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How to Actually Get Work Done: Project Management Tips and Tools

This blog article is part of Foundant’s quarterly content series designed to offer tangible tips and practical resources on how to Work Smarter, Not Harder.

Are you planning your annual fundraising event? Launching a new program? Wondering how to tackle a major campaign?

“I know how tricky it can be to move key projects forward when you’re sitting in an organization surrounded by competing priorities,” says Rachel Myers, industry thought leader and owner of RM + Co. “This was my inspiration for the Work Smarter, Not Harder content series—to help create the space we need and share tips and approaches to get our important work done because we know how important that work is.”

As part of the series, Rachel has guest-hosted several episodes of Foundant’s Connected Philanthropy podcast. In the most recent episode about Getting Work Done, she sat down with Aarron Szalacinski, an expert in a collaborative project management framework called Agile, to talk about how it enables creativity, flexibility, and efficiency.

Aarron first used the Agile methodology while working as a project manager at Disney more than 15 years ago when he inherited a project to develop one of the early iterations of online check-in for Walt Disney World Parks and Resorts. The project was already three months behind schedule and had been passed to six different project managers.

“By using Agile practices, we were able to manage the scope and deliver on time and on budget,” explains Aarron. “I realized, ‘There's something legitimately here.’”

Aarron has continued to use Agile ever since.

While technology experts created the Agile methodology more than 20 years ago to guide software development teams, the strategy can be an effective framework for any dynamic project.

Agile is the ability to create and respond to change. It is a way of dealing with, and ultimately succeeding in, an uncertain and turbulent environment.
-Agile Alliance

When to Use Agile

If you’re tackling a significant project, Aarron suggests asking yourself two questions to determine if Agile is the most suitable strategy:

  1. How critical is the final deliverable?
  2. How much change are you expecting to affect that final deliverable?

If your answers are “very” and “a lot,” Agile provides a framework enabling you to adapt and respond to change as you work towards your important goal.

“The need to be flexible and responsive is something that many folks in the philanthropic sector can relate to,” responds Rachel. “You're on a path, and then there's a disaster in your community, or your organization needs to address a new and unexpected need, and suddenly you're pivoting to a new path.”

Breaking Down the Work

When using the Agile approach, a project is divided into smaller “program increments” or “PIs.” Aarron’s team uses quarterly PIs. Then, within each quarter, his team further breaks down their work into two-week “sprints.” Breaking down the work into these smaller “chunks” enables them to prioritize each task and ensure all work demonstrates value toward the vision. It also prevents the team from getting sidetracked down “rabbit holes” that create inefficiencies or distract team members with work that isn’t contributing to the ultimate goal.

“Don’t over plan the work efforts or process,” explains Aarron. “Start with a rough idea of how you want to work and commit to that plan for the sprint.”

At the end of each two-week sprint, the team has a retrospective meeting to discuss what went well, what didn’t, and why. Then they can evolve the process.

By identifying the root cause of any issues and ways to improve the process, you can increase the speed and efficiency of your work.

Frequent Check-Ins

How often your team meets will vary with every project. For example, Aarron’s team of engineers meets daily for quick 15-minute check-ins. All team members answer four key questions:

  1. What did you do yesterday?
  2. What are you doing today?
  3. Do you have any roadblocks?
  4. How much more time do you need?

This allows Aarron to help remove any barriers and make adjustments to enable his team’s success.

Benefits of Agile

After their discussion, Rachel summarized several of the benefits of Agile for any organization, including those in the philanthropic sector:

  1. Visibility and shared context: Agile provides clarity around everyone’s roles and work. All team members can see how they are contributing to the vision and delivering value.
  2. Team alignment: The framework ensures all individual work connects to your organization’s mission and vision.
  3. Speed and efficiency: By using an iterative and responsive approach, teams avoid delays and “rabbit holes” and, ultimately, can work more quickly and effectively.

Additional Tips from Rachel

Rachel concluded by sharing two additional tips for getting work done:

  1. Write down your goals
    And when you write them down, make sure they are specific, actionable, and have due dates. According to a study by Dr. Gail Matthews, a psychology professor at Dominican University in California, “You are 42% more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down.”
  2. Don’t try to multi-task
    Instead, try to focus on one thing at a time, or “monotask,” to really make progress. Young professionals—take note! This is both true and freeing! Take it from someone who long believed my success was based on my ability to multi-task (I even highlighted this as a skill on my resume for years!). Not every job or project enables you to do just one thing at a time, but stack similar work together to minimize context shifting, which will help you to be more efficient and effective. Save yourself the stress and embrace monotasking!

Watch Rachel’s short 5-minute video to learn more about how to actually get work done.

Join the Conversation

What are your organization’s most effective project management tips and strategies? Join our Work Smarter, Not Harder conversation in Compass, Foundant’s online community for philanthropy, to share your ideas and ask questions.

Want to learn more about Agile?

Check out Foundant’s Agile-related resources, including a blog article, podcast episode, and webinars featuring other industry experts:

About the Author

Born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, Katie never moved until she left for college. Since then, she has lived in two countries (U.S. and Chile), four states (CA, CO, OR, MT), 10 cities, and has had too many addresses to count. (Need moving tips? She’s got them!) Grateful for the opportunity to explore such different landscapes, meet diverse people, and experience unique cultures, Katie considers every stop on this journey an integral part of her story. Perhaps that’s why Katie is passionate about telling stories about other people and experiences that inspire her. Throughout her 30-year career in marketing and communications, Katie feels fortunate to have been able to dedicate her skills to writing compelling copy about organizations that serve others or enable the work of those who do. Before joining Foundant’s team in 2021 as the Marketing Copywriter, she focused her efforts on writing about the programs and services offered by a public university art museum, a customer-owned utility, and local government in Eugene, Oregon—all of which make a difference in the lives of those they serve. That’s what brought Katie to Foundant. She is energized every day by the work its clients are doing to make the world a better place. A mountain girl at heart, Katie is happy to have finally planted her roots in the city of Foundant’s headquarters, Bozeman, Montana. When she’s not working, you’ll likely find Katie outside, looking for different ways to explore the local trails, rivers, and lakes. It’s hard to say whether she has more photos of Bozeman’s breathtaking sunrises and sunsets or her beloved dogs, Moby and Max. One thing is sure—she has fewer photos of her husband and two teenage daughters whom she loves deeply but are far less willing subjects.

Profile Photo of Katie Sproles