and if you want a task carried out correctly and efficiently then outsourcing the work to an expert is one of the best investments you can make.  It will take them less time, it will be done correctly, and it will be right first time.

Being careful to engage the correct people for the job at the start of a project will help you to bring that project in on time and within budget.  An expert will have a very accurate idea of how long a task will take, what might go wrong, have a plan to control risk, and the skills and resources necessary to complete the task to a high standard.

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It just so happens that I am rather good at admin and organisational projects.  If you want to see how good, have a look at this blog, and read what others say about my project skills here.

If you do have an admin project you are looking to complete, I would love to chat to you so please do get in touch.  I can take on any size of project from Inboxes that are threatening to explode, through offices that need some organisation to make them work efficiently, all the way up to putting processes and procedures into place to support a business that is looking to scale up.

Santa Claus’ VA Team – Part One

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With the festive season coming up, I thought this would give a bit of light relief from all the rushing about organising presents, food, office parties, visits to relatives, Christmas tree purchase (and the inevitable argument over where each bauble ought to be placed and how much tinsel is too much tinsel on one four foot tree).

It is a busy time of year for everyone, particularly small businesses and HR consultants (all those fallings out over Christmas party misbehaviour and who ate the last mince pie in the communal fridge).  However, if you thought you were busy trying to get it all done whilst also handling your marketing, accounts, invoicing, admin and day to day work, spare a thought for Santa Claus.  He has to get the main bulk of his annual work done in the dark, in a twelve-hour time slot, whilst keeping his lovely red coat and white beard immaculately clean despite entering homes via the chimney.  He certainly earns his mince pie and whisky that’s for sure.

I reckon that the only way Santa can get all this done is to have a flexible team of Rock Star VA’s and Freelance Office administrators to help him throughout the year.  So this post looks at the kinds of tasks that Santa Claus might need completing by a VA or Freelance Administration specialist.

General Admin VA helps Santa’s Behavioural Review Elves to create and update a spreadsheet which can filter out naughty children, giving reasons why they may not receive any gifts.

Information Management VA keeps the spreadsheet of gifts requested by children fully up to date.  There are always a significant minority of children who change their mind about what they just before Christmas. It is the Information Management VA’s role to inform Procurement, Warehouse, Workshop and Warehouse, on a two-hourly basis, throughout December, of any changes to requirements.  Luckily, if Santa already bought the gift for the child, there is usually another child who does want the gift.   This is a huge task and there is more than one VA dedicated to this task during November and December when the television toy adverts start.

Project management VA’s plan and manage all the deadlines and sub-projects necessary to ensure a smooth-running process on the night.  Using Gantt charts to track every part of the process, they ensure that the time leading up to the big night is well used and that all project milestones are met on time throughout the year.

Warehouse VA’s manage the stock control for gifts and ensure that there is sufficient warehouse space, the shelves are properly labelled, and safe handling rules are published and observed.

Health and Safety VA ensures that PPE and uniforms are provided for all Elves, VA’s and of course for Santa Claus.  Safety boots are specially ordered for elves using the exact Pantone shade of green and even the steel toe caps are green.  Santa Claus has patent leather safety boots and needs two pairs a year.  These are specially made for him and have a lovely sheepskin lining.

Reindeer Management VA ensures that the reindeer are well cared for throughout the year and have the right mix of moss, reindeer food, and water to keep them healthy. She also ensures they follow their allotted fitness regime to ensure they are in peak condition with sufficient stamina to make the long journey on the night.  The reindeer carry out regular practice runs with the weighted sleigh and these are timed to ensure they will be able to meet the strict timings needed to get everything delivered on time.

Procurement and Stock Control VA work together to manage the regular incoming orders for the standard gifts that all children like to receive such as chocolate, sweeties, books and DVDs, and bicycles.  These are ordered in bulk ahead of time, based on previous year’s figures averaged but delivered on a monthly basis throughout the year to allow manufacturers to average out the demand on their machinery throughout the year.  A final order is placed in late November based on the actual quantities requested.  Some items are on a sale or return basis.  Being based at the North Pole, all edible gifts are kept so cold that they can be safely stored for a year without detriment.

Santa’s personal PR VA handles his personal appearances throughout the world, ensuring that his travel schedule is managed effectively to make the best use of his time during the run-up to Christmas.

A team of Mail VA’s handle the letters from children and update the spreadsheet of gifts requested to ensure that there is a clear overview of items required.  The spreadsheet is available to the finance and stock control VA’s via a shared DropBox folder so that they can collaborate to ensure that sufficient gifts of each type are going to be available on the night.

