A PM’s Toolbox Tour

PM ToolboxI’ve been talking to folks lately about their favorite project management tools: the essential ones that they just can’t do without.  I expected much of what I heard and was surprised and delighted with the unexpected – like “my sense of humor”.  It got me to thinking seriously about the tools I rely on most and why, so this week I’ll be writing about what’s in my own toolbox, it’s maintenance and what I learned from mulling it all over. 

My project management toolbox is with me on every job.  It’s big enough to hold just what I deem the essentials and some Linked Lists to locate my books, file folders and other resources that won’t fit in the box.  It’s gotten somewhat (well, more than somewhat) battered over the last 20+ years; it’s heavier now (like me) and needs a bit of duct tape here and there for reinforcement.  Although I try and keep it organized, things do get mixed up and occasionally I find interesting odds and ends wedged into the corners. 

I have one colleague whose tools are in something that looks like it’s used in a car repair shop and another whose toolbox is a purple canvas sack… What does your toolbox look like?

There are plenty of tools available for standard project management tasks like scheduling, tracking, controlling, reporting, etc.: what I now call the necessary and tedious “hamster-work” (great name, Diana!).  From tools like Excel to MS Project and Primavera, we each have our favorites.  There’s not always a choice though; in many work places specific tools are mandated.  Although I certainly use them, there are no hamster-work tools in my toolbox except for a template or two.

There’s another set of tools I think are more important, brought to mind by a provocative quote from David Schmaltz in The Blind Men and the Elephant: Mastering Project Work: “you are the most powerful project management tool you will ever use”.   This statement is a reminder that the essence of who we are, our principles, our world view and the decisions based on them, has the biggest role to play in our success as project managers.

My experience with “project management tools” has ranged from highly successful to disastrous: and I’m one of the legions who have learned that no matter how intrinsically good the tool is, if it’s not the right tool used appropriately for the right job, things aren’t going to go well.  There’s a tool use problem description attributed to Mark Twain that goes like this: “To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”    I like Jerry Weinberg’s term that encompasses the same problem and related situations; it’s called “Solution Probleming”. 

Though many tools are commonly used, every toolbox is unique to its owner – here’s a peek at mine and what you’ll be seeing this week:

  • On the inside of the lid: Project management principles and mantra
  • Top Tray:  Chimes, Linked Lists, an Open Channel
  • Second Tray:  Key components of various project management methodologies/approaches, Facilitation Exercises
  • Third Tray: Templates and Checklists
  • Bottom Compartment: Questions

Ainsley Nies


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