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Low-cost tips for project management success

You can track a modest IT project or system overhaul with simple tools that don’t require a huge investment of money or time. Using shared spreadsheets and free or low-cost applications, you can keep your team coordinated and motivated, and deliver on time. Here are the features to look for.

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll probably end up somewhere else.” This pithy bit of wisdom, attributed to Laurence J. Peter, author of "The Peter Principle," underscores the importance of planning. The success of any project—from a new product launch to a trip to the grocery store—benefits from appropriate oversight and tracking.

The key word here is appropriate. A trip for milk and eggs does not require a detailed flow chart, printed maps marked with alternate routes, and a schedule timed down to the second. On the other hand, sending people to colonize Mars requires years of planning in order to identify and track all the required tasks in advance, to coordinate the efforts of hundreds of different operations, and to monitor progress. In a complex project, it’s important to identify bottlenecks and delays before they blossom into expensive crises that threaten the mission.

Traditional project management software such as Microsoft Planner, Wrike, Smartsheet, and LiquidPlanner typically includes sophisticated and complex features. A Gantt chart shows a task timeline that highlights how tasks depend on each other and the critical path toward completion. These programs generally let you assign human and physical resources to tasks, automatically identify resource shortages or overload, and even dynamically adjust assignments or deadlines to balance the demands. They also can include budget and expenditure data, so that you can get an early warning if the project is headed off the rails.

The problem with traditional project management systems is that they require a significant investment of time and money. Not only do you need to learn the ins and outs of a complex application, but you must also take the time to plan the project thoroughly. These tools rarely align well with agile processes, which are based on shorter task iterations and flexible goal-setting.

And then there are the changes. As German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke said, “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” Planning systems are worthless if you don’t keep all the information updated. And it can be a huge task just to gather, confirm, and enter all that data. So here's a short overview of the changes in project management tracking, followed by suggestions of what to look for in choosing a tool to help your team.

Enter the kanban

In the late 1940s, Toyota’s management team was looking for ways to improve its manufacturing process. It came up with a system in which a card would accompany each bin of parts and provide all the relevant information. As the bin passed through different stages, the card would trigger other processes, such as placing an order for additional parts. Toyota’s managers came up with the term kanban for the process. In Japanese, it means “billboard” or “signboard,” and represents the visual nature of the system.

Kanban project management has become popular worldwide. Although the practice has been widely modified, in general, it breaks down into a system whereby a board is divided into columns that are used to organize cards. Most people use a whiteboard with vertical lines to separate groups of Post-it notes, where each note represents a different task. The columns typically are some variation of “Pending,” “In Process,” and “Complete.” Different-color Post-Its can categorize types of tasks, or they may identify the individuals or teams responsible for a task.

Navigating IT Transformation: Tales from the Front Lines

Kanban boards have several advantages for IT teams. If your group is collocated, a kanban whiteboard in a central location can be a simple, effective, and ultra-low-cost way to track project progress. Team interaction centered on the board helps foster transparency and shared responsibility. And there’s a shared sense of satisfaction when a task moves to the “Complete” column.

Tracking tasks the old-fashioned way

Image credit: Esther Schindler. Taken at a Plone sprint in 2007.

As helpful as a physical kanban board might be, it’s not a panacea. You must work out the processes for how and when a task is created or moved from one column to another. Even though the board may be in plain view, you also need to make sure that all team members are aware of the project’s status. For example, if tasks are moved only during a team meeting, everyone should know about all updates.

Collaboration requires connection 

A bigger problem with the whiteboard solution arises from the fact that most teams no longer work in one place. Employees or contractors may work from home or in a remote office, and you may need to coordinate tasks with clients or service providers who are based elsewhere. In such cases, a physical whiteboard becomes a liability instead of an asset because it is not easy to share with all the parties involved in the project.

Fortunately, lots of project management options use the Internet to span the time and distance gaps among team members. You can even include subcontractors and clients in part or all of the process, so they too can stay up to date with project progress.