Procurement VA’s handle the purchase of gifts on behalf of Santa Claus to ensure that the best value for money is obtained when purchasing in bulk.  They work closely with the Research VA’s and Finance VA’s to provide a fully rounded service.

Research VA identifies toy trends across the year and forecasts likely quantities of each toy so that procurement VA can pre-order items to avoid disappointment.

Reporting VA manages the incoming information and produces weekly management reports for Santa Claus regarding types and quantities of gifts required as well as liaising with Stock Control VA to ensure that demand is not going to outstrip supply.  These two teams of VA’s work closely together to ensure that Santa always has the most up to date management information possible to allow him to make effective purchasing decisions.

Finance VA team manage the payment of bills as well as credit control and budget management, regularly reporting to Santa Claus who reviews the costs to ensure they are within target.

Most of these things are tasks that a VA or Freelance Administrator could do for a less exalted personage than Santa Claus.  I am not sure there is much call for a Reindeer Management VA outside the North Pole.  However, if you have an admin task that is taking up time, time that could be more productively spent with clients, creating revenue, or being with family and friends, then do get in touch here.

Read More In Less Time

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Limited Time to Read?  

I spoke to a business owner recently who was struggling with a business book.  She really wanted to read it but like all business owners, she had limited time to read.  She needed ways to get at the key themes of the book quickly and easily so she could read the full text with more understanding.

This is an issue that also arises in respect of complex reports, lengthy guidance documents and a whole host of other documents.  In today’s fast-paced world, getting at the key information quickly and easily is critical so I’ve put together a few ideas to help with this.

Skim It

With any document skimming the contents page first is a great start.  If you are dealing with a report that has an executive summary, read that next as it will cover all of the main points and conclusions quickly and easily.

Unpack It

To gain more information, move on to the introduction and conclusion of the report, or in the case of a book, each chapter.

If you are reading to gather particular information, for example, a report that you need to read ahead of a meeting, or a book from which you are researching a specific issue, then read only those sections that relate to what you need to know.   You can go back and read the rest later if you wish to, or find you need to.  The contents, introduction and conclusions should guide you to the right places.

You can also flick through the book to see if it is helpfully laid out with “Key points” and “action points” type boxes or other ways in which the author has signposted key content.  These make skim reading for understanding very easy as you can find the bits you need to read in more detail very easily whilst also getting a good grasp of the whole book.

Laser Targeted Searching

If it is a book and you really do only need to know about one very specific thing, then go directly to the index at the back, note down all the pages that relate to that thing, and read only those pages.

Views and Reviews

If these tips don’t speed things up enough for you, or you are still struggling and would welcome the views of other people on the book to see what they made of it, then try an internet search for the book precis or review.  Often this will bring up enough information to get you back into the book and reading actively or it may answer your query entirely.

If you are not sure whether a particular book will include the information you need to know, you can look on book review sites to find out more about the contents, how easy the book is to read and how useful people have found it.  Good sites for this include Amazon and Good Reads.  On Amazon you can sometimes look inside the book.  This often includes the contents page, allowing you to find out whether the book really will include the information you need.

Did you see the Movie?

If you are not a reader but really want to learn more from business books, there are YouTube videos which provide animated precis of key business books.  Really great if you are visual learner.

A Quick Word in your Ear

Finally, for those people who love to learn on the go, there is Blinkist, which for a small fee, allows you to download a fifteen minute precis of thousands of business and other non-fiction books so you can listen as you run, drive or go about your daily routine.

And if you still don’t have time to search for the content or information you need, get in touch, I’d be happy to help.

Running An Effective Meeting

Running An Effective Meeting

According to HR Grapevine, workplace meetings are causing anxiety to employees.  Direct Blinds carried out research which shows that just over 48% of UK employees feel anxious about meetings.  In addition, most of us have had that sinking feeling as we have realised that today is THAT meeting.  The one where everyone rambles on inconsequentially for hours.  The one that is used by certain staff to grandstand and by others to moan. The one-hour meeting that takes two hours.  The meeting that results in no action points.  The meeting from which you exit no wiser than you entered.

It doesn’t have to be this way though.  Meetings can, and should, be an effective use of time.  Here are some tips to make sure your meeting is not the one that your staff are dreading attending.

Purpose

Meetings should have a purpose beyond allowing the lazy to sleep and the malcontents to trumpet.  They don’t need to be called just because there is always a meeting on Thursday.  They should have a clear aim and a purpose and there should be a goal and a measurable outcome for each point on the agenda.  And yes, there should be an agenda.  And minutes so that everyone can recall what was said and who has agreed to action each task.  Ideally, the minutes should be taken by someone who is not participating in the meeting since it is not possible to present to the meeting whilst also writing notes.  It is worth asking someone with experience of the task to take minutes to ensure that all the key points are properly recorded.   If you do not have someone within your organisation who can carry out the task for you, there are freelance PA’s and VA’s, including myself, who can provide this service for you.  Contact me to find out more.

