Tag Archives: ms project

The Five Best Tools For Quick And Effective Project Management

This article was first published on the NTEN Blog in March of 2011.

The keys to managing a successful project are buy-in and communication. Projects fail when all participants are on different pages. You want to use tools that your project participants can access easily, preferably ones they’re already using.

As an IT Director, co-workers, peers, and consultants frequently ask me, “Do you use Microsoft Project?” The answer to that question is a resounding denial.

Then I elaborate with my true opinion of Project: it’s a great tool if you’re building a bridge or a luxury hotel. But my Project rule of thumb is, if the budget doesn’t justify a full-time employee to manage the Project plan (e.g., keep the plan updated, not manage the project, necessarily), then MS Project is overkill. Real world projects require far more agile and accessible tools.

The keys to managing a successful project are buy-in and communication. The people who run the organization need to support it and the people the project is being planned for need to be expecting and anticipating the end result. Projects fail when all participants are on different pages: vague or different ideas of what the goals are; different levels of commitment; poor understanding of the deadlines; and poorly set expectations. GANTT charts are great marketing tools — senior executives never fail to be impressed by them — but they don’t tell the Facilities Coordinator in clear language that you need the facility booked by March 10th, or the designer that the web page has to be up by April 2nd.

You want to use tools that your project participants can access easily, preferably ones they’re already using. Here are five tools that are either free or you’ve already obtained, which, used together, will be far more effective than MS Project for the typical project at a small to mid-sized organization:

  • GanttProject. GanttProject is an open source, cross-platform project management tool. Think of it as MS Project lite. While the feature set includes identifying project resources, allocating time, and tracking completion, etc., it excels at creating GANTT charts, which can then be used to promote and communicate about the project. People appreciate visual aids, and GANTT charts visually identify the key tasks, milestones and timeframes. I don’t recommend diving into the resource allocations and the like, as I think that’s the point where managing the project plan starts becoming more work than managing the project.
  • Your email app. It’s all about communication: setting expectations, managing expectations, reminding and checking on key contributors so that deadlines are met. Everyone already lives in their email, so you want to visit them where they live. Related tool: the telephone.
  • MeetingWizard, Doodle, etc. We might gripe about meetings, but email alone does not cut it. If you want people to understand what you’re trying to accomplish — and care –they need to see your face and here the inflections in your voice when you tell them about it. By the same token, status updates and working out schedules where one person’s work depends on others completing theirs benefit greatly from face-to-face planning.
  • Excel (or any spreadsheet). Budgets, check off lists, inventory — a spreadsheet is a great tool for storing the project data. Worthy alternatives (and superior, because they’re multi-user): Sharepoint or Open Atrium.
  • Socialcast (or Yammer). Socialcast is Facebook for organizations. Share status, links, and files in a microblogging client. You can create categories and assign posts to them. The reasoning is the same as for the email, and email might be your fallback if your co-workers won’t take to microblogging, but if they’re open to it, it’s a great way to keep a group of people easily informed.

It’s not that there aren’t other good ways to manage projects. Basecamp, or one of the many similar web apps might be a better fit, particularly if the project team is widely dispersed geographically. Sharepoint can replace a number of the tools listed here. But you don’t really have to spend a penny. You do need to plan, promote, and communicate.

Projects don’t fail because you’re not using capital “P” Project. They fail when there isn’t buy-in, shared understanding, and lots of interaction.

Peter Campbell is currently the Director of Information Technology at Earthjustice, a non-profit law firm dedicated to defending the earth. Prior to joining Earthjustice, Peter spent seven years serving as IT Director at Goodwill Industries of San Francisco, San Mateo & Marin Counties, Inc. Peter has been managing technology for non-profits and law firms for over 20 years, and has a broad knowledge of systems, email and the web. In 2003, he won a “Top Technology Innovator” award from InfoWorld for developing a retail reporting system for Goodwill thrift. Peter’s focus is on advancing communication, collaboration and efficiency through creative use of the web and other technology platforms.

The Cults That Get Things Done

This post was originally published on the Idealware Blog in December of 2009.

Here at Idealware, an organization that’s all about nonprofit-focused software, we understand that the success or failure of a software project often has far more to do with the implementation than the application. So, in addition to discussing software, we talk a lot about project management. To many of us, it seems like the only thing worse than devoting our scant resources to the task of building and maintaining a complex project plan is living with the result of a project that wasn’t planned. While I’m a big a fan as the next guy of PMP-certified, MS Project Ninja masters, and will argue that you need one if your project is to build a new campus or a bridge, I think there are alternate methodologies that can cover us as we roll out our CRMs and web sites, even though I know that these projects that will fail expensively without proper oversight.

The traditional project planning method starts with a Project Manager, who plays a role that fluctuates between implementation guru, data entry clerk and your nagging Mom when you’re late for school.  The PM, as we’ll call her or him, gathers all of the projected dates, people, budget, and materials, then builds the house of cards that we call the plan.  The plan will detail how the HR Director will spend 15% of her time on a series of scheduled tasks that, if they slip, will impact the Marketing Coordinator and the Database Manager’s tasks and timelines.  So the PM has to be able to quickly, intelligently, rewrite the plan when the HR Director is pulled away for a personnel matter, skewering those assumptions.

My take is that this methodology doesn’t work in environments like ours, where reduced overhead, high turnover and unanticipated priorities are the norm.  We need a less granular methodology; one that will bend easily with our flexible work conditions.  Mind you, when you give up the detailed plan, you give up the certainty that every “i” will be dotted, every “t” crossed, and every outcome accomplished on schedule.  But it’s possible to still keep sight of the important things while sacrificing some of the structural integrity.

First, keep what is critical: clear goals, communication, engagement and feedback.  The biggest risk in any project no matter how well planned, is that you’ll end up with something that has little relation to what you were trying to get.  You need clearly understood goals, shared by all internal and external parties. Each step taken must factor in those goals and be made in light of them.  All parties who have a stake in the project should have a role and a voice in the plan, from the CEO to the data entry clerk.  And everyone’s opinion matters.

Read up on agile project management, a collaborative approach that is more focused on the outcomes than  the steps and timeline to get there.  Offload the project management by focusing on expectation management.  The clearer the participants are about their roles and accountability for their contributions, the less they need to be managed.  Take a look at the Cult of Done (their manifesto is at the top of this article).  Sound insane? Maybe.  More insane than spending thousands of dollars and hours on an over-planned project that never yields results? For some perspective, read The Mythical Man Month (or, at least, this Wikipedia article on it), a book that clearly illustrates how the best laid plans can go horribly wrong.

Finally, my advocacy for less stringent forms of project management should not be read as permission to do it haphazardly.  Engagement in and attention to the project can’t be minimized.  I’m suggesting that we can take a more creative, less traditional approach in environments where the traditional approach might be a bad fit, and for projects that don’t require it.  There are a lot of judgment calls involved, and the real challenge, as always, is keeping your eye on the goals and the team accountable for delivering them.

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 tracking, 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.