Why have I included Outlook as one of my top 5 apps for project management? Because as a project manager you can get inundated with e-mail and easily get a sense of overwhelm. And when that happens you start to lose effective control and become much less efficient. You get distracted from leading the team and making decisions. Outlook, when used properly, can prevent that.
You see and hear of many e-mail system horror stories. Inboxes stuffed with hundreds or thousands of unread e-mails. Folder structures that stretch on for page after page. Messages that go missing, presumed deleted only to be found mis-filed months later. One lady I worked with claimed to receive a thousand e-mails a day. How can you cope with that?
You need a system
Whenever you handle any data you need a system or process to handle that data. A system that ensures you handle that data consistently and promptly. You need a system that automates as much of the data handling as possible. And you need a system that sets aside specific times to manage that data.
Outlook has a powerful feature that lets you set up rules and alerts that automatically perform data management tasks for you. Whenever I manage a project I invariably end up on a number of distribution lists. These will include papers for steering committees, systems status updates, team circulars etc. I don’t need to see any of this stuff urgently so I set up rules to add an appropriate category (we’ll get to categories later) and then move the e-mail straight to an appropriate folder.
I set aside time in my daily/weekly/monthly schedule to review the messages in each of these folders depending on their importance. If I’m directed to the content of a particular message, say for example by a conversation with one of my team in a one to one, I know exactly where to find it. In the meantime, these messages are no longer cluttering my inbox.
Another way I use the rules engine is to colour code messages. You can set up a rule to interrogate a message and depending on what it finds, change the colour of the subject text. For example, I might use a rule to change the subject text colour of any e-mail form my boss to appear blue. That way I can immediately identify and prioritise messages from my boss.
I might instruct my team that if they are sending me stuff that i need to review that they start the e-mail subject with [For Review] and the rules engine can code those another colour. you can decide on a number of these rules and behaviours but be careful not to go overboard or your inbox with resemble a jumbled rainbow!
Managing the inbox
Delete – If I don’t need to see or keep an e-mail I delete it – straight away. If it’s information I may want for later such as a blog subscription I’ll probably already have set up a rule to automatically move it. If it’s regular information you don’t need, unsubscribe or ask to be taken off the distribution list.
Do it – If it is something I need to deal with and it can be handled in less that 5 minutes, I do it – there and then.
Defer it – If it is something I need to deal with but it can’t be handled in less that 5 minutes I defer it by scheduling it in my calendar. The easiest and quickest way to do this is to flag the e-mail and add a reminder. This sets up a task in Outlook.
Delegate – If it’s something that needs to be done, but not by me I delegate it to the most appropriate person. I will either forward the e-mail if that person was not included in the distribution or I’ll reply to the e-mail but replace the To: with who I am delegating to. I’ll probably also add a reminder so that I follow up and ensure the task is completed.
Now for each of the last 3 of the 4 D’s I also do something else. As I read each e-mail to decide which D to apply, I also add one or more categories to the e-mail. The categories I use vary from project to project but could include:
- My boss
- My direct reports
- Key stakeholders, particularly my project sponsor
- Typical project groupings such as plans, reports, financials etc.
- Project phases or stages
- Admin groupings such as travel & expenses, recruitment etc.
These categories make it much easier to find e-mails. If you stick to using just the folder structure you’ll find yourself debating which folder to put some items in because it could easily go in several. It then becomes much harder to find later on when you can’t remember which folder you decided to use. I create search folders based on categories for the ones I use most often.
Categories are effectively metadata – data about data – and make searching so much easier. For example you might have had an e-mail from John about his concerns on the plan for project X. Now there are at least three folders that could have been filed in. Also, the project name might not have been in the subject so even a search may not have thrown up the right e-mail. But if you have categorised your e-mails effectively as you processed them you could do a category based search for plans & John & project X.
So far I have focused on using Outlook to handle e-mail and tasks generated off the back of e-mail. However, I use my Outlook Calendar and Task list as my personal plan. On a daily basis I review my calendar and task list to ensure I have scheduled enough time to do everything that needs to get done. I’ll do this in conjunction with Evernote which I use to track my To Do lists, brining in things form Evernote to my calendar as time permits or urgency demands.
I review my calendar/personal plan on a daily basis, usually towards the end of each day to ensure the next day is properly planned and I can get off to a flying start in the morning. I also make sure I look forwards in my calendar for upcoming meetings and deadlines that I may have to deliver stuff for. It’s no use finding out you have to complete a task tomorrow if there are three days work required to do it!
Outlook enables me to keep my e-mail under control, my schedule organised and my my delegations tracked. Most organisations I run projects for have Microsoft Exchange Server which means I can track my projects on the move using Outlook Web Access. For my own business I use Microsoft Office 365 which gives me the same capabilities in the cloud.
And that is why Outlook is in my top 5 apps for project management.