Academic Project Management Strategies - Part TWO

I am back with Part two of my blog series related to academic project management. If you have not read Part one you might want to start here first.

Hopefully, after reading Part One you decided to take the leap and set up your research team in the project management tool of your choice. So now what? How is this going to simplifying your life and make it easier to keep track of all of the different tasks that you are working on? How does this help your students, team members, and collaborators feel like they know what you expect of them and what they can expect from you?

In today’s post I will give you a couple of examples of HOW (and WHY) we use Asana in my team and you might just decide to give some of these ideas (or all of them) a try. So here are my next THREE suggestions of how project management software might make your life easier and/or make it easier for everyone on the team to appreciate the work that they don’t see.

POINT ONE: Each “Project” has a main TASK list. I have my own “Project” within our group site. This mean that all of my students can at any point see what is on my list (although you can make tasks private so my students don’t need to see that I need to make my kids an appointment to get a Hep A shot before our trip). I actually think that most graduate students and postdocs have no idea what their PI does in their office all day. I think it is useful for my trainees to see what I have going on and my tasks are sorted according to Research, Teaching, and Service (the good old Tenure and Promotion staples). These are just the larger tasks that you see in the screenshot (Below). Within each of these are tonnes of smaller tasks like finish writing assignment 2, submit reference letter for student A, review slide deck for student presentation next week, finish budget for CIHR proposal etc. My students know what I am working on and what the timelines look like for almost everything I do on a daily basis. I actually think that this makes me seem more like a person and less like a mysterious research robot :)

Screen Shot 2019-01-18 at 3.45.32 PM.png

POINT TWO: Each student “Project” has a main TASK list. When I meet with my students weekly, it is the case that this list is almost always open. As we discuss different things that we need to do like email a specific person , or make an updated figure we enter the “action items” directly into the task list for the project and assign the tasks and deadlines while we talk. This means that when the meeting is over we have a clear understanding of what we each agreed to do and when we agree to complete it by. In the example below, you can see that our E coli project has two tasks listed right now. One is assigned to the student (RH) and the other to me. I can easily see with a glance that I can expect to get a draft of RH’s literature review on Tuesday and RH can clearly see that I have committed to sending her edits and revisions on her first research chapter by Feb 8, 2019 (at the latest). In our group that has helped to keep track of all of the agenda items from our individual meetings and improves transparency related to when we expect to complete specific tasks.

Screen Shot 2019-01-18 at 3.58.08 PM.png

POINT THREE: If you have not already realized the underlying HUGE benefit of moving your research and team based communication into a project management platform I am going to give away the secret right now. It means LESS EMAIL (cue the dramatic music). In the past, all of this stuff (drafts, tasks, discussions) would have been email strings with attachments. But now, it is all contained in the project management site. Each task in the list has a description and comments and you can also add attachments and tag individuals so that they know that you have posted something for them. In the screenshot below, you can see all of the attachments one place (both older versions and newer versions of a manuscript) as well as the conversation between myself and RH related to the task of revising the manuscript. Everyone knows what to expect and when to expect it by (and it didn't require 10 emails to make it happen).

Screen Shot 2019-01-18 at 4.02.41 PM.png

Next time, I will talk about how we have used our project management system to change the way we plan and organize our monthly lab-wide meeting. Do you have questions? Feel free to drop them in the comments below and I will start a new post to address your specific questions.

Project management software as a part of your research management strategy: Part ONE

Do you have a to-do list a million miles long, and multiple projects with different funding and reporting requirements? Do you have a team of graduate and undergraduate students that are all working on different aspects of your research program and the feeling that it’s becoming difficult to keep everything straight using your current organizational system?

My research team consistently sits at approx. 10 graduate students and postdocs each academic year.

My ability to keep track of all of the different projects was compromised, and my email inbox was serving as my to-do list which was making me crazy (and was not working that well). I moved my team onto Asana 2 years ago (although there are many other similar project and team management tools such as Trello, and Basecamp that have similar features). I have found that using Asana has improved my organization and (I think) improved my relationship with my graduate students. In the next couple of productivity posts I am going to tell you how we are using Asana as a research team since this is a question I get asked by a lot of my colleagues (including some who have adopted this system).

The first question I always get asked is if we are using the paid version of Asana. Asana is free for teams of less than 15 people. My team is less than 15 people and I am cheap so we are using the free version. The paid version has some additional bells and whistles that might be nice but the free version works just fine for our purposes.

Step ONE

  • I first added all of my team members to the group site.

  • I create a “project” for each member of the team. Each project has “followers” linked to it. In most cases, the projects are student specific and the followers for each project are the student who is leading the project and myself.

This is a screenshot of the Main site setup that shows all of the different projects currently underway in my group.

This is a screenshot of the Main site setup that shows all of the different projects currently underway in my group.

  • The other key item related to the original team setup is the team conversation option. This functionality has served to reduce my daily email significantly!

  • Instead of sending group emails and then having a long chain of email replies to all group members we now use the conversation tool for this purpose instead of email and it has been a game changer because it keeps all of the replies time stamped and tagged to the original post.

Screen Shot 2019-01-03 at 9.10.26 PM.png

Set up a team site for your research team or lab group and give it a try. Then stay tuned for future posts to learn more about how we are using Asana in my research group.

What exactly do you DO as a professor?

Ah the age-old question. 

Most people know that professors teach university students but the part about research is confusing for even my most interested family members (outside of my partner, and parents).  And don’t get me started on the fact that most people assume I relax, and sip cocktails all summer long (Spoiler alert: this is absolutely not true. I have a 12-month appointment and a high distribution of effort in research which means the summer is one of my busiest times). How exactly do you explain the details of the research process to someone who asks you?

I had a senior colleague who once told me that his perspective was that being an academic researcher was like being a small business owner or entrepreneur. At first, I thought it was a strange analogy but the more I have thought about it over the years, the more I like it. I think my research team runs very much like a small business and I think that it has been helpful for me to talk about it that way with my graduate students because it helps them to better understand how I spend my time, and my role in the bigger picture (essentially keeping the ship afloat and pointing in the right direction).

Screen Shot 2018-10-12 at 4.24.24 PM.png

As researchers we deal in the business of ideas and not widgets, but to me it is very similar. 

Screen Shot 2018-10-12 at 4.29.20 PM.png

See? Running an academic research lab is in fact, a lot like running a small business.