45royale October 29, 2007

PMGEP Part 4: Back to your future projects

In Part 3 of the PMGEP (Product Manager’s Guide to Extraordinary Projects) we took a look at the ins and outs of developing a project schedule. At this point in the process everyone involved should know what is expected of them. Your designers know what to design, your development team knows how they’ll be implementing the design, your client knows when they’re expected to provide feedback and sign off, and you’re maintaining the schedule and keeping everything running smoothly. So is there anything else that needs to be done? Well, actually there is one thing left that will help you immensely during this project and on projects yet to come. Keep track of your time!

Punching a clock

Whether you are an employee at a large corporation with an ID badge, a contractor submitting time sheets, or actually clocking in and out of work, we all have one thing in common. We’ve had to track our time for the work that we do. If you want to have extraordinary projects and run a successful business, tracking the time it takes to do project-specific tasks will help you better plan and prepare; not only for this project but for those still to come.

Thinking vs. Knowing (sort of)

If your job requires you to provide estimates on costs and time, you need to track your hours in order to gauge whether or not your quote is as accurate as it can be. I don’t think there’s a single freelancer or design company out there that doesn’t want to get paid for the hours that they work. But in reality, when you’re coming up with an estimate, the amount you end up with is really no more than your best guess. You think you know how long it will take you to complete the project and you’ve priced your time accordingly, but what if you’ve miscalculated or assumed that something would take much less time than it did? Are you going to be able to come back to the client and tell them something will take longer and the price of the project has just increased by 30%? Not likely! More often than not, you’ll end up eating those extra hours to make good on your promise to the client.

The goal of tracking your time is to collect the information you need to turn your “guess” in to a highly educated estimate by backing up your projections with real world data. Once you have a better idea of how long a particular task takes you on average, you can provide your client with a more accurate proposal and leave a lot less room for error.

When to start the stopwatch

Let me start this section off by warning you that tracking your time is not easy. It seems simple enough in concept, but it will require a lot of self motivation in order to be diligent about logging your hours. But if you can keep your hours up to date and take the time to analyze your data, I promise you will eventually reap the benefits!

Now that you’ve made a commitment to tracking your time, should you wait until your active project is over and begin logging your hours at the start of the next project? No way, you should start today! Every bit of data you can gather on how long you spend working on an item or task can help you going forward. Here at 45royale we’ve found the easiest way to start getting on the right track is to keep a timesheet of your daily work. If you’re like me, you’ve got so much going on that you can’t recall what you were doing last week, much less what you were doing last month! Keeping a log or a timesheet of your daily work will give you the ability to look back to last week, last month, or even last year and see how you were spending your time.

There are several web applications on the market like Tickthat provide online time tracking, but traditional time sheets are just as effective (and our preference).

We use a modified version of a paper timesheet created by the folks over at BlueFlavor that was based on David Seah’s Printable CEO™. Whether you use our timesheet, one of your own, or an actual application, you need to make record of the following information for each entry:

  • Date
  • Task Description
  • Time
  • Project
  • Client

As you get more adept at recording your time you may find other trackable information that is relevant to your business, but these 5 basic fields will be more than enough to get you started. As you populate these fields on a daily basis, you’ll begin to get an idea of what you have worked on, who it was for, and how long it took you.

You have the data, now use it

Once you have gathered enough data over the course of several weeks, its now time to analyze what you’ve collected. I am not a math wiz by any means, so I find it helpful to input all of my information into Excel where I can take advantage of various automatic formulas and functions that can make my calculations easier. To some, entering your hours onto a timesheet and then into another application like Excel may seem like double work, but here at 45royale we’ve found that its sometimes faster to jot a quick note down on a paper timesheet than it is to stop what you’re doing, open excel, enter the data, close excel, then get back to work. The important thing is that you want to capture the time spent in the quickest way possible and if that means coming back later and spending time compiling that data, so be it.

Since the main goal of tracking your time is to make your estimates more accurate, you need to take a look at how you typically send out proposals. For us, we break our quotes out into three phases; Wireframing, Photoshop Comps, and Implementation. So when I’m analyzing the time that we’ve recorded, I’m taking each entry and assigning it to one of those “buckets”. That way when I’m done compiling the data, I should be able to see how many hours we spent on each phase of the project.

Having this type of information in hand is extremely powerful. If you know how much time you spent on each phase, you can then compare the final hour count to your original quote. Were your estimates accurate? Did you spend less time on one phase, but more on another? If your estimates were accurate, you now have the data to back up your assumptions. However, if you realize that you drastically under (or over) estimated how long a particular task would take you, you may need to dig a little deeper to see why your estimate was off. Did it take longer than you thought it would to complete those comps? Did the requirements or scope change during the project? With the knowledge you gain by tracking and analyzing the time you spend working, you can make sure the next proposal you send out is a more realistic depiction of the hours it will likely take to complete the job.

Time’s up!

I know this was a lot of information to take in, but I can’t stress enough the importance of tracking your time. When you know how long things ACTUALLY take you, you and your team are better equipped to make smarter decisions for your company. The next time a client comes to you with a hard and fast deadline, you can feel confident in saying you can or can’t make that happen. Your team will be less stressed, your client will be pleased when projects come in on time and on budget, and all of this is essential for an extraordinary project! Keep your eyes peeled for the final installment of the PMGEP when we take a look at what to do when things take a turn for the worst on your next project.

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