From Zero to Sixty: What type of Project Management tool is appropriate?

Here’s another recent Idealware entry (from 9/25/2008). Note that the Idealware post has a healthy comment stream.

It seems like every month or two, I happen across a forum thread about project management tools. What works? Can you do it with a wiki? Are they necessary at all? Often, there are a slew of recommendations (Basecamp, Central Desktop, MS Project) accompanied by some heartfelt recommendations to stay away from all of them. All of these recommendations are correct, and incorrect.

Project software naysayers make a very apt point: Tools won’t plan a project for you. If you think that buying and setting up the tool is all that you need to do to successfully complete a complex project, you’re probably doomed to fail. So what are the things that will truly facilitate a project-oriented approach, regardless of tools?

  • Healthy Communication. The team on the project has to be comfortably and consistently engaged in project status and decisions
  • Accountability. Team members need to know what their roles are, what deliverables they’re accountable for and when, and deliver them.
  • Clarity, Oversight and Buy-In. Executives, Boards, Backers all have to be completely behind the project and the implementation team.

With that in place, Project Management tools can facilitate and streamline things, and the proper tools will be the ones that best address the complexity of the project, the make-up of the team, and the culture of the team and organization.

Traditional Project Management applications, exemplified by MS Project, tie your project schedule and resources together, applying resource percentages to timeline tasks. So, if your CEO is involved in promoting the plan and acting as a high level sponsor, then she will
be assigned, perhaps, as five percent of the project’s total resources, and her five percent will be sub-allocated to the tasks that she is assigned to. They track dependencies, and allow you to shift a whole schedule based on the delay of one piece of the plan. If task 37 is
“order widget” and that order is delayed, then all actions that depend on deployment of the widget can be rescheduled with a drag and drop action. This is all very powerful, but there is a significant cost to defiing the plan, initially inputting it, and then maintaining the information. There’s a simple rule of thumb to apply: If your project requires this level of┬átracking, then it requires a full-time Project Manager to track it. If your budget doesn’t support that, as is often the case, then you shouldn’t even try to use a tool this complex. It will only waste your time.

Without a dedicated Project Manager, the goal is to find tools that will enhance communication; keep team members aware of deadlines and milestones; report clearly on project status; and provide graphical and summary reporting to stakeholders. If your team is spread out geographically, or comprised of people both inside and outside of your organization, such as consultants and vendors, all the better if the tool is web-based. Centralized plan, calendar, and contacts are a given. Online forums can be useful if your culture supports it. Most people aren’t big on online discussions outside of email, so you shouldn’t put up a forum if it won’t be used by all members. The key is to provide a big schedule that drills down to task lists, and maintain a constant record of task status and potential impacts on the overall plan. Gantt Charts allow you to note key dependencies – actions that must be completed before other actions can begin — and provide a visual reporting tool that is clear and readable for your constituents, from the project sponsors to the public. Basecamp, Central Desktop, and a slue of web-based options provide these components.

If this is still overkill – the project isn’t that complex, or the team is too small and constricted to learn and manage the tools, then scale down even further. Make good use of the task list and calendar functions that your email system provides, and put up a wiki to facilitate project-related communication.

What makes this topic so popular is that there is no such thing as a one size fits all answer, and the quick answer (“Use Project”) can be deadly for all but the most complex projects. Understand your goals, understand your team, and choose tools that support them.

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One thought on “From Zero to Sixty: What type of Project Management tool is appropriate?

  1. John

    I think you make a good point in saying that there is no such thing as a one size fits all answer. There are so many different methodologies for doing project management, especially within small businesses. For another interpretation on project management, check out Intervals.

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