How to choose a project management software
Whether we use project management software or not, we all work on teams. But an alarming number of us think our teams aren’t working well together. Nearly four in 10 employees say that people in their company do not collaborate enough. Some struggle with communication, while others simply don’t have the right processes in place. For others, it’s a cultural issue. While collaboration challenges vary by company, the solution is the same: smart project management software. But what makes centralized project management software so important? And how do leaders go about choosing — and implementing — one that makes sense for their business?
The business sense of project management software
According to a Total Economic Impact™ (TEI) study conducted by Forrester Consulting, using project management software saves time, reduces errors, and boosts collaboration. Each of those benefits saves the company money. Let’s break it down:
On every project, there are multiple roles. A marketing campaign needs a strategist, an executor, and an analyst, at the very minimum. A product development initiative has even more people involved: the project owner, a project manager, developers, designers, UX specialists, and more. Even individual contributors work on teams. A freelance writer receives topics to write from agency partners. Those agencies employ editors to check her work, and they need people to upload the content to a blog or social media platform. Think about how project management software simplifies those workflows. Customizable templates are massive time savers. Document storage is helpful as well. Task lists are basic but essential.
Mistakes happen when collaboration is weak. Let’s look at three specific types:
Every task needs an owner. But it’s tough to get people to think like owners, and many teams struggle to keep track of who owns what. With the wider project, everyone knows it’s the project manager or account manager who’s in charge. But who’s going to be responsible for the nitty-gritty details? Should the analyst be in charge of gathering data during the marketing campaign, or should that be the account manager’s responsibility? Should the freelance writer be expected to make edits, or will the in-house editor handle those himself?
Without project management software, most people simply email deadlines to one another. Even when the deadline is bolded or highlighted, it’s easy to miss. What if the email gets lost in spam? What if the deadline is buried low in the message? What if the recipient simply doesn’t check his email very often? Project management software shows exactly who is responsible for delivering what when. When all work is tracked in a single platform, there’s never a question about where team members can find deadline details.
Even when deadlines and ownership are clear, sometimes people provide poor instructions. Does the editor want the writer to use the exact-match keyword, or will a variant work? Other times, the instructions are good and the execution lacking. Maybe the editor was clear, but the writer simply didn’t read that far down in the email chain. Those sorts of details are perfect to plug into project management software. The idea is that everyone on the team should be able to find all the information they need in a single place. And that place shouldn’t be a Slack or email buried deep in a months-old message chain.
When everyone can see everyone else’s work, there are more chances for feedback. More feedback means more chances for great ideas to come out, which means a better outcome for everyone. The key is a strong customer experience. Project management software should make it easy to see outstanding issues, suggest solutions, and notify everyone of key changes. A great user interface ensures it gets used. What could make more business sense than better work completed in less time? Now that you know the business case for project management software, the next question is: what should you look for?
Choosing a project management tool for your team
The most expensive investment is the one that your team doesn’t use. That’s why choosing a project management software is all about balancing functionality and usability. Your project management software should accomplish four things in a seamless way:
If the project isn’t planned well, it can’t be carried out well. There are a few things you want to be sure to look for in a project management software:
What are the key parts of your project? Thinking back to that marketing campaign, perhaps there’s an SEO component, a social media component, and a live activation component. Each of those programs has lots of subtasks, but leaders just need to see the big picture. They shouldn’t have to click through a thousand menus simply to get the broad strokes. Make sure any project stakeholder can get the info they need quickly and easily.
Individual contributors need the fine details. What keyword should they be creating content around? What social media platforms will they be posting on? When in doubt, break it down further. How many posts per platform per week are needed? How important is responding to every comment on Twitter and Facebook? And should those responses include some sort of call to action?
Robust role management
Most importantly, who’s going to be in charge of each task? For the project to get done, everyone needs to know how the rubber meets the road. The project management software should be able to associate not just a team, but specific names and deadlines with every project.
Collaboration is the core reason for project management software. Everyone has to be working together seamlessly for the project to be successful. What features are most important for strong collaboration?
No matter the project, comments and questions come up. Roles change. Users should be able to tag each other in notes associated with specific tasks. That way, anyone who navigates to that task can see outstanding questions and answers.
