A PM’s Toolbox Tour: Tray 3 & Bottom of the Box

Toolbox Tray3 I see no point in reinventing the wheel: I prefer to accessorize!  So to make the most of what I’ve learned already, I keep a basic set of templates and checklists in the toolbox, along with the inevitable expectation that they’re a starting point for adaptation and customization. 

Because customization can be so varied, I embed lots of possibilities in templates: questions, exercises, activities, links to other formats or related templates, etc.  This makes the modification easier and, more importantly, reminds me to consider the perspective of others who will be involved.  

The templates I rely on most are for things I do frequently that can be done in a wide variety of ways, like meeting agendas.   I keep a generic meeting agenda and specialized versions for focused meetings like chartering, planning and retrospectives, etc.   For example – the generic agenda: 

  • Review/modify agenda (always the first item for every meeting)
  • ?? – introductions needed
  • Basics + 1, 6-word memoir
  • Review stated meeting purpose and expected outcomes
  • ?? – include participant purpose and expected outcomes
  • ?? – is a decision-making or other group process needed
    • Thumb vote, secret ballot, Dot vote
    • Brainstorming, 1-sentence Go-Around
    • Sticky-note affinitization
    • Rolestorming, Analogies,
    • Temperature Reading, Reflection
  • ?? – are there certain people that must be in attendance to do what’s needed; what to do it they’re not
  • Review outstanding action items
  • Next steps
  • Action items for next steps (who does what by when)
  • Next meeting date
  • An excellent book for planning different types of meetings (and creating templates) is The Art of Focused Conversation: 100 Ways to Access group Wisdom in the Workplace, edited by Brian Stanfield. 

    I also maintain templates for the documents I think are critical for project success (Charter, Communication Plan and Interim Retrospective in particular). I’ve noticed that there’s often a difference between my version and an organizationally mandated version, and that sometimes the organization doesn’t use the document at all.  If for no other reason than cover-your-behind, as PM you need to document whatever you think is important… and make sure the right people read and initial it. 

    Last, and by no means least, the bottom compartment of my toolbox is full of questions.  For several years now I’ve made it a point to make note of interesting questions, many of which, though not specific to project management, have a useful effect when inserted liberally into the work. 

    Look for opportunities to ask questions, embed them in templates and checklists, and select a few for every time you’re going to meet with someone.  For instance, when working with a person whose role is to provide you with direction or requirements, ask provocative questions like: 

    • What puzzles/surprises you about: ? 
    • What does that allow you to do? 
    • In all your experience with : , what is the most important thing you’ve learned?
    • What do you wish you didn’t know?
    • What things do you assume will never or always change?  
    • What other questions should I be asking you? 

    The answers are good to have; the conversation is better.
    Questions are a wonderful tool and can be tricky: the whole context needs to be considered before asking.  “Whose legs are you dancing on?” or “How old are you right now?” can leave you looking like a genius or a complete fool.

    Ainsley Nies


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