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Project management is easy

Hello everyone coming from the 37s product blog. We’re really happy to be featured again and I’m sure you’ll get some value from this post, but bear in mind that it was published in 2009 when Basecamp todo items didn’t have due dates. Just sayin’.

I feel a need to let you know just what a disorganised person I am: I have the worst memory and attention span of anyone I know. Ask my mum, girlfriend or friends and they will tell you of their years of frustration. But it’s not my inability to get things done, it’s my inability to actually remember what it is I’m supposed to be doing!

I’m telling you this because, before anything else in this post, what I want to get across is that project management is something that anyone can do. Even me.

Back in February I posted this update on my Twitter page:

Jamie's tweet

Now I want to spend a little more than 140 characters explaining that statement. At the same time I want to give readers an insight into a part of our project management process, with a few tips thrown in along the way.


We use Basecamp at Erskine. The insights and tips I’m going to talk about will be Basecamp specific but I’m sure they can ported to your own way of working.

For a time, as the number of projects and people at Erskine increased and project management became more of a priority, I actually fought hard against Basecamp. Why? Well as a communication tool Basecamp excelled but for task management it seemed to not do quite enough.

For example its inability to include due dates with tasks just seemed wrong. I was one of those people who tried every new project management tool, and there’s a lot of them out there. I was focusing on the tools we used rather than on defining a process that worked for us.

I no longer fight against Basecamp.

Basecamp’s beauty is its simplicity: you don’t have to take anything out: there’s no noise to reduce. You just need to apply some creativity which, thankfully, we all have lots of right?

The Project Backlog

The obvious answer to avoiding forgetting things is to write them down. Project related things could be tasks, ideas, requirements, feature requests, websites to look at, something a client’s said: anything at all.

For all of the above we create a to-do list in Basecamp called the Project Backlog: this is where we write everything down that needs to be remembered and isn’t actionable by a specific person in the near future (more on what to do in that case soon).

Project Backlog

Some Basecamp specific tips for you:

  • empty to-do lists are automatically moved to the completed lists sidebar; to force the list to stay put, even when empty, add a to-do labeled “———————-“ at the top of the list;
  • add a description to the list and explain its purpose at the start of the project to both project and client teams;
  • don’t assign items in this list to anyone; they aren’t actionable yet, so you don’t want them to appear in anyone’s global to-dos yet.

The main thing is to get everyone using it and to not be precious about what goes in there.

Weekly Reviews

All of our projects have weekly internal review meetings. The project team will get together each week to discuss what happened the previous week, what’s planned for the week ahead and to highlight any issues that we might be able to avoid with a little foresight. It’s our weekly version of what others may call standup meetings or scrums.

As part of the weekly review we’ll go through each item in the Project Backlog and convert anything that needs attention during the week ahead into actionable tasks, then assign those tasks to a member of the project team. These actionable tasks are moved to week-based to-do lists which are described below.

After the meeting we’ll send the client a message which will summarise the meeting, list the agreed tasks and highlight any issues that they need to be aware of. We’ve found this a great way of giving the client an overview of what will be happening on the project that week (especially if your weekly review meeting is at the start of the week).

Week-based to-do lists

Week-based to-do lists

As said above Basecamp’s to-do list feature doesn’t have the functionality built-in to give tasks due dates. To get around this we create individual to-do lists for each week of the project. So for example, the list for this week would be called “Week June 8th - June 14th”.

We don’t create a list for every week of our 6 month project - that would be silly. To focus everyone on the most immediate actions we only create week-based to-do lists for the next two weeks of the project. Remember: everything else goes in the Project Backlog.

As with the Project Backlog list, on our week-based to-do lists we add an item labeled “—————-“ to stop the list from disappearing if no items are contained within.

If an item is moved from the Project Backlog, or added directly to a week-based to-do list, it is assigned to a person. On Basecamp, by assigning it to a person, it will now show up in that person’s global list of to-dos. This is the stuff the person should be focusing on. Items in Project Backlog will never show up in a person’s to-do list unless they are assigned, which is exactly what we want.

A person's global to-dos in Basecamp

During the weekly review any uncompleted items from the previous week will be dragged to the next week or, if their priority has been reduced, moved back to the Project Backlog.

Once their date has passed, rather than deleting week-based to-do lists, simply delete the blank to-do list when all other items have been completed or removed; on the next page refresh the list will move to completed (it’s a good idea to keep completed lists to refer back to at a later date if required).

Here’s a summary of what we just talked about…

The project backlog - create a list that you can use to store everything you might need to remember during the project.

Weekly review meetings - at the start of each week get the project team together, review the items in the Project Backlog, and convert the ones you need to work on into actionable tasks.

Week-based to-do lists - move these actionable tasks from the Project Backlog into a dedicated to-do list for that week’s work. Make sure anything in these lists are assigned to the person who’s responsible for making sure it’s done.

That’s it for now, if you take anything away from this take the following three points.

  1. Don’t fight Basecamp
  2. Write everything down
  3. Focus on the actionable

There are other areas of project management I’d like to discuss, possibly regarding the importance of communication or maybe that elusive agreement with clients that a project is complete (both are things I’ve learned a lot about over the past two years through trial and a number of errors!).

In the meantime though I’d love to hear your thoughts on all of the above and any Basecamp tips you’d like to share.

Erskine Design
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