We are undertaking small projects both internal and for clients lately. In times like these, the “overhead” of project management takes a greater fraction of our energy than when we have larger engagements.

It is natural for people to consider the skills they have in their titled discipline as valuable in their own right. But anyone who wants to be productive beyond simple tasks needs to be able to manage themselves, or be paired with a manager to hover over their shoulder all day.

I like to call this ability to manage rock stacking skills. They apply not only when you’re asked to “flesh out the error flows for this connected product,” but also when the job is “move this stack of rocks from here to there.”

What should you wonder when a client or manager asks you to move some rocks, before you start moving them? Here are a few examples:

  • Where are the rocks now?
  • Where are they to end up?
  • Do we need to do anything to prepare the ground for the new stack?
  • Do we need to do anything to clean up after the old stack?
  • Should the new stack have a specific configuration? Is height or stability more important?
  • Is anyone waiting for us to finish? Do they have an expected time?
  • Who is going to judge the appearance of the stack?
  • How often should we pause to review the stack in progress?
  • How many rocks are there? Are we moving all of them?
  • How long does it take us to move one rock? Are they mostly similar?
  • How many of us can do this at once before we run into each other?
  • Do we expect to get faster or slower with time?
  • How will we measure our progress and speed?
  • When should we revisit the plan and who should we communicate this with?

It is easy to go on and on and make this sound like a deep skillset, but really a simple intuition for questioning the job is key. Unfortunately, in my experience this is vanishingly rare among businesspeople, designers, developers, and other people who don’t have project in their title.

Designers are, at least, at a slight advantage; it is natural for them to ask “why are we moving these rocks, anyway?”