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 tools and 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.
Things to keep in mind
No one piece of software is going to meet all of your project management needs. It’s worth the time it takes to talk with your team and figure out how you want to handle:
- communication between humans — commenting, suggestions, chatting
- data and file storage — what kinds of files and data you need to track and where
- time tracking, invoicing, and payments — if you’re billing for time or need to stay within a scope, especially if you’re working with contractors
- CRM (customer/constituent relationship management) system — if you have a database like this and whether or not it needs to integrate with your project management system
- task management and deadlines — assigning work, tracking stages of projects to completion, autonomy and accountability
- project management framework/methodology/style — what process do you use?
- cost for software — there’s no such thing as a free lunch
- proprietary vs open source software — if this matters to you or your team
- length and scale of project management needs — number of projects, longevity of the system
- decision-making — who’s in charge of what and how things get decided
- group culture — consider the history of project management in your group, how people generally like to work, languages, time zones, and general self-directedness, and the amount of effort they’re willing to put up with to get started or manage a solution
Considering all of this, here are some of the things I’ve/we’ve used in the past and their pros and cons. It’s up to you to decide how you want to approach project management. Just remember:
* All project management systems are imperfect. But none of them will work if you don’t have team buy-in.
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 less than ideal. The interface was clunky 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 and activity notifications. The project got done on time and under budget so I imagine the group was pretty happy with the software once they got trained on how to use it. 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
Basecamp has long been a standby for groups working together. Though I think this system has fallen out of popularity in recent years. 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 (NARF) and their National Indian Law Library (NILL) database. More recently I’ve seen it used in a university setting when a potential client asked me to look into their setup. The software appears to still be alive and well.
The pricing for Basecamp is high but could be worth it for remote teams that have simpler, repeat projects.
The big boy project management system
At the moment, Asana is a powerhouse in the project management software industry. It’s got a slick native application and the interface is clean and modern. It does everything that Teamwork and Basecamp does, but a little better. There are plenty of integrations and features to ensure that you and your team can work together as seamlessly as possible.
The cons? It’s a huge company valued at $900 million as of this writing. The software was originally built by Facebook employees to help Facebook employees. And with all of these systems, you’ll likely still have to use some additional tools to make it really useable.
The good news is that a company this size often has good tech support and competitive pricing.
A solid standard for software development
If you’ve heard of Pivotal Tracker it’s probably because you’ve worked on a professional software project. If you haven’t, and you don’t make software, you’re probably not missing out. Overall, it’s well-built and well-maintained though heavy and robust; another one of the big kids in this space. I won’t get into details about it here since it’s so specialized. Should you be looking for software to manage multiple or continuous software projects, consider this one.
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 old school 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, etc.) 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 view 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
Oh 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 this 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.
I’ve seen people use Airtable to manage speakers at conferences, build tabletop games, and organize their business offerings. It’s remarkably flexible. And 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. Anyone wanting to use Airtable would likely want to play around with a low-stakes project before committing.
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!
If you want, you can download templates for our standard content tracking spreadsheet or basic timesheet. You’ll see that it’s really geared towards website building. Feel free to customize it yourself.
Git-integrated issues tracking on development projects
We use the heck out of Gitlab. If you love open source software and your team uses Git, this is a great tool. Here are the things it does well:
- 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 projects outside of technology. 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 built to be an all-in-one piece of software. The benefit of it being open source is three-fold: the ethics around open source software makes people feel fuzzy inside, 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 considered standard for “project management”. But I’d argue that it should be. It’s it is a fantastic tool for teams working together. What it does 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.
I can’t recommend this platform enough. It comes out of the Occupy movement, 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 your group is deciding on things (which they probably are), you should be using Loomio.
A more iterative and realistic approach to projects
Agile comes out of the software development world, but it can also be applied to other things like education and community norms. The concept is to work in iterations. The thinking is that working incrementally gives more room for meaningful changes and creates a culture of experimentation and adaptation. 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 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.
Making space for humans and their human needs
We care a lot about people. What’s the point of work if we’re not helping people? What’s the point of helping people if we’re not caring for one another? One thing we’ve found fundamental to our work and wellness is setting up rhythms. As human beings we need time to see one another and get on the same page. In the same way that email can’t replace a phone conversation, a check-in can’t replace a retro.
Hosting regular spaces for people to meet and making sure everyone is invited is vital. It allows us to be more patient, process together, make changes with human needs in mind, and trust that we’ll be heard. This is especially important for us because we’re a decentralized team and don’t see each other every day. For us that means having:
- a weekly 15-minute community check-in where we share what we’re up to, what we need support on, and what we’re grateful for
- a bi-weekly project sync-up where everyone gets updated on all the other projects in the pipeline and we can pass around work
- a weekly retrospective where we share something we did that we’re proud of, name what worked and what didn’t that week, and label things that we’d like to change
It doesn’t matter what your rhythms look like. What matters is that you set up rhythms as a group and make them as important as the work you do for your clients/constituents/etc.
No solution is perfect and no one solution is going to meet all of your needs. It’s important to get together with your group and find out how people want to work, how they’ll realistically work, and what their priorities are before building a new system. Start small and add complexity as you need.
And of course, if you ever need help with project management, give me a shout. I love helping people get on the same page.