Suitable reasons for calling a meeting include:

Disseminate information to many people at once.

Review progress on a joint project

Plan tasks involving multiple teams

Consult staff or teams about an issue that will impact all of them.

Team building activities.

Information gathering.

But wait, before you call a meeting for information gathering purposes, is it necessary?  Do you really need to have a meeting or would it be more appropriate to gain the information you need via a phone call?  Could you request the information via email?  Would a quick face to face with one key member of each team get you the information you need?

You still need to get everyone together to discuss the issue?  Then call a meeting.

I really do need to hold a meeting. 

Great.  So you are going to hold a useful meeting that won’t waste time.  Key to achieving this is to invite only people who need to be there.  If someone only needs to provide a small piece of information, could they brief another attendee who can then bring up that point on their behalf?  This means only one person from that team needs to attend.

What about the person whose specialist knowledge is critical to one agenda item?  If they don’t need to sit through the entire meeting, can that item be discussed early in the meeting, allowing the person to leave at the coffee break?

Preparation

Please send around an agenda so people know what is going to be discussed.  Include supporting paperwork with the agenda.  In general, the more supporting paperwork you have, the earlier you should send out the agenda and meeting pack.   A good meeting requires well-prepared delegates. Sending the agenda and a forty page discussion document one hour before the meeting is setting yourself up for an unproductive meeting.

Timing

Please be clear about how long the meeting will take and then stick to that timing.  Many executives will be attending a number of meetings each day.  If your meeting over-runs, this will either impact subsequent meetings (in which case you will probably have an annoyed administrator on your case) or the individual will need to leave, possibly at a critical point in the discussion.

Don’t be tempted to allow “a bit of extra time in case things over-run”.  If there is time to fill, it will get filled, not usually efficiently.

Please stick to the agenda.  It is up to the chairperson to move the discussion along at the right speed to ensure all items are discussed.  If a discussion looks as though it is going to run and run, the chairperson should suggest that this is discussed in detail at another time by those who have the greatest involvement or scheduled for further discussion at a future meeting following further information gathering.

Purpose

At all times the Chairperson should be mindful of the aim of the meeting and ensure that all discussion contributes to that aim.  If the discussion veers off into another area, it should be brought back to the matter in hand.

Any Other Business

The “Any Other Business” section of the agenda can cause Chairperson’s hearts to sink.  This tends to be the point in the meeting where the chairperson needs to be particularly ruthless in controlling the meeting otherwise this section could end up longer than the main meeting.

Any Other Business is designed to cover items which arose in the time period between the agenda being sent out and the meeting happening.  It is NOT the place for grandstanding, raising grievances, frustrations or complaints, scoring points over other teams, or ambushing the meeting with an idea which you have already been told cannot be progressed in the hope that raising it in front of higher management will somehow allow you to get the idea agreed.

Addressing the meeting.

If you are presenting to the meeting, keep it short and to the point.  No grandstanding, waffling or blinding people with science or acronyms, please.  A short point, well presented will carry more authority than a lengthy and slightly waffly answer.  Your point will also be much easier to minute, allowing your pearls of wisdom to be properly recorded for posterity and allowing everyone who receives the minutes to clearly recall what your argument was and what actions they might need to take to assist you to move your project forward.  Speak as clearly and concisely as you can.  And if you don’t have anything useful to say… just keep quiet.  It is never necessary to speak for the sake of letting others hear your voice.

And on that note, I will end this post.

5 Spells to Streamline your Time Management

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Soon it will be Halloween.  Then it will be Bonfire Night.  Then we are on the countdown to Christmas.  There are costumes and candy to buy for Halloween, Fireworks to purchase, bonfire night parties to arrange, then the Christmas planning is upon us.  The thoughtful gifts, the stocking fillers, and creating a cake early enough to allow it to be fed an entire bottle of brandy without it turning to mush.  The latter is not only possible, but it is also delicious.   The list goes on and on.

Time, always at a premium, doesn’t stretch to accommodate all the extra tasks you need to complete at home or in the business.   We all sit down some nights and wish we had a magic wand that would allow us to stretch time so we could get more done in a day.   Most of us don’t have a magic wand but these time management tips can help you to make the most of the time you do have available.

Multi-Tasking: Please Don’t.

