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Background

I have recently been promoted to a new job in hardware development, which has two different aspects:

The first one is to lead a small fast prototyping team (3 people including me at the moment, expected to grow to 6-7 in a year or two). The basic idea is that designers who want to test an idea come to me with schematics, and I am in charge of quickly building a prototype for them to test.

Concurrently, I am the lab manager, which means that I have to tend to a lot of small tasks, handle logistics and keep an eye on order and safety.

Before that I was a technician, assigned to a single project for weeks or even months, so I do not have a lot of planning experience.

Because I know the team, I am quite confident regarding the people-management side; but the planning/project management has me confused. I have read about Prince2 and PMBOK (which are the PM solution used in my company), but those solutions seem to be quite heavy for what I am doing. Aside from that, I know next to nothing about project management.

Problem

How do I manage many small projects (a few man-days each), many small tasks (15 minutes each, about 5 a day) and general vigilance without forgetting something, burning out or running around like a headless chicken?

I am slowly starting my new job, and work has started piling up, I would like to bring some structure to it before it gets out of hand.

As a bonus, I would like to orient my career towards a technical PM path, so building experience in recognized PM methods, or even better, experience that would lead to PM certifications would mean a lot to me.

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Everything you will read as you learn about project management would be applicable to small projects but you need to scale it properly. So whatever you picked up from the PMBOK or Prince2 or whereever else, make it smaller so it will be more consistent with your smaller, more simple project. For example, you will want to draft a plan to answer the questions, who, what, where, when, why, and how, in terms of building whatever product you're building. For a large, complex project, that plan might be 100+ pages. For your project, it might be 5 pages or less. The schedule on the larger project could be thousands of lines while your schedule might look more like a to do list. Scale it with a little bit of common sense.

In addition, don't over think this. You've been managing projects since you were like six years old. You do home projects likely every weekend. And get comfortable you'll make mistakes...from which you learn so that when you get the bigger project you won't repeat.

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I think you should start by time boxing yourself. In order to devise an effective solution, you need to know how things are getting piled on and where are you indeed investing your time.

Regardless of how hard you try, you won't be able to accomplish quantity of work which is beyond your capacity and that is why I started by suggesting - Time Boxing with proper logs.

Once you have the log, it will also give you an opportunity to discuss your problem with higher authorities.

Your description of the tasks you are responsible for does not link up. You are pretty much serving as a general manager whilst doing a task for yourself.

I think you might also have to make a call if you indeed want to pursue a career in management; in case you do and if you want to increase the effectiveness you will have to offload the task of prototyping to someone else and just focus on management. At the moment you are pretty much-juggling things across domains.

I highly recommend you to have a discussion with higher authorities as soon as possible.

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You may start with scheduling regular tasks in your Calendar. I would recommend Google Calendar for this. Each day at the same time try to plan the same activity. After x3 weeks that should become a habit.

Event in the calendar could be everything: from 'review plan for upcoming 2-3 days' to 'work on prototyping device X'.

Then you should also have daily tasks defined. It allows you to focus on critical items first. I would recommend to use Google Tasks for this (to see events and tasks on the same list on your laptop). Daily tasks should not be abstract, they should reflect the actual action (e.g. 'Send Followup email to Mike re Design questions', 'Update tech docs for project Y with the last findings', 'Complete navigation feature AB-437', etc)

For tracking project's activities create a list of tasks (features/detects/technical tasks) for the whole scope of work and update status of the cases on a daily basis. You may use Google Spreadsheets, Trello, Asana or any other tool to achieve that. Note: add daily event to your calendar to keep tracking on the tasks.

And the last thing you should do is to make sure that your progress is reported to stakeholders (your manager, or product owner, or department's manager based on your organization's structure). It should be done at least weekly (in most cases bi-weekly is fine; if that is an active phase of development with 4+ engineers then reports can be daily. That should be a short call or standup meeting (5-15 mins usually) where you report:

  • what was done?
  • what are you working on now (and when you are going to finish it)?
  • open questions and blockers (if any)

That's it.

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