How to Break Down a Project into Smaller Tasks
Ah, the post-kickoff, project management honeymoon phase. I know this time well: the blissful period after you’ve met with team members to get the ball rolling, look at the big picture, talk through ideas, and determine what your goals are. You’ve strategized, deliberated, and decided what would stick. Many neon Post-Its, enthusiastic nods of agreement, and Zoom emoji claps later — you did it! Great job, everyone. 👏
But after the thrill of creativity and possibility begins to wear off, how do you go about making sure everyone is staying on track?
Psychology Today’s Susan K. Perry, Ph.D., compares starting a new project to falling in love. The Gartner Hype Cycle, which refers to technology maturity and adoption cycles, can also describe a similar emotional trajectory in the project lifecycle. You start out motivated by an idea — what Gartner terms the Innovation Trigger — followed by excitement and anticipation about what the project outcomes could do, which is the point Gartner terms the Peak of Inflated Expectations. However, you then realize the amount of work there is to do and fear creeps in, leaving you feeling overwhelmed (or, in what seems like a scene from “The Princess Bride,” beset by the Trough of Disillusionment).
So how do you take the leap from surfacing ideas to committing to them (making sure that the project is going to happen at all), let alone moving along as planned?
Luckily, even the most deadline-averse can get behind the peace that comes from knowing exactly what’s expected of you — and being set up for success to deliver on those goals with clearly articulated, attainable next steps. We’ll have you out of the Trough of Disillusionment, and, undaunted, climbing the Slope of Enlightenment toward the Peak of Productivity in no time.
1. Organize a task management framework before you begin ⛰
Project management isn’t only about assigning due dates and checking boxes. One of the most important, yet overlooked, aspects of putting a project into motion is intentional delegation and follow-through with a transparent, consistent process. Without clear communication, actionable steps, and documentation of who owns what and when it’s due, you risk leaving all the genius ideas generated in that synchronous kickoff meeting to languish in perpetuity (my way of describing where meeting notes go to disappear — in my Notes app). 😇
A great place to start is by defining a DACI framework (an acronym for those involved with executing a project by role: Driver, Approver, Contributor, Informed) for the work to be completed. Here’s how we apply the DACI framework at Loom.
Driver — The project leader who is responsible for managing the initiative, choosing the contributors and delegating to them, defining what success looks like for the project roadmap, and ensuring the project is completed.
Approver — The final approval and decision-making authority; there can be multiple approvers depending on the phase or aspect of the project. For example, if Brand Design and Marketing embark on a cross-functional initiative that has shared deliverables but different drivers on each team, an approver from each team can be designated.
Contributor — One or more SMEs (Subject Matter Experts) who are consulted to contribute their knowledge specialties to support and inform the project goal-setting, activities, or decisions.
Real world example: You are writing an ebook on asynchronous communication in the workplace. Though you are driving the production of the ebook, you will need information from SMEs about asynchronous communication at your company and externally to back up claims. These folks are considered contributors.
Informed — The people whose work will be impacted by the project but whose approval and contributions aren’t required. In our bi-weekly marketing syncs, for example, we distinguish between providing updates (to the informed) and asking for input (from the driver, approvers, and contributors).
Questions to ask and evaluate as you develop your DACI and high-level projects goals are:
Why should the project exist? What problems does the project propose to solve and what solutions will the deliverables provide?
What’s the main OKR (objective key result)?
Who needs to be involved and how?
What needs to happen to meet the project’s stated goal(s)?
Without a mutually agreed-upon core purpose and a DACI framework, you risk spinning your wheels or jumping ahead prematurely to action items and deliverables. Once you have those fundamental pieces in place, you’re ready to create the project charter and drill further down into the project’s high-level goals. These ingredients are critical to have in place before you break it down and start assigning tasks.
Next, you’re ready to put together a project charter: a document that outlines the comprehensive scope of your project. To bring your ideas to life and add more context to project deliverables and delegation of individual tasks, consider pairing the document with a video message that goes over the high-level purpose of the project. You can even embed videos throughout the document to highlight and give valuable further context to more complex projects or key parts.