Unfortunately, there are more than 50 different options available, ranging in price from free to more than $65 per user per month (which comes out to about $800 per year per user). This wide range of choices can often lead to “paralysis by analysis.” How do you begin to find the right fit for your operation?

Start by determining which features are essential to your operation, which would be nice to have, and which might be needed in the future. To help with this process, let’s take a look at features you may want to consider.

The simple spreadsheet

One common solution is a spreadsheet. The main reasons for its popularity are it's simple to use, most people are already familiar with spreadsheets, and they are either free or cost nothing extra. Your company probably already pays for a spreadsheet tool, such as Excel in Microsoft Office 365, or you can create spreadsheets for free using Sheets in Google Docs.

Even though project tracking in a spreadsheet is simple, look for one that supports sharing. A project spreadsheet that is stored locally can lead to lots of problems. You have to distribute the file to all parties and then figure out a way to record and reconcile changes as they come in. Hijinks ensue.

Instead, choose a spreadsheet that stores the file in the cloud so that it can be accessed—and modified if desired—by all involved in the project (including yourself, when you’re working remotely). Some services, such as Dropbox, notify all users who share access to a spreadsheet when someone makes a change to its contents, helping team members stay up to date. Also, some spreadsheets allow multiple users to edit the contents in real time, which can be a valuable tool during team teleconferences so all participants can contribute to updates and revisions.

Simple spreadsheets have some limitations, however. Project managers need to establish standards and encourage discipline among team members. Most spreadsheets have limited controls on what can be changed and who can make those changes, aside from an all-or-nothing write protection. If team members don’t follow the rules on how to use the project spreadsheet, it can add to confusion rather than reduce it, and you’re left to figure out what the business rules should be.

Getting on board

If the kanban concept appeals to you, fortunately, you can pick from dozens of programs that offer variations on the “board, column, card” structure. These applications range from free to subscription-based; many follow a “freemium” model with varying features and levels of service. Unlike a spreadsheet, kanban-inspired applications provide structure and procedures to guide the project management process while giving all team members access to a virtual signboard they can access wherever they are.

These products come with a wide range of features. The right product lets you do everything you need to do (and maybe everything you want to do as well) without being so complex that you spend lots of time on learning how to work with it. And it should fit within your budget and provide a good return on your investment.

Kanban Tool is an example of a fairly stripped-down kanban program. It uses color-coded cards that you place in columns. You control the number of columns, their labels, and the number of cards permitted in each column. You can assign tasks to individuals (two users are permitted in the free version), add a due date, set up recurring tasks, and include a checklist of sub-tasks in a card. You can also attach documents to a card to share them with other team members (not available in the free version). It even has a limited way to track time spent on a given task.

Again, that’s a basic tool. You may want additional features to manage your projects. Here is a sample of such features, and some programs that provide them. Note that this is not a comprehensive list, and just because a product is highlighted with a feature doesn't mean others don’t also offer that functionality.

Calendar: The kanban card view can tell a useful story about your project at a glance, but it can be difficult to see deadlines and other significant dates on the board. That’s why many programs also offer a calendar view to give a quick overview from a different perspective. Asana is a richly featured project management system that includes a calendar view.

Dashboard: A complex project has many moving parts, and the lean nature of a kanban board may not give sufficient insight into the progress. Many programs offer dashboards that allow team members and managers to visualize how well they are achieving their goals. Many of the applications offer real-time data that can provide early warning when a task is jeopardizing the project’s overall success. Projectplace includes a set of widgets you can use to construct your own dashboard so you can see precisely the information you need to see.

Instant communication: The world runs on social media these days, and your team members expect the same instant response, always-on communications features they get from Facebook and Twitter. Some programs provide integration with chat and messaging services such as Slack (see Integration and API below), but others have these features built in. For example, Zoho Projects, part of the extensive Zoho suite of online applications, includes interactive message boards with threaded discussions to make it easy for team members to exchange ideas.

