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Visual Project Management: Is it better than traditional text approaches?

What's your project management lifecycle? Can your team members see it as a tangible image? Why is visualizing important?

Many of us use a project lifecycle for repeatable types of projects. My description of project management lifecycle is not only project phasing, but also re-cycling through the project phases every time you execute a similar project framework or project methodology.

Most people grasp things faster with visuals. For example, are you one of us who remember faces better than names? I certainly am. This is why I believe it's very important to provide ways for project team members and stakeholders to visualize project management for project processes and other project processes executing in tandem.

According to an article in Psychology Today, "a large body of research indicates that visual cues help us to better retrieve and remember information." The research found we can:

  • Decrease learning time
  • Improve comprehension
  • Enhance retrieval
  • Increase retention

Projects have been getting complex. Many people are joining projects with little knowledge of project fundamentals. Some are working on multiple projects at the same time. More are working remotely having little physical interactions with other team members. And few have the luxury of spending time visualizing on whiteboards.
 

Visualize Project Management with a pie

Let's take a look at how we might sketch concepts on whiteboards. One way is to draw process boxes to represent project phasing. This visual cue helps us see the project lifecycle process as buckets with physical chunks of work progressing as a process. This imagery can be waterfall, moving left to right or it could be iterative as in a circle. A better way to display an iterative project lifecycle would be a circle approach as in a pizza or apple pie visual. 

If you take a pie and slice it up into slices, you can quickly imagine how the pie slices could represent project phasing. Inside each slice would be the project ingredients and recipe such as assigned tasks with their proven tips and tricks on how to get them done well.

At my company PieMatrix, I have had the opportunity to experiment with this paradigm over the past ten years. Not all people gravitate to a visual lifecycle since there are some who do better with auditory or straight textual learning. However, the majority of people dealing with complex projects have found a visual project management lifecycle approach makes it easier to understand and consume the work.

Let's look at a project with one lifecycle having two tandem process swim-lanes. One process is for the project or program manager to follow and execute. The second process if for the development team to build the deliverables. Both are happening at the same time. The following is a textual approach and a visual approach.
 

1) Text Project Management approach:

Project Management Process:

  • Plan
  • Define
  • Build
  • Validate
  • Deploy

Development Process:

  • Plan
  • Define
  • Build
  • Validate
  • Deploy

 

2) Visual Project Management Approach:

Both approaches would have content under each lifecycle project phase. In the first Text Project Management example, imagine more text under each phase line for the detailed tasks. Then image each line item describing more information like assignment, dates, etc. In the second Visual Project Management example, imagine clicking in a pie cell to get information about a process under a particular phase (pie slice). 

Secondly, in the text method, grasping how the two processes (Project Management and Development) under one pie slice relate to each other can be challenging. With the visual method, it's easy to quickly see slice content under both processes at the same time. 
 

Visual Project Portfolio

Along with the concept of Visual Project Management is the governance of the project portfolio. Again, here it's advantageous for upper management to quickly see what is going during project phasing. Below is one example how a portfolio can be displayed with the agile pie look. The green bars across the phases represent progress. Red represent issues.

 

Personal Preference

Again, some people may feel more comfortable with the familiar text-based method like MS Project since that's how traditional project tools have presented project management lifecycle information for years. It really comes down to personal preferences, where you might balance familiarity with new visuals. The visual approach may take a little to get used to, but once you are comfortable, you may find the old text list format feels like going backwards.

Think of the success from business process management (BPM) tools with their visual approach to complex processes. BPM tools from venders like Pegasystems, IBM, and TIBCO are known for driving processes with visualization. However, they can be restricted for a project lifecycle that needs on-the-fly flexibility since most of these tools are made for transactional or strict procedures.

In the project management space, I see an opportunity for a new generate of project management visual tools or other visual management tools that bring a more graphical approach to project phasing.

Which method is better for you? Are you a text list person or a visual person? I would love to hear your thoughts about to visual project management and how graphics can add team productivity and governance value.