Wednesday, October 21, 2009

To-Do list for Strategic Management

10/21/2009 06:29:00 AM

One of the most daunting tasks to get organize to save time is to, ironically spend time to maintain a to-do list. The busier you get the less you want to spend time to maintain the to-do list. This is even more so for a senior executive who is responsible for so many areas within a company. There was a time, I couldn’t sleep because I feel like I have not done enough for the day. That’s because I could have a secure feeling about tomorrow and I feel that the big mission and strategy was never on track.

(This is the second post I have made about To Do list. The last post "Time Management : My To-Do List System" I was showing how I organize my file into folders so I could survive without a highly complex to-do list system. The To-Do list excel I am covering here can go with the simple system as the last post was more like a simple filing structure. If you are into strategic thinking, this excel is can go well with the last post I have made.)

We need (I needed) a simple, flexible, easy to use and yet “Strategic” tool to help manage our busy life. Overtime I have developed a simple excel that is simple enough to help me to organize the day to day tasks but yet strategic enough to help me to fit all the tasks into the big picture of the company strategies and mission. This custom excel gives me the comfort feeling that I done the things I need to do Today but yet I know things are in place for tomorrow and onward. A sample of this excel can be downloaded in this post.

Different tools for different roles

In the last couple of decades of my professional life, I have tried so many tools to develop a “To-Do” list tool but none has been really successful unless we install iron like discipline in maintaining the to-do list and follow the list to do execution. It was relatively easier when I was an engineer running projects because my whole job was to execute the project. I was a civil engineer so a very large part of the tasks I was supposed to execute were part of a rather rigid plan. I could use Project Management software to create Gantt chart and other similar things to run project. I used the “Day Timer”, a rather expensive and fancy calendar and to do list portfolio to manage my day to day meetings. Anyway things were simpler when I was in the technical discipline.However, as I switched my career into sales and marketing, the number of uncertain tasks and unexpected meetings increased exponentially. The tasks of managing the to-do list became a major exercise just to remember to add a line to the “booklet” after each meeting or telephone call. To some extent, it was still easy as I was very much task oriented still. As customer called, I need to make sure I mark down the task I was supposed to perform in my calendar and to do booklet. However, the effort of maintaining the to-do list increased.

The Tool for Senior Management

The real challenge in managing a to-do list occurred when I become a general manager of a company. Since the role became an all-embraced role in the company, everything was in my mind. My job was to “think” all the time. Most of the execution tasks were actually tasks for my subordinates to perform instead of myself. So there was this constant temptation (or excuse) to just “delegate” to the subordinates and relax in recording the task in the to-do list. Also, as I turned more and more into strategic thinking, I find that every task would have been grouped or categorized into many perspectives for planning and review. The complexity in the thinking process within the mind grew and it was difficult to just write something down without editing it a few times.

My Simple Excel To-Do list for Strategic Management

The to-do list was decided with the following design objectives:
  1. Simple in structure. I don’t want expanding and collapsing trees, or tasks and sub-tasks like structure. I wanted a simple straight forward serial kind of task list. No Gantt chart, PERT chart or Critical Path analysis are needed.
  2. Yet each task needs to be categorized and groups in more than one ways. So the simple task and sub-task structure, while difficult to manage, is actually not good enough for a strategic mindset.
  3. I need something to constantly remind me how tasks and projects fit into certain big plan, strategies or even company’s mission.
  4. There is near NO typing to categorize the tasks for such complex multi-categories in point 3.
  5. The “printed” report must be very easy on the eyes. One quick glance I would know the position and purpose of each task. This is for the review meeting I host with each of my subordinates in anywhere anyplace without my computer in front of me.
  6. At the end, the list needs to help me to focus on “Today” so I can go home with a good feeling that I have done my deed and go to sleep comfortably.
  7. I have read a book about time management before and they mentioned one simple and yet effective technique in time management. Before you sleep, you write down what you need to do for tomorrow and the day after. That is you plan ahead for two days. I like this idea and want to incorporate it in the design.
So the solution is actually very simple. In the excel spreadsheet, I created one column for each “category”, “project”, “strategies” or “mission” at the very top. These are relatively long items that do not change in time. For each task (a row) beneath, I put an “X” mark if the task fits one or more of those missions or categories. No need to type the full name of the category at all. So a quick glance on how many “X” are labeled along the tasks, I will quickly recall why we have such tasks in the first place. This is not a simple “priority” label as in typical to-do list tool but a strategic framework that gives meaning and purpose to each task. Please refer to the top left corner of the following image.

If you organize the order of your categories and tasks properly, you will visually see clusters of “X” quickly reminding you where the tasks belong. Please note the "flow" of the X mark in the following image.

For day-to-day maintenance, I add to columns “Today” and “Tomorrow” as the very first two columns. My review each night means I will mark an “X” in the Today or Tomorrow column. So when I go to work tomorrow in the office, I can open the excel file and make the changes into the soft copy. Print To-Do list and carry it with me for the rest of the day. I will add, edit items on the paper and only update the list when I am in lunch time or at the end of the day. When I go home, I print a copy of the list with me. This is NOT to bring work home so I can mark it before I sleep. Frankly it’s up to you whether you want to do the planning at the end of the day before you leave the office. For me, I have too many business dinners after work so leaving the office does not mean too much. So I print and bring a copy of the paper with me.

It’s not exactly perfect and “completely” automatic. It’s Excel Spreadsheet you know and you have to manually maintain it. I have put in some "conditional formatting" formula such that it will change the color of the background every 3 rows. All you need to do is to copy and insert an existing row to start a new task. The format and formula will retain. You can download it here. However, it serves the purpose for most of my situation anyway. Just hope that it will help you.