Focus On: Project Management

I have had a long career in Project Management, primarily as a Programme Management Officer (or PMO). Stop, don’t go! I promise this is relevant to genealogy! Over the years I’ve been amazed at how many of the project management tools I’ve learnt can be utilised for genealogy.

Project Lifecycle

Don’t think you have any projects? Chances are you do! Want to write up your family tree? It’s a project. Want to find your 5x Great-Grandmother’s baptism record? It’s a project. Want to find out about life in 18th Century London? You got it, it’s a project! Of course your project to find a baptism record is much smaller than a project such as a One Name Study.

For larger projects more planning is required. Here’s where project management tools can really help.


Initiation is your ideas stage. You need to get these ideas out of your head and into some written form. There are loads of different ways of doing this. Draw a mind map. Write a list. Type it into Excel. Chat about them to a friend whilst videoing or voice recording yourself. Then type it up.

Mind Map for One Name Study

Example of start of mind map for One Name Study

Once you’ve got a record of your ideas, take a step back and look at them. I bet there are loads! Can you achieve all of that, all at once? Your ideas need to be broken down into something more manageable.

You could look at turning them into SMART Goals – see previous blog post on this here.


Goal setting is part of the Specify stage. You are designing the goals of your project, your specifying your research aims. If you’re struggling to set goals, try thinking of them in terms of project scope. What’s in your project and what’s out? What era, persons, records, locations are ‘in’ and what falls outside your current goal?

Basic Smart Goal with some scope

A mind map for a SMART goal

Got a lot of goals? Not sure where to start? How do you decide on the scope of your project?

You could use a technique called time-boxing. Rather than looking at a goal and then using this to determine a timeline, with a time-boxed approach you look at the time you have available and what’s realistically achievable within it. Doing so forces you to prioritise.

Sample time box

Sample time box for a short project

To help time-box your ideas and goals, you could use the MoSCoW technique. MoSCoW is often used in project management to define the scope of a project. It stands for:

Must Have – absolutely essential, you cannot complete your project without this, these items are critical

Should Have – these items should be included, your project would be better with them, but it is still possible to complete without these items

Could Have – these things are nice to have, if you’ve got time

Won’t Have (this time) – these things are out of the current scope, you don’t have time to include these at the moment or perhaps they are items that are wondering off the core topic / objective of your project

So how can I apply MoSCoW to my project?

Decide on your timeline. Divide it into manageable chunks. For example, in the above picture I’ve taken a goal to research the social history for the period of 1841 – 1891 for my rural Hampshire Pithers ancestors.

Take this goal and break it down into smaller ones. For each of these goals determine if they are Musts, Should’s and so on. Are they crucial to accomplishing your overall goal? Take the Wont’s, write them down and leave them for another time. These are now out of scope.


Sample of a project MoSCoW

Next review the Musts. How long are they going to take? Does this fit in your timeline? If not, re-review. You can’t increase your time, but you can decrease the scope of your goal. Re-define your goal and look again with this more concise aim, are all the Musts still Musts? Probably not. Now review the Shoulds and Coulds.

Once you’ve defined your Musts, look at your timeline. Break it down into chunks. For example, a years project might be broken down into 12 months. Plan one or more Must (depending on how long you’ve estimated them to take) for each chunk of time and one or more Should and Could for each chunk of time. For example, if your time chunk is a month and you have a Must that is estimated to take 3 weeks aim to complete this, plus one of the shorter Shoulds.

Sample time box and MoSCoW project

Sample of time boxed project with MoSCoW

By doing this you give yourself flexibility. If you find the Must takes less time than expected to complete than you know which Shoulds (and then Coulds) your going to focus on within that particular chunk of time. Don’t achieve the Must on time? Then you don’t get to do the Shoulds and Coulds. The Must rolls over to the next chunk of time and the Shoulds and the Coulds roll over to the end of your project. Don’t forget, it’s the Musts that are critical to achieving your goal. The Shoulds and Coulds have already been determined as ‘non-critical’.

One way to achieve the above exercise is to write each of your goals or subjects on a post-it note. Then define your sub-goals or subjects. Write each of these on a post-it and place them underneath the corresponding ‘main’ post-it. Review each sub-post it note and write a letter M, S, C or W (for MoSCoW) on it. Beneath this letter write an estimated time for completion. See example below, imagine each of the coloured boxes is a post-it.

Subject MoSCoW Sample

Sample of MoSCoW subject

Once you’ve done this for each of your goals or subjects you can start to look at time in greater detail. Create a post-it note for each of your time chunks (e.g. Month 1, Month 2). Re-organise the sub-post-its so that they sit within each of the time chunks. Well done, you’ve defined your scope and got the basics of a project plan! See example below, each of the items is colour coded so all the greens are breakdowns of the one topic (Health) and so on.

Planning using MoSCoW

Planning using MoSCoW


Creating a project plan should be your next step. Take each of your MoSCoW requirements and determine what tasks you’ll need to do to achieve them. How long will each of these individual tasks take? Are any of the tasks dependent upon each other? For example, do you need to register for a Readers Card at the National Archives in order to access a document? You may also want to include key milestones. These milestones can be viewed on their own to give you a high level view of your project plan, and your progress against it. Here’s an example made in Microsoft Excel:

The below shows all the tasks and milestones

Project Plan in Excel

Here’s the plan with just milestones viewed

Milestone Plan

With a large project plan it can be a real advantage to include milestones. For very large plans you might want to use actual planning software rather than Excel. Google ‘open source project planning software’ and see what suits you.


Executing is the stage in which you ‘execute’ your project plan. Basically, you are ‘doing’ the tasks and accomplishing the goals you set out in the earlier stages.

In the world of Project Management each stage in the life-cycle has a check gate. At the end of each stage the decisions made to date and the progress (or lack of!) is reviewed. Then decisions are made regarding whether it’s either OK to proceed to the next stage, or whether a previous stage needs to be reviewed or extended.

Project Management Cycle

This might not be necessary for your genealogy project, but it’s worth keeping the theory in mind. Whilst your plugging away at your tasks you may discover something that totally changes your goals. Or perhaps something unexpected happens in your life and you need to re-evaluate your time lines. Perhaps things are taking longer or shorter then you expected? In any of these instances it’s worth pausing and re-evaluating your project. You may even want to return to one of the earlier project stages and re-jig your goals or plan before you continue.


You’ve completed all your tasks. Your project plan is finished. That’s the end right? Heck NO! First check your goal. Was it achieved? If not then perhaps you need to revisit one of the earlier stages.

Goal achieved? Fantastic! How did it go? What did you learn on the way? We often think that we’ll easily remember the lessons that we learnt whilst working on a project. However, it’s surprising how quickly we can forget things. Make a note of what worked well, what didn’t work well and what you might like to do next time. Revisit these lessons learnt before you start your next project – chances are they’ll save you a lot of time and energy!

Lessons Learnt

Finally, remember all those should, could and won’ts you listed. Do you have another project in mind? Can you use these items and save yourself re-inventing the wheel?

The project management tools I’ve discussed in this article are by no means an exhaustive list. There are lots of different project methodologies (such as Agile, Prince 2, DSDM) and a whole host of associated project tools. Why not try googling project management and see what tools you can use?

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