Project Tools: Which to Choose?

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Tool Box with project tools

There are many tools to help project teams manage their work, collaborate, and track performance.  The number of options is overwhelming—Capterra has published over 900-project management tool reviews. 

I teach project management classes and am often asked, “Which tool should we use?”  My fundamental advice is to focus on your needs and select a tool that fits.  By analogy, you have many knives in your kitchen because you cannot slice a loaf of bread with a butter knife.

The first step to improving project outcomes is understanding the context—the culture, process maturity, skillsets, etc.   Next, create a set of project management practices that fit the context.  Then, select tools that support the people and process. 

Tools should support your project management practices, not create one.  Implementing a tool without a good process will only amplify existing problems, not solve them.  Often, I am reminded Gary Booch’s comment, “A fool with a tool is still a fool.” 

In this article, I describe different categories of tools and their use.  References to specific products are meant to be illustrative and should not be considered an endorsement. 

To-Do Lists

Project managers typically track dozens of deliverables and related activities.  A fundamental PM competency is ensuring these items are scheduled and completed.  To-do lists are a time-proven method for getting organized.  Making lists frees our brains to be more creative and reduces our stress levels.   

Microsoft Outlook’s To-Do list or Apple’s Reminders are standard task management applications and are often bundled with our computers and smartphones.  They have the core capabilities to categorize activities, assign owners, and set due dates. 

In Getting Things Done (GTD), David Allen outlines a simple yet effective system to capture, prioritize, schedule, and track work.  Microsoft Outlook or OneNote can be configured to support GTD.  I use OmniFocus to manage my work because it allows me to organize tasks into folders and projects.  I use this hierarchy to organize my courses and speaking engagements, and create templates so no details are forgotten.

Kanban Tools

Kanban is a practice that allows us to manage the flow of work.  Kanban means signboard in Japanese, and the visual depiction of the work creates transparency and accountability.

Kanban can be used to manage everything from personal tasks to enterprise-wide processes.  A Kaban board has a column representing each step in the process with the most basic showing: to-do, doing, and done.  Cards represent each work item and then flow across the board as they progress through the system.  More advanced practices include creating pull-systems and limiting work-in-process to reduces bottlenecks.

Microsoft Planner and Atlassian’s Trello are basic Kanban applications.  These and similar cloud-based tools allow users to:

  • Build simple, customized task boards with a column-oriented format.  The columns can represent a workflow, time periods, or team members;
  • Identify and track work items (cards) with information such as owners, due dates, and a task checklist; and
  • Share information and efficiently collaborate.

LeanKit and Atlassian’s Jira are examples of more powerful and sophisticated Kanban boards.  These tools are generally used in enterprise-environments to manage operational processes or Agile project teams.  They include automated workflow features, the ability to assign work-in-process limits, and reporting.  These tools are feature-rich, require some configuration, and are suited for more experienced teams.

Project Scheduling

Project managers use project scheduling tools to create Gantt charts that calculate the project’s critical pathMicrosoft Project and Oracle’s Primavera are standard enterprise-class tools.  Primera’s roots are in construction, while MS Project is often used for technology projects.

Scheduling tools are indispensable on projects with hundreds of inter-related activities.  Imagine you are constructing a large office building.  These tools will help you understand the scheduling dependencies between the carpenters, plumbers, electricians, drywallers, etc., and how a delay will cascade throughout the project.

Both MS Project and Primavera have been around for decades and are rich with capabilities.  Conversely, they are hard to master and many features are rarely used.  Project schedules created in these tools require significant effort to both build and regularly maintain.  In an enterprise environment creating standards and templates will provide consistency and portability. 

Project Collaboration Tools

A new class of online project collaboration tools has emerged over the past several years.  These tools offer basic project management features, such as creating Gantt charts, to-do lists, and Kanban boards.  Generally, these tools are less powerful than the single-purpose project scheduling and Kanban tool.  But they provide sufficient functionality for many organizations.

These tools offer intuitive, easy-to-use interfaces that allow project teams to:

  • Create simple project schedules, tasks, and to-do lists,
  • Present project information in multiple views (Gantt, Kanban, and calendar), and
  • Track project progress and allow team members to update status and collaborate on assignments.

Popular tools in this category include Monday and Smartsheet.  These tools offer similar features and competitive pricing, with the user experience being a primary differentiator.  Monday provides integration with a suite of enterprise resource management (ERM) tools.  Smartsheet uses a spreadsheet view as its primary interface, creating an intuitive way to build forms for managing risks, issues, action items, change requests, etc.

These tools can also aggregate project information into a portfolio view.  With these views, senior management can monitor the performance of multiple projects through dashboards and reports. 

On a cautionary note, it is easy to start using these tools to manage individual projects.  Extending these tools to the enterprise requires planning and experience.  Either work with the vendor or specialists to configure the tools and create the templates that your organization needs. 

Enterprise Portfolio Management 

Portfolio management tools are intended for large enterprises executing hundreds of projects a year.  Companies with a formal project management organization (PMO) use these industrial-strength tools like Microsoft Project Server,  MicroFocus Portfolio Management, and PlanView.

These tools create a structured environment at the enterprise-level to facilitate project selection, governance, and reporting across an extensive portfolio.  They also offer the ability to estimate the organizational capacity and track resources.   At the project level, these tools enable a standard set of practices that fosters consistency and repeatability. 

For large organizations, standardization can enable better coordination, planning, and utilization across the enterprise.  The promise is that:

  • Executives will be able to make better project investment decisions,
  • Programs can better manage interdependencies,
  • Resources will be more efficiently allocated across the portfolio, and
  • Visibility and transparency into project, portfolio, and enterprise performance.

© 2021, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

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