Mobile versions: Many people are moving away from desktop and notebook computers, and relying on smartphones and tablets instead. Mobile app support can provide team members with greater convenience and mobility, helping them get more done in more places. Unless your organization is a closed shop dedicated to one mobile platform, it’s best to use a system that offers both Android and iOS mobile apps, such as Trello.

Change logs: IT development projects regularly use change logs to track all changes. Project management tools usually allow team members to modify tasks and other shared content, but… who did that? When? It helps to have a record of who made a change and when the change was made. Even though it is one of the more modest programs, Kanban Tool includes a change log to track the changes made to the records.

“Pomodoro” timing: Studies have shown that many people work more efficiently when they focus on a given task for a set period of time—typically 25 minutes—and then take a short break before they return to focus on the main task again. KanbanFlow includes a Pomodoro timer to help your team members stay on task and be most productive.

Time tracking: You may want to track the time team members spend on a given task. This could be used for internal analysis, or record-keeping may be needed for client billing. Many programs include some form of time tracking, such as Breeze, a relatively simple program designed to scale to handle large projects.

Budget tracking: Time may be money, but money is really money and people in the corner office often get concerned about how it is spent. Some project management systems include budgeting features that can provide early warning when project expenses are headed off the rails. Smartsheet is a versatile system based on a spreadsheet model that includes a wide range of sophisticated features, including schedule and budget variance reporting.

Resource tracking: Almost every team has a “Robin” who can do everything and gets called in to put out fires and solve problems. But you may only have so much “Robin” to go around. Overload that individual and you may put the whole project at risk. Many project management systems allow you to assign tasks to individuals or work groups, and then track how much work they have and how they are performing. Wrike is a sophisticated system that includes a resource management feature that lets you see where problems may be developing so you can adjust assignments or deadlines to level the loads.

Mind map integration: You can’t have a project without a plan. Some systems help with the creative process that comes at the start, as well as with troubleshooting that may crop up during the project. Mind maps are a helpful tool for brainstorming and organizing thoughts that can lead to the specific tasks for a project. MindMeister is an add-on that is available with MeisterTask, a full-featured project management system based on kanban concepts.

Templates and automation tools: While every project is different, you may be inventing a wheel that is similar to other wheels you’ve invented in the past. You may want to recreate a similar set of tasks for the new project. Some programs make this much easier by offering templates you can reuse as a starting point. Some systems also offer automated notifications and other automated actions that are triggered by predefined situations. Both of these features can save time and effort when setting up a new project. Redbooth is a sophisticated system that includes both templates and automated notifications.

Integration and API: Your company uses many other platforms and services, and it makes sense for your project management system to work with them. Perhaps you use Dropbox for sharing folders or Slack for instant group communication. Some programs provide built-in or optional integration with a range of other services. And some even provide an API so you can customize a connection between your project management tool and the stored data. Allthings is a project management program that includes a dozen integrations, including Dropbox, Slack, Evernote, Google Sheets, Jira, Gmail, and FreeAgent, as well as the Zapier platform to link and automate connections to other applications.

Security: Data security is an important issue for companies, many of which need to protect not only their own sensitive data but also their clients' information. Many programs rely on password-protected access, but others can require more robust authentication. Monday (formerly dapulse) is a project management software system that includes a two-factor authentication option for extra projection.

Not every program is going to have all these features, so it pays to study the choices to make sure you get everything you need. Also, keep in mind that it doesn’t hurt to get more than you need so long as it doesn’t result in more complexity that gets in the way of implementing and maintaining an effective system.

In some cases, you may need to go with full-blown project management systems like Microsoft Project. But for most managers, a streamlined system that delivers a simple and efficient way to keep the project’s team on track is the best choice.

Tips for project management success: Lessons for leaders

  • You don’t need a full-featured project management program to manage most projects.
  • Cloud-based online systems make it easy to coordinate and collaborate with team members, contractors, and clients in other locations.
  • Any project management system requires a commitment to the process by everyone involved.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.