There is no mistaking that you need the right tools to manage your projects if you do not want your projects or even your business go belly up. But whether you are just starting out or already in the business, it is still important to spend your money on the things that move the needle.
So, the question of how much money you should spend on project management software is quite often asked. And the answer is not easy, so read on and make your choice.
What is project management software in the first place?
Let’s be clear. There is project management software out there which lets you really manage you project, from the project charter, to stakeholder management, quality management and whatever you name it. The thing is, that for entrepreneurs, start-ups and small businesses, this kind of software is simply overkill. First it is very time consuming to learn, second often very expensive and worst, you don’t need it, except if you were a company with 10000+ employees, but then you wouldn’t read this blog, wouldn’t you? ;-).
Mostly, when people talk about project management software, they are talking about a project scheduling tool. A tool to plan out the tasks, attribute them to people and track the results, and that basically is it.
For all the rest, I would use Excel and Word, or something similar, if you are not on Microsoft products. Even for the big players, these tools go a long way.
For the rest of this article, let’s concentrate on scheduling tools.
So, the real question is, how much budget do I need for tools to help me schedule my projects?
And the answer is as simple as this: NONE, ZERO, NIENTE, NULL.
I am often asked, can you really go far with a free solution, or will you get stuck rather earlier than later because of its limitations.
The truth is that you can go very far and there is no reason to spend money on this, at least not, if your project is not super complex. If you are tight on money I would even say that it is counter-productive to invest money in a project scheduling software.
Well first, people who invest a lot of money into a licence for some scheduling software for their project manager often do not have the money to buy a viewer licence for the different team members and stakeholder. Which means that the project manager is wasting time on exporting data into more readable formats and that is clearly not what you want him to do.
And second, in order to really profit from all the possibility of a high-end solution like Microsoft Project all the rest of your structure has to follow. Unless this is the case you will just lose time and money.
Just to give you an example. In Microsoft Project, you can plan the workload of the contributors over several projects. The problem is, if the people do not only work for one project and have also standard work to do, all the players need to enter the workload of each person correctly and update the scheduling immediately in case of changes. In 25 years, I have never seen this happen. So, the workload information provided by the software is at best useless and at worst confusing and leading to wrong decisions. It might help if you have a dedicated project team and want to see if over all the tasks you have planned you did create an overload. On the other hand, even free software can handle this.
That’s why I like to keep things simple.
What free solution to choose for your project?
If it comes to solutions to help you schedule your projects, there are tons of. And the best solution is always the one that you like and therefore you implement and really use.
But depending on the type of project and the environment, there are solutions that might work better than others. And here are some hints to help you choose.
What does that mean? Well, it means that it is basically you who manage the project and do the major part of the tasks. There is not much interaction with a team, even if you give some tasks to external team members and collect their contribution.
✔ What to use:
A task list and in addition a spread sheet for your long-term planning will do the trick. It’s pretty straight forward and you see where you go. The main advantage, you do not need to learn some complicated piece of software.
✘ What not to use:
Your calendar. Even if it is tempting, you will end up shifting tasks forward and backwards and you’ll never have a clear overview what has been done and what needs to get done next.
Nonetheless, you might use your calendar for notifications to track, when a task that you have given to somebody is due.
Team play with a clear vision of the future
Now you have a team with you and the tasks, priorities and workload need to be coordinated. At the same time, the requirements concerning your project and the product or service you provide and the way to fulfil them does not change a lot. Also important, you plan the project and attribute the tasks. The method that you will use to plan your project is called “waterfall”.
✔ What to use:
You still can use a spreadsheet to plan out the tasks, knowing that the main disadvantage of a standard spreadsheet solution is that, depending on the additional information you want to track, things can become very complex.
With the above solution you still rely on your team to keep an eye on their workload, but if you would also like to see this in one plan, then I would suggest ProjectLibre, Openproject, GanttProject or Zoho Projects to name just a few, which will allow you do your tasking, Gantt chart, workload tracking and everything else. On top of this, you will need a collaboration tool or platform to allow you and your team to exchange information, views, dates, etc.
✘ What not to use:
Work on paper, task lists, etc. This will fast get overwhelming as you will spend all your time incorporating changes and a project schedule is only great if it is up to date.
Team play with a need of flexibility
In contradiction to the version before, you move on unknown terrain. You have your requirements done, but things change as you move along. The interaction between you and the team is intense concerning tasks and priorities. The method you will use is Kanban or Scrum, depending on your team structure and capabilities. Kanban being more built around you and your management view, Scrum being more team centred.
✔ What to use:
For the organisation of your tasks with backlog, prioritisation and so on, your best choice is an online tool with offline capabilities. We at Cactus Competence use Trello* for its ease of use and the great Android app which allows us to access our tasks even being offline. Another great alternative is Asana.
But even if you go with this more flexible approach I highly suggest that you still track milestones and major tasks on a spreadsheet, as not all your stakeholders will be able to cope with uncertainty and rely on a more waterfall view of the things.
On top of your project task planner, an additional collaboration tool might enhance the fluidity of the communication but is not a necessity.
✘ What not to use:
Stay away from solutions which are installed only on one computer. Also, do not try to set up everything yourself on your hosting. Companies like Trello keep an eye on all the security stuff and updates, have great mobile apps and so on. Your focus should always be on your project. For communication, do not rely on email. It is just too slow and fosters static and hierarchical communication, whereas you want flexibility and speed.
Now its your turn!
What free project scheduling and task planning tools do you use?
Please share your view with our readers. What are your preferred free tools when it comes to scheduling and task planning?
* My affiliate link to Trello (if you connect with this link, I will get a free month of Gold membership, nothing more)