Phillip Smith

Project management vs. time management

This will most certainly be the first in a long line of posts documenting my observations of life inside many non-profit organizations I’ve connected with. And a discussion around some of the commonly held views of what they struggle with, and what the best approaches are to helping voluntary organizations be more effective are.

One of the commonly held assumptions that I struggle with most is the notion that non-profits are inherently inefficient or poorly managed. My personal experiences lead me to believe that this rarely the case – or certainly no more the case in non-profits than in any other form of organization. And, quite often, I’ve seen innovation coming from community-based organizations being adopted and applied elsewhere.

However, one specific example of where I’ve heard and felt the “inefficient non-profits” argument being applied is toward their ability to manage projects. More and more, community-based organizations in Canada are being asked to deliver projects. Most often, this is due to funding restrictions or funding programs that don’t cover the costs of operation directly. However, some folks argue that many or most non-profits are not properly equipped for the shift from an operations-based model to a project-based one.

One good friend – a dedicated and experienced Project Management Professional (a certification achieved through the Canadian Project Management Institute) – has dedicated his work to supporting non-profits in becoming better project managers and delivering more efficient results through traditional project management. His workshops are excellent and his teachings are concise, well delivered, and always well received.

But my question is: how many non-profits are currently in a position to put traditional, top-down, project management processes into practice?

All arguments about the need for specialized training, continuous improvement strategies, and peer support aside, here is why I feel that traditional project management is not a good fit with many non-profit organizations:

  • It’s generally accepted that for projects to be successful, they should be delivered on time, within budget, and within the defined scope;
  • In my experience, projects are usually comprised of a number of tasks;
  • Traditional project management involves assigning tasks to people;
  • This implies that people have to be able to complete the tasks they are assigned for projects to be successful;
  • And this also implies that task completion is just as important to a project’s success as the management process;
  • Therefore, a person’s ability to successfully complete the tasks they are assigned is just as important as an organization’s ability to manage projects.

And that is the crux of my argument. In most non-profit organizations – where staff are often overextended, part time, or ill-prepared for requirements of project-based work – how can the command-and-control (or monitoring and control as the PMI likes to call it) systems be the most effective? Not wanting to digress into a long exploration of why people that work at non-profits might not be in it for the money – or how corporate ship-jumpers that landed there may be tired of the corporate way of doing things (and the motivational assumptions therein) – I’ll just point out that I feel that many project management methodologies often fall down at the point where real people need to complete real work.

At the end of the day: if a person is not able to effectively complete the tasks they are assigned – because they’re too busy, too tired, too distracted, or don’t have the tools to make effective decisions about what tasks to complete when – then project success as we have defined it will remain illusive.

So, if all that is true, what does it mean for non-profit staff to be successful at completing tasks they are assigned?

  • Well, as we all know, tasks require time to complete;
  • They also require some level of skill and attention;
  • So, assuming that the person that has been assigned a task (or several of them, from several different projects) has enough skill to complete the task… then time and attention are all that is required.
  • However, as a rule, we can’t give people more time than they have;
  • This leads me to believe that we need to help people focus their attention on the right tasks, at the right time, and in the right priority to be effective project-based workers;
  • Therefore, in the non-profit context—where resources are short, budgets are limited, and staff are overcommitted—I feel that time management is critically important to project success.

And, ultimately (and this is where my PMP friend will debate me to the death) I feel the time management training is more important than project management training for most non-profits and their staff.

Let the extended debate begin.


Hi, I'm Phillip Smith, a veteran digital publishing consultant, online advocacy specialist, and strategic convener. If you enjoyed reading this, find me on Twitter and I'll keep you updated.


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