A lot of folks want to talk about project management with us. And we get it. Project management systems are, at best, imperfect. And there are so many! How can a group ever know for sure that they’re using the best practices for their group?
We use (and have used) a lot of different tools and systems and frameworks. It depends on the project, who’s the project manager (PM), what the client already uses, what people care about, and so on. The truth of the matter is that no one project management system has been our favorite. They’re all *imperfect.
This post is a basic run-down of some of these tools. You can pick and choose what works best for you. Then let us know how you do project management! We’re always looking for new and creative solutions to common human problems.
All in one solutions
A good, affordable alternative to Asana and Redmine
- make and assign tasks and milestones
- keep track of deadlines and files
- track time
- integrate with common file storage systems
I personally found the system clunky. The interface was unattractive and understanding how data flows from one part of the software to another was not intuitive. The team put it to good use, however. Most days there were a flurry of emails an activity notifications. The project got done on time and under budget so I imagine the group was pretty happy with the software. Bad systems tend to slow people down.
Teamwork runs on a freemium payment model. That means you can access the system for free, but if you really want to get the good functionality and take advantage of everything the software has to offer, you’ll want to start paying. Check out Teamwork’s pricing here.
An old all-in-one-favorite
Ahh yes, Basecamp. It’s long been a standby for groups working together. Though I think this system has fallen out of popularity. For a long time it was the go-to project management system. It has all the standard features you’d expect from project management software:
- messaging, both private and group
- scheduling and deadline management
- file storage integration
- task creation and assignment
- reporting and notifications
I personally haven’t used Basecamp in over 5 years. When I have used it in the past I found it straightforward and easy to navigate. The last active project I used it on was rebuilding the information architecture for the Native American Rights Fund and their National Indian Law Library database. More recently I’ve seen it used in a university setting when a potential client asked me to look into their setup. The pricing for Basecamp is competitive and could be worth it for larger teams.
We don’t use Asana at Good Good Work. It’s way more than we need, plus we have a mish-mash of solutions cobbled together that we like better. That said, a lot of teams really love Asana. It’s pretty much the default all-in-one solution for medium-to-large sized teams. And that makes sense. The founders of Asana came from Facebook and Google, where they worked on team productivity. It lets you do all the things you’d want to do with a piece of project management software: create projects, assign tasks to people and attach them to deadlines, send messages between team members, and so on. When a team really opts into the system and uses it well it can change the way work happens for the better.
Recently someone pointed me to monday.com. Again, I haven’t used this software. But it does look promising. It seems to be a hyper-interactive and customizable to-do list + gantt chart. If you’ve tried other solutions and are looking for something different, give it a try. Here’s a video review of monday.com I found helpful.
Proprietary comms for complex and lively teams
If you’ve looked into tools for teams, you’ve most likely heard of Slack. For all you internet geeks out there, it’s basically a much fancier version of IRC. What it does best is allow people to organize conversations by topic without cluttering up your inbox. It’s great for real time chatting! It can do some other neat things, too. Like: integrate pretty seamlessly with other applications, send you customized alerts, and keep track of/comment on files.
It’s great for campaigns and on-the-fly coordination and teams that work on lots of projects together. The mobile and desktop apps are well-made and easy to use. Slack is only sort of free. You get a set number of free messages and then either need to pay or lose your legacy chats. And it’s totally proprietary. If you want something open source, you’ll need to go over to Rocket Chat or something similar.
Beware the dark side
Some people are so excited about Slack they think they can use this as their only project management tool. But really, Slack is a supplemental communication tool for teams. Unless you have a strong culture or set of standards around how your team uses Slack, you’re likely to have information overload, miss a bunch of activity, and get frustrated when looking for things that happened in the past.
Slack is great, but it’s not a silver bullet and you should always have some norms in place before your team begins work.
Lightweight, simple, agile-style task management
Trello is mostly free software that acts as a pin board for tasks. Ever heard of a kanban? It’s basically that; a list of columns with individual cards for things that need attention. Those columns are typically stages of a project (prep, doing, needs approval, done) and the cards are typically tasks that need to be attended to. But you can get creative since it’s pretty customizable.
The interface is so easy to use most people barely need any kind of tutorial. It’s a really great way to get a bird’s eye picture of a complex project or set of tasks. It’s not great at messaging and threaded comments, but it does do some cool things like file uploads and deadline/task assignment.
We were using Trello for a lot of things until we decided to build a more robust system with Airtable. If you need something simple and don’t want to spend a lot of time configuring your setup, Trello is a great tool.
Bonus: It uses markdown!
Relational database for managing complex, interconnected data
Ah Airtable, how I love thee. Let me count the ways…
At its most basic, Airtable is a relational database with a beautiful interface. You can think of it like Google Sheets on steroids. Our team usually has around 30 projects going at a time and each one has different requirements. We track the details of each project a little differently, but we aggregate all of our high-level data in one place. Airtable lets us create projects, assign them to clients, associate humans with those groups, and keep track of interactions, income, project/payment status, contact info, and more. It’s easy enough for beginners and we haven’t had a need to upgrade to a paid version yet.
