Project Management in Highly Interdisciplinary Projects

As a company that assists various heritage stakeholders approaching and leveraging the digital world, the Center for Digital Archaeology is very aware of the challenges of highly interdisciplinary projects. In both our Mukurtu and Codifi projects we’ve alternately played the role of the tech-savvy / IT developers, and the archaeologists, photographers, archivists, or community activists when dealing with other developers.

Because teams and team members with different background have specific needs, methods and sometimes different ‘languages’, it takes some extra discipline to bring everyone into a room together. First and foremost, all project members will need to adopt a shared language and shared tools, that need not be field-specific, but rather come from the work- and time-management world.

Ideally, the project manager should be able to share the language of both worlds and mediate the communication barriers.

Project Preparation: Defining Scope & Scheduling

This might go without saying, but a well-planned project – or sprint of work – is less likely to end up in conflicts, or scope creep. Make sure everyone has access to a written Scope of Work, and possibly that every team has their say in defining it. Having to define the scope beforehand will bring a clearer role differentiation and attribution of tasks and project areas to those who are the best at what they do.

Schedule major milestone meetings in advance, share a calendar with relevant events for the project that can’t be moved (ie. project launch at a conference). Ideally schedule regular check-ins within individual teams based on the project timeframe, with a preference for higher frequencies – up to daily during an intense sprint.

 In scheduling our projects, we rely on widely adopted tools like Google Calendar or Doodle. Since we often work across time zones, one of our favorite tools is this International Meeting Planner!

 In scheduling our projects, we rely on widely adopted tools like Google Calendar or Doodle. Since we often work across time zones, one of our favorite tools is this International Meeting Planner!

Project Setup: Estimating Tasks and Quantifying Progress

Will it take longer to setup a website for the project, or to get the content vetted for public display by the community elders? When does a software require updating? What is the first step in setting up a museum exhibition?

No-one can be knowledgeable in all areas of an interdisciplinary project, therefore it’s important that team members

  • focus on a quantitative method to estimate tasks,
  • break down problems into doable bits, and
  • provide the rest of the team with at least a rough time estimate for every step they’re assigned. (read more about the agile methodology in this post)

This will also allow to set a realistic timeframe for milestones and delivery, measure progress or blockers in terms of impact on the schedule, and prioritize resources accordingly.

Documenting the Magic

One of the main benefits of interdisciplinary projects is that each participating group, and often each team member, brings a unique contribution to the project’s ecosystem.

On the other hand, for this same reason it can be difficult at times to understand and evaluate each other’s work; help someone who’s joined later catch up with work done; and to properly document work done for reuse or further iterations on the project.

Here’s some ideas that will help leaving behind a well-documented project:

  • Choose communications methods that archive messages for later access, like Google groups or another email list tool;
  • Screencast or audio record key meetings, share and store a copy of meeting notes and resources used in decision making;
  • Regularly report individual and team-wide progress, referencing the original timeline;
  • Setup a shared repository for project documentation and put individual knowledge back in circle by documenting any process and workflow followed, new findings about the project, and technologies used;

Sounds like a lot of work? …that’s because it is!

The good thing is, once you’ve done the effort, you’ll have maximized the learning experience for all involved, as well as find yourself with invaluable documentation and communication material ready for your funders, partners, press, for handing over the project, or just adding it to your portfolio, and all in a language that’s actually understandable by humans.

Have some favorite tools and tricks for working with interdisciplinary teams? We’re looking forward to read about it!