Minimum Viable Project Management

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I started my career in software at a consultancy, and over the years I’ve spent more than half my time as a consultant or freelancer. In all this time across many projects, I’ve experimented with many ways of doing software project management. From processes like waterfall, agile, and kanban to tools like pivotal tracker, trello, github issues, and basecamp.

All these processes and tools have the same goal: turn thoughts into structured definition of work.

As the tools have evolved, they have focused on improving that goal through increased specification. By capturing more information on what the work is, how it will be done, and who will do it, they have furthered their goal of creating order from chaos.

My career is built upon my ability to turn creative thoughts into reality. My emotional attachment to each of my thoughts is strong and personal. I derive a lot of satisfaction in filling up a project management tool with all of my ideas.

What starts as a distillation quickly turns into hoarding. It seemed like all the ideas were at the forefront of consciousness, but after a week or two, I don’t recognize some of my tasks any more. Did I even put this in the icebox? How do we have 80 stories in here already?

It’s not long before the icebox becomes unmanageable and we declare bankruptcy. We call our work so far “done” and we make a new project, or we switch tools. And what a rush to start fresh! Now I can really just write down what is important, and none of that other crap. Then a week passes, and then another, and here we are again, mr icebox, my how you’ve grown.

Somehow I lost track of the fact that when I declare bankruptcy and start fresh, all the good ideas are still there. My best ideas are never forgotten. Like a commercial jingle they jump back into my head when I’m at the grocery store, or in the shower, or trying to fall asleep.

Over time, the best ideas grow and evolve through a mental kneading and rising and kneading and rising, until their wispy beginnings gain a firm but supple quality. I don’t notice or miss the other thoughts that came and went, and if I have to, I can go looking and find them again.

Simplify, simplify.

Every piece of information, every fleeting thought and precious idea that is written down and stored becomes a strap tying down what we’re creating, limiting its shape and size within the scope of its bindings. As more and more tasks and stories and requirements are added, the straps pile on and tighten until what’s left isn’t so much our hopes and dreams, but the only remaining shape that can fit within the bounds we’ve created.

I’m ditching my specification-oriented project management style for something more free-form and organic.

I will constrain my ability to constrain.

An entire use case, or feature, or flaw is one short sentence. Everything else is in my head, or in my words with my advisors, customers, and friends. Or on pages in my notebook I know I’ll never flip back to.

What about all the productive discussions with all the people involved? Those sessions are not for “information extraction”, instead, they are explorative and extemporaneous expositions. I may not write everything down but I am certainly shaped by it.

There is no icebox, there is no phase 2, there is no story landfill. Burn your trash, throw your ideas away. The good ones will never leave you.

Everything I am going to do is scheduled and ordered or it is not recorded. When it’s time to get started, I revisit the discussion. A lot may have changed since we last explored the idea. Now we can visit it in the present and move forwards without the constraints of the past limiting our thoughts.

There are 36 one-line tasks between now and the full paid release of MeetSpace, and that leaves me free to focus, work, and think.

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