2. Detail actionable tasks to team members 🧩
After you’ve answered the questions above about key results for the project and what needs to happen to accomplish your end-goals, you should have a fairly comprehensive list of tasks and subtasks to check off. However, too often we mould cross-functional project management in our own image, assuming that our way is the best way — inadvertently bundling multiple steps into a single task that makes sense to us, or not providing enough context for deliverables so they're achievable.
Instead of assuming your colleagues will understand your grand plans and how their contributions fit in, create specific goals and delegate — this is the moment to break down large project deliverables into smaller tasks and assignable pieces. For example, if a task is to “Write a blog post” as part of a larger project launch, identify the various action steps and collaborators this aspect of the project will require. As a writer, I possess tacit knowledge as to exactly what “write a blog post” means because I do that work all the time. But for someone else? Not so much.
Taking the time to explain these details, and clearly breaking down each part of the blog writing process into definitive deliverables that can be easily assigned and measured, is especially crucial to identify and manage dependencies when working cross-functionally. What may be standard operating procedure on your Marketing team could be completely unfamiliar to Product Design.
3. Create a centralized, agile project management tracker 🎯
The outcomes of a project will only be as successful as the tools and systems you implement to manage them. Capturing all the details in a centralized place creates a single source of truth for key stakeholders to reference so information silos are avoided, efforts aren’t duplicated, and everyone’s time and work is respected.
My project management tool of choice is Asana (listen, if an animation of a smiling narwhal splashing gleefully in the ocean doesn’t make you smile…), but I also know not all my teammates use it to keep track of their work. Plus, adding seats for every project can add up and is probably not the most effective route. To make sure everyone has visibility into both their own tasks and the total scope of the project, decide on a project management tool that everyone can access with ease — and with longevity in mind, which bodes well for future projects.
With maximum cross functionality in mind, we asked our Twitter community what project management tools folks rely on in their working lives. Some common project management tools to consider for organizing your projects include Google Sheets, Trello, Basecamp, and Notion, Loom’s company-wide tool of choice. ✅
Pro tip: Designate who will update project progress (by each team lead or by individual, for example) to ensure the integrity of your information, to hold contributors accountable, and to avoid inefficient and ineffective games of telephone. If tasks go consistently unmarked, follow up with team members directly to reassess workflow, come up with an action plan, and shift dates and deliverables if and as necessary.
4. Decide what action items can happen asynchronously 👩💻
As someone who has managed many projects, trust me when I say that it’s not an effective use of anyone’s time to meet just to give status updates — those can and absolutely should be updated asynchronously.
While synchronous meetings have a time and place — say, for a project kickoff — save your colleague’s (and your own) bandwidth by calling out ahead of time what form each phase of the project will take. For example, despite the relative weight of reviews and approvals, communicating asynchronously can alleviate the pressure of receiving or delivering feedback in real time. Depending on whether you are a content or context communicator, sharing your thoughts on demand might not be your preferred method of communication.
Set synchronous milestone check-ins at regular intervals throughout the project timeline, which can be make-or-break moments to change or stay the course. Ahead of time, project contributors can communicate asynchronous status updates and flag areas that would benefit from further discussion in the milestone meetings.
It’s the journey and the destination: Don’t forget to celebrate 🥳
When the project wraps, it’s time to assess the overall experience — and bask in the fruits of your collective labor! To really wrap your project up in a bow, consider scheduling a retro, which is dedicated time to evaluate the project holistically — including how it was managed — by what went well, any challenges faced, and what could be improved for future iterations.
Collect feedback asynchronously and with the option of anonymity so people can feel safe to be honest, and take time to formulate thoughts in a reasonable time frame after project activities wind down. Within a week or two is a good window while the project is still fresh, but it also gives enough time to decompress.
What project management tools and strategies do you rely on? Let us know on Twitter.
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Written by Susannah Magers
Susannah is Managing Editor at Loom. Say hello and follow her on LinkedIn.