Defining Tasks and Activities - Project Management

Defining Tasks and Activities

Your first job in this section involves deciding whether you like the term tasks or activities to describe the work of the project. Most project managers use these terms interchangeably. This isn't the only controversy you'll run across in project management circles, but it is one of the lighter ones. For the purposes of this book, I'm going to stick with the term task most of the time, but if you see activity in some places, know that I'm talking about the same thing. We will talk later about activity estimates and network diagramming, which both use the term activity, but keep in mind when we get there that activity and task mean the same thing. Now that we have that out of the way, let's look at what tasks are and the purpose of the task definition process.

Tasks are a single piece of work, or units of related work, that must be completed in order to satisfy a project deliverable or the requirement of a deliverable. When you've completed all the tasks of the project, the product or service of the project is complete. And there you have it—define all your tasks, complete them, and your project is complete. Hold on, it's not quite that simple; there's more.

Tasks are derived from the project deliverables and from the requirements of the deliverables. You defined those in the scope statement. You'll see as we progress that almost everything we do in the Planning process builds on itself, so it's important to take each process seriously and do the best job you can because you're going to be relying on that information later.

Managing the Work

The purpose of task definition is to allow you to break down the work of the project into manageable components so that you can easily determine time, resource, and cost estimates. Each task should be broken down to the point where these estimates are easily derived. Breaking down the deliverables into tasks makes the project manager's job easier because the work is subdivided into small units that are easily assigned to one team member or a group of team members. You can communicate the details of the work to the right team members, manage and track project progress, and provide a way to logically group similar tasks together.

Note:An easy way to differentiate between deliverables and tasks is to describe deliverables as nouns (people, places, or things) and use verbs, or action words, for your tasks—words like define, prepare, program, design, build, research.

Let's look at an example. You've been assigned as the project manager for your company's upcoming annual conference. Customers from all over the world fly to your city to attend this conference and learn about your company's products, take some training classes, and meet with vendors. One of the deliverables of this project includes connecting and setting up 200 PCs for use at the training seminars held during and after the conference. One of the tasks associated with this deliverable might be loading software on each PC. Another task might be to run two power strips for each table in the ballrooms of the hotel where the training is being held.

At this point, you don't need to worry about in which order the tasks appear; just start a list of tasks for your project and give yourself room in between each major heading to come back and add to them. You'll find as you start breaking down tasks that you'll think of new tasks for some of the deliverables you've already broken down, so if you leave yourself some space, you can add these tasks as you think of them.

I'd recommend using a simple format that lists the deliverables as the main heading with task breakdowns and comments under the deliverables. If your project is good sized, you might list each deliverable on a separate page (or pages). A small project may have only a few pages of combined deliverables with their tasks. An example task list for some of the tasks needed for the "Set up PCs" deliverable is shown in table below. If you're going to use this as a template, I'd add the General Information section to the very top of this form like we had on the scope statement and charter documents to help identify basic information about the project (project name, project number, date, etc.).

Table Task list

Task Sequencing

After you define the tasks, you'll want to sequence them in a logical order. This will help you when you're ready to create the project schedule later on. For example, you can't load software onto the PCs until they've been delivered and they have a source of electricity, so it makes sense to list the "Load software" task last in this list. When you're working on small projects, you can easily combine the task definition with the task sequencing process. As you list the tasks, group them into a logical order at the same time. Larger projects require a two-step process. First identify the tasks; then sequence them.

Task sequencing also provides a way for you to keep similar types of work together. In our example project, the IT department is in charge of hooking up the PCs and loading the software. They also have the responsibility for setting up the PC connections from the speaker's podium to the overhead projection system. A logical place to include these tasks would be in our task list shown earlier in table In other words, we've grouped tasks that are similar in nature in the same place.

Task identification and sequencing allows the project manager to define estimates and costs and to determine the skills needed for the work of the project. For instance, the task called "Load software" tells us what type of skills are needed to complete this task. Obviously, we need folks who have some understanding of how PCs work and how to troubleshoot problems if the software doesn't load correctly. This means that we're going to have to work with the functional manager of the IT group to assign some resources to these tasks or contract with a vendor to perform these tasks for us.

Your project budget, the project schedule, and resource assignments are determined primarily from the task identification phase and sequencing exercises. As you can see, these are important steps in the project Planning phase, so you want to take the time here to do a thorough job. But don't feel that you're out there all on your own. Hold a team meeting or two and do some brainstorming to come up with all the tasks necessary to complete the deliverables. Then, after you've compiled your final list, review the list with the team before moving on to the network diagramming or project schedule phase to be sure you haven't missed anything.

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