The whole reason I took the time to write this post is to share some thoughts - perhaps with the 37 signals team and others out there working on products like this. It also could be that I have simply not yet found the right tool, so this might prompt someone to offer an alternative! While there are clearly work-arounds for some of these issues, perhaps there will be a nugget that helps developers of new collaboration tools look beyond, into the messy world where I work.
Consulting Effectively: Defining The Task Processing Problem
One of the top complaints with SEOs / web developers is that tasks are not handled in a timely manner or get lost. For the consultant, having good task tracking is essential for invoicing and accountability. But for my projects (even with a half-Billion dollar firm) action items often get passed around in haphazard fashion using email, phone, meeting action items, and often on paper. For several years, I’ve used Basecamp for process and task assignment, but before that I used Cerberus support ticket system in an attempt to bring this under control. Both have a web interface and an email interface for interacting. I loved them both. My clients, not so much.
Clients Rebel, Projects Suffer
For all their strengths and potential, I was still unable to convince clients to log in and use Basecamp or Cerberus (circa 2005) reliably for our projects. Within a couple of weeks, most will simply revert to email or voice mail, where each contact may include as many as 4-5 tasks mixed in the message, making it quite difficult to do sensible tracking. My clients are busy people, and adding a new burden to their busy day is a tall order. But we need to manage projects better, and I think the solution lies in a combination of two areas: Client Training and Better Technology.
Solution 1: Training Clients
For the most part, collaboration tools work best in an idealistic project environment of the development team or corporate intranet. Here participants embrace centralized task management and are therefore willing to change behaviors to make it work for the greater good of the project – or they’re simply told to do so by a boss.
But for my firm, participants are not used to such formality and are paying me to help them with their SEM. It’s hard to ask for changes to behaviors “to suit my system.” The reality however is that the administrative overhead takes real hours out of real days – time that could be spent on far more productive endeavors using my unique skills.
It’s worth it to patiently explain to clients why use of the system is in their best interest – it allows prioritization, reporting and tracking of resources. It’s important that they know how to enter tasks without mixing and matching – something that requires a new way of thinking for many. It can be argued that the actual amount of work required in clarification of a task is actually far greater than what it would take to break it down and enter it to start with – not to mention the lost efforts in working on the wrong task!
Solution 2: Better Technology to Adapt to Client’s Needs
My analysis of this issue leads me to a few ideas where technology could help. In addition, I have communicated with others (including 37 Signals) some of these ideas.
- Variable Task Inititator (So you can enter tasks for clients.)
- Ability to Define an Administrative Burden to Each Task.
- Reward Compliant Clients with Faster Processing.
- Retard Task Processing for Non-Compliant or Delinquent Clients.
Idea: Variable Task Inititator
All of the project collaboration tools make assignment of a task quite easy but none I’ve tried make re-assignment of task initiator so simple. Very often, I find myself entering the tasks for the customer because they’ve bypassed the system and sent me an email – which I forward to the system. I need it to be efficient and fast. But this doesn’t go well. Take this example using Basecamp where a client has sent me a task via my personal in-box (versus entering it in the system.)
- open the email and read it
- copy the text about the task/message into the clipboard.
- open the project in Basecamp
- start a new task / message thread in the project – give it a meaningful subject.
- turn off email notification to the task initiator (temporarily) so they don’t receive a redundant message.
- paste the task into the task / message contents
- check assignees to receive the request.
- save the message [assignees now get a notice]
- re-open the original message.
- add the original sender back to the email notifications so they’ll receive replies to the thread.
- re-save the message.
Idea: Need a Way of Assigning an Administrative Burden to a Task
Each task should be assigned a “administrative burden” (possibly a billable item.) This burden may be as simple as a high, medium, low selection or a scale of 1-10.
If the client enters tasks in the system as clear items they should be rewarded with a low administrative burden score. These tasks are done more quickly and costs are reduced. If they send “bypass” emails or voice mails with multiple tasks per contact, the administrative burden rises and the client is informed through an emailed notice of delay.
Changes in the administrative burden for a task should be communicated to the client via email, including when their work was slowed by their own behavior. The essence of the communications would be “If they choose to employ me for routine administrative work, they will have less time to achieve their SEM results.” A message may read something like:
“Thanks for entering your task directly into my task manager. Since you entered it via the web, it is being forwarded directly to me for processing and bypassing the administrative queue.”
“Since your task was received via email, it is pending in our administrative queue. Please allow 12-24 hours for it to enter the task queue.”
“Due to multiple topics in your recent task request, it has been diverted to administrative processing to be split up. Please allow a few hours for it to re-enter the task queue.”
…something like that.
Idea: Need a System For Rewarding Efficient Clients
Customers who insert tasks with skill on a regular basis would be rewarded with “express” status meaning that they rarely need any administrative processing on their tasks and their administrative burden score is low or zero. On Basecamp, for example, users that enter well-defined tasks on the web interface are automatically part of this “fast track” queue. These clients should experience faster responses and better project outcomes. One might even consider a token “administration rebate” when the client reaches a certain level of competence.
Idea: Need a Way to Retard Task Processing at the Client or Project Level
The completion of tasks will be done in order based on the client’s accounting status, the time when it was entered in the system, how it was sent and my ability to do the work fast. Things that push them down include poor information, client having an unpaid balance on their account, etc. But the key is an ability to do this at higher than task-level – affecting all tasks in the system for that customer. The “moderation” queue would hold tasks needing additional processing, further reinforcing compliant collaboration.
“Your task is currently on hold. There may be an accounting issue, please check with the project lead.”
“Your project is currently on hold due to an accounting or critical information need, please contact the project lead.”
My goal is to provide clients with fast task resolution and a feeling of superior service. But I find myself dealing with reams of administrative overhead that is completely unnecessary (usually from a very small number of clients.) By rewarding helpful behavior and providing simple technological solutions, I think I could better serve everyone in a more efficient and effective manner.
I’d love your thoughts.
(halt photo by James Emery used under (cc) Attribution License.)