Break It Down
By Jenni Doyle
My son is 9 years old and in the 4th grade. I am afraid that I may have failed him as a parent already. I know, it’s a little early, but it is a competitive world. He does not know how to take a school project and break it down into manageable tasks.
Now I don’t know that he’s going to end up living on my couch forever – there is likely still time to teach him this skill. But how many people do you see in your professional world who struggle with this same thing? I believe this one skill can make all the difference in the world between having an average career and an exceptional one.
So how do we teach this to our kids – or our team members? Here is what I have tried to do – and I would love your suggestions!
- Paint the big picture – help your team member understand how their project (series of tasks) will benefit the organization/company and fit in with other efforts going on (if applicable).
In the case of my son’s latest project, he had to do a display board with various types of leaves with the parts of each leaf labeled. The big picture impact of this was their studies in school.
Mind Mapping – ask your team member to come up with a list of impacted areas. Whether this is system functions, business processes, or something else – they don’t need to think about how it is impacted – just the what is impacted. I like to draw boxes on paper with the name of each what in a box.
For my son’s project, he had to have a display board and leaves – two boxes.
Association – Ask them to represent how each what is related to another by drawing lines between the boxes.
Not as relevant for the leaf project because they are obviously related.
Chicken & the Egg – Ask them which boxes (what) need to be addressed at a higher priority than others.
The leaves had to come first before the display board.
Task List (Scope) – Ask the team member to make a list of what needs to be addressed for each what. Now you dig into the how. They should evaluate whether the impacts cause them to re-think their assignment of priority for the what.
Leaves had to be gathered, laminated (his idea), and labeled.
Display board had to have a title and a nicely formatted sub-title for each leaf.
Got the Skills – It is a good idea to validate that the team member has the skills needed to perform each step. They might need to ask others on the team to help. If this is a larger project that spans multiple areas, this whole breakdown activity should be undertaken with a group of people.
In my son’s case, he had never used the laminating machine so he had to enlist a little help from his crafty mom!
It seems fairly simple when you consider leaves on display but I have seen this work for larger IT projects. Or even projects at home…. Yes, I am that difficult to live with!
In the end, being able to break down a larger effort into a plan of attack is a critical skill for anyone. It helps paint a clear path of effort for the team member(s). They will have a greater sense of accomplishment for having developed a plan and completing the task versus having each task spoon-fed to them one at a time.
You could get fancier (the Project Manager in me coming out now) by adding critical milestones, pre-defined percent complete to track progress, or target completion dates for the activities. This might be overkill for the 4th grade project (maybe….) but likely a good step towards maturity for a work-related effort.
I would love new ideas as this may have worked with my first son but guessing my second son will throw me a curveball when his first project is due.
What methods do you use to breakdown projects into a list of actionable tasks? What have you done to teach others this skill?
Jenni Doyle is a leader with over 12 years of experience in various areas of IT including business analysis, project management, application development, and vendor management. My experience has shown me that hard-work at the start of an effort will increase the likelihood of successful results at the end. Because of this belief, I am a believer in quality business analysis, vendor management, and project management. You can read more from Jenni on her blog, Perspective – by Jenni Doyle
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