Forget One Liners!

Posted by Heather Villa, CMA, MBA, MSM on February 10, 2009 in: Coaching Ins and Outs, Project Management

“Take my wife, please” is probably one of the most famous one liners there are. I’m not a big fan of one liners; it’s just not my brand of comedy. And when it comes to project management, I’m not a big fan of one liners, either.

In project management we bring together numerous smaller pieces so that, by the end, we have a completed project – whether that’s a book or a product or an invention or a new business. There are many different kinds of project management tools and techniques out there and the one that is used most often is the “one liner”.

Think of it like this: You’re sitting around a conference room and you know that your department has to bring a new project to market. So someone goes up to the whiteboard, pulls out a marker and then draws a big line down the middle. Then, everyone starts to fill in what needs to be done:

  • A business case needs to be completed.
  • The legal department needs to review the material
  • Vendors need to be sourced.
  • Production needs to be ramped up.
  • Marketing needs to start promoting the product.
  • …(and so on).

And someone draw it like this:

This method seems to make sense, at first, and it’s easy to create a list of tasks and accountabilities that come out of it.

Unfortunately, it misses an important element in project management: the idea that these individual items are not single events in and of themselves.

Completing the business case is not as simple as completing the business case! Rather, the business case is simply the result of a variety of smaller, focused tasks like:

  • Finding someone to spearhead the program
  • Finding a writer to write the business case
  • Supporting the writer with pre-existing research
  • Performing research on an as-needed basis
  • Reviewing the business case
  • Making changes
  • Review the business case again
  • Presenting the business case to stakeholders
  • …(and so on)

Filling the “one liner” with those tasks creates 3 challenges: First, it becomes incredibly unwieldy, forcing the one project line to become so long that it becomes overwhelming. Second, it incorrectly sets the priority of all tasks at the highest priority and tends to make projects take longer than they should because people are often left waiting for one task to finish before the next one can start. Third, it still makes things easy to miss.

Some tools have been created to solve this. Two popular tools are the Gantt chart and the NASA-developed PERT chart. While these are good, some people find them to be slightly over-complicated and unwieldy.

On many projects, one of the key tools I like to use is the fishbone diagram. The fishbone diagram is (in my opinion) a nice, user-friendly balance between the too-simple one liner and the too complicated Gantt and PERT charts. The fishbone diagram starts out like this:


Then, individual tasks are added:


This makes the time line much more manageable and user-friendly while keeping smaller (normally unstated) tasks in view.

Of course, this isn’t the only project management tool I use when I’m doing project management work for my clients, but it’s one that I’ve found to be superior to many others in its comprehensiveness while also making sure that it captures all the “mini projects” that contribute to making the actual project a success.

Wishing Best Success,

Heather Villa

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