Although it is tempting to tackle several things at once to get things done quicker, your brain is not set up to work that way.  It works best if you allow it to concentrate on just one task or group of tasks.  By minimising your brain’s need to keep switching tasks, you feel more in control and your brain works more efficiently, allowing you to get more done.

Avoid Interruptions

Interrupting your work to read notifications breaks your train of thought.  Daniel Leviton, author of “The Organised Mind” calls the desire to read notifications and Emails “The Novelty Bias”.   It can take several minutes to recover focus following trivial interruptions and over a whole day, those tiny interruptions can add up to quite a bit of lost time.

If you struggle to ignore notifications there are apps that will block access to Social Media for set periods of time so that you won’t be tempted.  Or, do as I do, leave your phone downstairs when you are working upstairs.

Is it the right time?

If you set aside particular times of day to work on tasks this can really add to your productivity.  Working on complicated or creative tasks when you are feeling fresh will ensure they get done more quickly.  Most of us experience a post-lunch dip in energy and this can be a really good time to check Emails and do routine housekeeping tasks in the office.  Knowing your optimum time for creativity and making the most of this time is a great way to make the most of your time.

Planning:  It’s not just for Project Managers

Have a goal in mind for each week and create a plan for each day.  If you plan out your week and list the key tasks you will complete each day in order to achieve your end goal, this is a great way to ensure you are making progress and stay on track.  Each task on your list should move you nearer to the goal you have in mind, whether that is planning an office party or gaining more business.

Having an accountability partner can be helpful as well.  They can ensure you stay on target by challenging you to complete the tasks you have set yourself that week or month.  Choose someone who will have the confidence to give you a kick if you aren’t meeting the goals you set yourself.

Environment

Whilst some people undoubtedly work well in a messy environment, I’ve seldom met anyone who worked well in a disorganised one.  Those who work with messy desks always have a hidden method of organisation that is not apparent to the casual observer.  They can always lay hands on the thing they need, and that’s the key.  Nothing wastes time like a fruitless search for the pen you had a minute ago, the stapler you know you had last week, or that critical document that you didn’t file away.  The document is probably somewhere in the pile of documents in the corner of the office. Unless it is somewhere else of course.  If this is something you struggle with, you can read tips on how to alter your environment to aid improve both time management and productivity  here:

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Finally, if you are struggling to cast these spells effectively, why not call in an expert?

If you need some heavy duty spells cast over your admin, working with a VA might be the answer.

If you would like me to fly to your rescue, then you can contact me here.

4 Reasons to Outsource Your Data Input

data input tips typing copy-typingWe live in an increasingly connected world.  Information is king and a deluge of data arrives every time you pick up your smartphone, look at your computer, or turn on your television.  Businesses handle an increasingly large and diverse quantity of data on a daily basis.  To harness the power of the information you generally need some level of data input support to organise the raw data into a form which can be used to drive your business forward.

 1.   Time is Money

You can ask one of your team to do the data input.  You can even spread the task across the whole team.  However, this takes each team member away from their key business role.  Since time is money, this may delay completion of important, revenue producing tasks and affect your profit margins. Additionally, asking highly paid staff to carry out routine work can make the work very costly on a per hour basis.

2.    Accuracy

Accuracy is totally critical to ensuring your data is reliable and can be used confidently.  Data input tasks need to be completed by someone whose attention to detail and precision is absolutely top notch.   Incorrect data is more than just a nuisance, it can create major problems.  Incorrect contact details may mean your clients do not receive critical information.  Inaccurate costing information can lead to overspending on your projects.  Errors in metrics which you are relying upon to steer your business forward can have a massive impact on your business forecasting.  Business data needs to be reliable.   You don’t have time to double check work to ensure it is correct.

3.    Speed

Fast typing speeds are important, though not at the expense of accuracy.  Using a specialist who can provide both accuracy and speed makes sense.  Information produced will be reliable and able to be used straight away, saving the business money as well as time.

4.    Motivation and Productivity

You can ask your staff to do the data input alongside their main role.  However, frequent requests for staff to complete routine admin and data input when this is not part of their role can reduce staff morale.  Such requests can lead to resentment, lack of motivation and feelings of being undervalued.  At best this could lead to a reduction in productivity, at worst staff may vote with their feet, leaving you with a costly recruitment and onboarding campaign to manage.

For all of these reasons, outsourcing your data entry to an expert makes sound business sense.

What kinds of Data Input can be Outsourced?

Just about any bulk data input can be outsourced.  Contact information is frequently outsourced since it is very time-consuming to collate and keep up to date.  This is one reason why the input of business cards and contact information into Excel for upload into CRM or telemarketing systems is one of my popular services.

If you are considering outsourcing your next data input task, please get in touch with me and I’d be pleased to help.