A Small-Project Playbook

Here’s a way to keep your far-flung IT team as focused as a football squad.

We’ve all heard plenty of project team analogies. For me, the most fascinating one compares a project to a football game. Each has an objective, a team that needs to be coordinated and a deadline.

I’ve devised a little tool that extends the analogy further. Football coaches have long made use of playbooks to ensure accurate communication, visual sequencing and coordination among team members spread over a large area. I’ve found that a playbook can serve the same purpose for a virtual team working on a small project.

> My playbook is based on the classic issue log. Instead of being an incongruent list of problems, however, it’s a sequential list of tasks. It clearly shows everyone the order of the work, who is being called on and when.

By their nature, virtual teams work as a collection of free agents, and conference calls among team members have a tendency to become disembodied forums of multiple conversations, divided attention spans and mayhem. Given that most of my virtual teams are located across the country or around the world, I need a more focused means of getting results. The playbook is that mechanism.

> The playbook gives me, as the project manager, a way to capture tasks, actions, issues and a RAM (responsibility assignment matrix) all in one spot. It gets team members thinking, “What’s the next thing I can be doing, and can I do it sooner?” or, “What am I waiting on that I should communicate to everyone on the conference call?” You could call it a pseudo critical path for dummies.

Small Projects Only

I use a playbook primarily for the small things — projects of 120 hours or less — that are too granular to require a formal project schedule. Within Microsoft Project, these are the things that typically might be scheduled as two- or three-line items, better classified as microprojects or complex to-do’s. For example, within a project schedule, I would expect to see a line item for the task “build/configure Web server.” Coordinating that task is something I would probably want to manage with a playbook.

> My playbook has eight columns: Task Name, Description, Due Date, Owner, Issues, Deliverables, To, and Waiting On.

On the surface, it looks fairly straightforward. The real power of the playbook, though, is in defining the deliverable (output) from a task and the person or persons to whom it has to be delivered. (For example, the network team registers a server on the network. The deliverable is the network address, which the sysadmin team needs in order to access the server.)

> If a team member isn’t able to complete his task by the date or time required, he indicates what is holding him up in the Waiting On column (e.g., “password to the database server” or “confirmation of Web server reboot”). This lets everyone on the team know what the problem is and highlights and applies pressure on the person who needs to complete the action to get things moving again.

> The biggest hurdle in virtual teams is getting geographically distributed team members to think and act as if they were all in the same room looking at the same whiteboard. The playbook is particularly good for coordinating many people, each of whom has just a task or two to do as part of the overall effort.

> In a simple format, it combines the agenda for the group teleconference calls, the project plan (task list), resource matrix (role assignments) and status report. If there’s an issue, it’s listed right in the playbook, next to the task that triggered it.

Although the playbook isn’t for large projects, it’s effective for managing the small stuff for which a project schedule and other formalities are too cumbersome. It allows me to be organized and nimble in firefighting efforts.

> For example, when working with the infrastructure team, the application team and an outside vendor to troubleshoot a system’s availability problems, we used a playbook to sequence the steps that each team would perform and noted each step’s effect on each other area. Playbooks have also led my team through software upgrades and virus outbreaks, and I have required that they be used for implementing all small to medium-size change requests.

> Once you’ve designed a few playbooks for various types of tasks, you’ll find that many are virtual templates that can be reused with minor adjustments.

> Communication is the single most important factor in leading a football team or an IT team. That’s why many a coach has gone to great lengths to protect his playbook. Once you’ve built a few of your own, you’ll understand why.

Step

Task Name

Description

Due Date

Owner

Issues

Deliverables

To

Waiting On

1.0 Install/build all rack components

(1) Install racks; (2) Validate wiring compliance; (3) Install grounding bars

10-Aug-06

Tork

Server mounting rails missing

in shipment.

DC floor approval, data center power-up approval

Tork Replacements to be overnighted
2.0 Rack all servers (1) There are six servers to rack; (2) Include rack-mounted UPS; (3) Validate infrastructure config compliance

11-Aug-06

Tork

 

Rack location addresses,

server specs
Williams  
3.0 Build a target server

Note: We can even place a desktop in place to facilitate the network configuration.

11-Aug-06 Williams Out of space on current switch, need another.

Server connection info

Miles  
4.0 Establish network connectivity

(1) Establish subnet; (2) IP the servers; (3) All required port and firewalls between servers opened? (4) Are ILO/RIBs active?

14-Aug-06

Miles  

Connectivity info, drive partition, requirements (Barnett)

Neal  
5.0 Hardware configuration (1) Hardware installed; (2) Initiates BIOS POST; (3) Ext devices installed; (4) Logical drives created

14-Aug-06

Neal

May not have ordered the right NICs, need to check them.

  Hanorahan  
6.0

Network

interface build
(1) Define IPs for DRAC or RIB; (2) Connect ports to the switch; (3) WINS and DNS 14-Aug-06 Hanorahan        

Barnett is a program director for a large IT services company where he focuses on IT program management for clients. Contact him at tom.barnett@earthlink.net.

Note: This article has no connection to Project Playbook, a registered trademark of Project Resources Group LLC.

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