Project management has become an integral part of every layer of the business world. From marketing departments to engineering teams, from Fortune 500s to one man design shops, people are getting things done by managing projects. This is nothing new, it is just how we look at it that has changed. Now with online collaboration as a huge part of how businesses and workers interact, things seem to be getting even more confusing as they strive to get simpler.
This article is intended to bring us back to the basics of project management and then tie those into what one should look for in an online project management system.
When thinking about project management there are three questions we should ask.
- What are our goals?
- Who is part of the project?
- And what will make us most productive?
When managing projects there is always a system and a set of tools for management. No matter if it is as archaic as pen, paper, and voice, or as advanced as an online project management system, there are essential tenets to managing projects.
- Project overview
- Task lists
- Task delegation
- Document sharing
Every process has some effectiveness in each of these categories and major pitfalls in others. When project managers started developing management styles they had these common needs:
- A way to list out the work that needs to get done for each part of the project (Tasks and task lists).
- A way to delegate these tasks (Task assignment).
- A way to monitor progress.
- A way to make changes to project plans.
- A way to report progress to completion.
To better understand how project management software developed into what it is today, we need to start at the beginning. Prior to using technology the status quo of project management was writing out what needed to be done and then partitioning those tasks by who was going to get the work done. Accountability was a head peering into an office or scheduled meetings. The main problem with this method was time between tasks. It took a long time to delegate, monitor, troubleshoot and share when tasks were done. If multiple tasks were dependent on the completion of another, there could be days lost in the effort of letting people know the initial task was completed. Another issue was it was in the hands of the project manager to track all of the activity and ensure that all tasks were getting done and the timeline was still accurate. Any delays or complications required a complete rework of timeline. The manager then had to share this with the team again meaning more lost time.
With the introduction of email and the development of early stage project management software the initiation of projects, the delegation of tasks, and the ability to share were moved from physical interaction to electronic communication. There were two new challenges – isolated information that was only on the desktop and the greater issue of user adoption.
With email people had to move around the office (country, planet) less. It was possible to instantly share status and data. This convenience took a great deal of time out of the in between of projects. The speed of modern business built its acceleration on the back of email. For projects this meant making project managers and task owners aware of task completion or issues in delivery. The problem was that people began managing from the inbox. This is an issue that exists in most project management today. Here are its pitfalls:
- Finding data or documents is difficult as they get buried in the inbox.
- It is isolated to the sender and receiver. The only way to make everyone aware is to create group emails. These emails lead to wasted time as group members try and sift through long strings to understand their part.
- Managers still have no way to oversee projects holistically.
- An email does not have a timeline or association to other tasks.
- If the desktop is damaged the data (emails) is lost.
While email is an issue an even greater headache for the project manager implementing software is adoption. Initially with the launch of tools like Microsoft Project it seemed the needs of the manager were going to be met. While the set up of projects was complicated there was a chance for everyone in a project to be able to manage their own timelines and tasks. Although cost prohibitive to most companies it was adopted by larger companies. The discovery was that teams were not using the system and now the manager had to not only manage the project but also the solution. The reason for this lack of adoption was that the tools were not perceived as a benefit. They were seen as something that required more work and most task owners did not feel obligated to deal with it. So the manager updated the system or chased team members to get it done. The time constraints of the manager were now beyond belief and these expensive tools were often set aside for spreadsheets which were not much better than the original ways of managing projects.
The next major leap in project collaboration was to take the system online. Basecamp is the leading example of this. Basecamp is a software as a service (SAAS) for project collaboration. While much effort was put into making the management of projects easier, there was a lack of adoption by task owners and executive stakeholders. This lack of adoption was primarily because the products were still a drain on productivity, but no matter what the online product developers did, they could not create widespread adoption.