Did I mention their API? Because Airtable is such a straightforward way to manage data, we’ve even built databases for client projects using their API!
The downside? It’s not a full CRM or project management system and it takes a while to set up. It won’t do everything that other all-in-one systems would. Like any data project, it takes a good amount of forethought and would probably be too heavy for a small or short-term project.
Great for scoping and initial project planning
When we have a simple project we often use Google Sheets. They’re free, familiar to most people, and because they’re on Google servers, we know the data is secure and readily accessible. Plus, sheets do a lot of fun things so getting familiar with them is always helpful. We even built an entire event registration system for 4,000+ people on Google Sheets.
There’s little in the way of integration, commenting gets messy pretty fast, you’ll need to know regular expressions if you want to do anything fancy. Since you’re viewing all data at once with essentially no interface, it’s easy to lose track of things. I’ve got it listed here in the free(ish) category because it’s Google. Your free software comes at a cost to society and privacy.
Okay, so what does it do well? Google Sheets shines in project scoping and rapid data display. When we need to figure out a price or timeline for a project we pop the basics into a sheet and can quickly get a good idea what that will look like. When scope changes it can be a powerful way to display the effect that change has on time and budget. Yay, math!
You can download our standard content tracking spreadsheet here. You’ll see that it’s really geared towards website building. Feel free to customize it yourself.
Git-integrated issues tracking on development projects
- threaded/nested comments
- sorting tasks by tag, milestone, human, or status
- task tracking for many projects
- git integration and version control
- user-generated issue reporting
It’s probably not worth it to set up Gitlab for much outside of technology projects. You do have the option to view tasks in a Trello/kanban-style board, but the interface leaves plenty to be desired. It’s software built by developers for developers. That said, it’s great at what it does if you set it up properly.
Only for the hardcore open source purists
Redmine, like many other open source systems, is a lot of work. It’s a lot of work to set up, a lot of work to get your team trained up, a lot of work to manage, and a lot of work to maintain. I know people on both sides of the “is it worth it?” divide. Some people really love it for what it does. Some people refuse to use it because of its clunky-ness.
Like Asana, Basecamp, and Teamwork, it’s an all-in-one piece of software. The benefit of it being open source is three-fold: you can feel good about using it, using it and contributing to its development improves the software for everyone, and it’s fully customizable…if you’re a developer.
The biggest downside is that it’s hard to navigate and ugly to look at. It’s by far the most challenging tool to use in this whole post. If you’re committed to the cause, willing to be patient while it gets set up, and down for maintenance, it could be worth it for your team. Otherwise, I’d steer clear.
Democracy in the workplace!
Okay, so Loomio isn’t for project management. But it is a fantastic tool for teams working together. What it does do is allow groups to make decisions and document how the decision got made. It integrates with Google Drive and has a bunch of great built-in voting tools. Need to pick a time for your annual retreat? Want to vote on a big new team expense? Trying to decide between a handful of new logos? You’re covered with Loomio.
I can’t recommend this platform enough. It comes out of the Occupy movement in New Zealand, is built by marvelous people, can help create a culture of accountability, allows decisions to be made asynchronously, and improves a group’s civic hygiene. If you’ve ever worked on a team you know how much decision-making affects productivity. So if your group is deciding on things, you should be using Loomio.
A more iterative and realistic approach to projects
Agile Development comes out of the software development world. The concept is to work in iterations. The thinking is that working incrementally gives more room for meaningful changes. Instead of building out a big system only to find that a fundamental piece doesn’t work, you start by building the minimum viable product (mvp) and then adding on as needs arise.
As a concept it’s powerful. One could basically say that we follow Agile Development principles by default. It’s a good way of working that’s more honest, realistic and adaptable. The danger is in seeing agile as a be-all, end-all solution. When a team is forced into a scrum meeting or sprint cycle that doesn’t work for their culture just because a consultant introduced it like dogma, things can get miserable pretty fast.
There are certification programs and tools galore out there, but understanding the underlying principle is all you really need to take advantage of it’s usefulness.
More rigid than Agile Development, potentially more useful for short term projects
The Waterfall Development framework resembles Agile Development and design thinking and the scientific process. It focuses work into stages and discourages people from moving backwards on the development track. The reality is that some projects just aren’t big enough to do multiple releases or development passes. In this case, Waterfall is potentially a helpful framework. Waterfall has a specific emphasis on maintenance which I like a lot.
Our co-op doesn’t use Waterfall, but I threw it in because it pops up from time to time.
* Yes, project management systems are imperfect. But none of them work if you don’t have team buy-in.