Sometimes, moving forward on a project means having a quick team discussion. Having it over the phone is inefficient, leaves people out of the loop, and risks notes going missing. Project management software needs instant messaging. There’s no easier way to conduct a quick chat, come to a consensus, and make sure the conversation is recorded in case questions come up later.
What happens when team members finish their parts of the project? Great project management software should display those details and next steps. For that, there are a few key features:
What portion of the total product release is finished? How is the marketing portion coming along? And within the marketing portion, are the visuals ready for review? Progress bars should make it easy for leaders to get answers to answer those questions. At-a-glance tools help them see who might need support, who’s chugging ahead as planned, and who’s ahead of schedule.
Once a key portion of the project is finished, how will others know? Dependencies make notifications critical: If someone is just waiting to start on their portion, they need to know immediately if it’s their turn to jump in. Notifications should be customizable. If people are done with their part of a project, they don’t need constant updates about it. Turn off notifications that are no longer relevant to stay productive and focused.
Work can always be improved. Look for project management software that makes it simple to review and request revisions. People like to give feedback in different ways. Some reviewers might want to write a text comment. Others may want to attach audio from a conference conversation about the deliverable. Still others might want to add a screenshot.
Reporting is the last part of a project, but it’s perhaps the most important one: What can the team learn from the initiative that they can apply to future work? Project management software should display a few key metrics by contributor and by project:
Total time invested
Number of tasks completed
Number of tasks late, started, and due today
Project deadlines missed and met
Again, customization is important. If there are other metrics your team wants to track — say, the amount invested in each project — the project management software should also accommodate those. At the very least, it should include prompts for data entry on those extra metrics. You know what you need in project management software. The tough part is implementation.
How to implement project management software
Change is hard. Once you’ve selected the right project management software for your team, the next step is building it into your workflows. Get started by:
1. Understanding the current system
If you don’t understand where the weak spots are in your team’s current workflow, you’ll struggle to shore them up. Look not just for slow points, but also for communication vacuums and quality issues. With your team, map out how a hypothetical project gets done from start to finish. Who originates the project, and what kind of prompt do they provide to the wider team? Does the development team take a waterfall approach? Are they agile design thinkers? As tasks flow from person to person, where do communication gaps happen? Use an anonymous survey for this so team members feel comfortable speaking up about places where the ball often gets dropped. Even if work flows well, where could quality of work be improved? Someone might not be getting adequate instructions, her deadlines might be too short, or she might be a better fit for another role. Until you map it all out in a project management plan, it can be tough to see where workflows are to blame for quality issues and where individual contributors are falling short.
2. Giving plenty of warning
Once you know what needs to change, you’ll know how drastic the overhaul might be. Set implementation timelines accordingly. Moving from one project management software to another, for example, might only require the team to learn a new platform. But shifting from an email-only system to a project management software platform is a big change. Don’t drag timelines out intentionally, but do give at least two weeks’ warning. Make clear that everyone will be figuring out the new tool together. Share a video demo where team members can watch an expert use the tool and imagine how their own workflows might change.
3. Appointing a project manager
Every project, including a project management software switch, needs a leader. On a small team, that might be the CEO. But on most teams, a dedicated project manager is needed. Who should you choose to manage the switch? Look for someone with:
Attention to detail
Implementing a new project management software has a lot of moving parts. Leadership needs regular updates, workers’ questions need answers, costs must be managed, accounts need to be re-permissioned, and more. Perfectionists are great picks for this role. They make sure nothing slips through the cracks, even when those cracks widen and shift by the day.
One of the worst examples you can set when implementing a new project management software is consistently missing deadlines. Although setbacks happen, they should be the exception rather than the rule. Look for someone who never submits his own work late. Implementing a new software company-wide is a big challenge, but he should be up to the task.
If there’s one thing that’s true of any project management software implementation, it’s that there are a lot of dependencies. People want to know: When will the new software be ready to use? Which tier did the company choose? How will company-wide training be conducted? Someone who’s clear and confident is the right choice here. She should be able to get the message across through writing, speaking, video recordings, and more.
Project management software implementation is hard. There will be days when people want to give up and go back to the old system. The project manager needs strong stress management skills. The cool, collected person in the office should get the job. She’ll need to manage her emotions well and keep a calm tone of voice, no matter the fire that needs to be put out.
4. Asking for the team’s input
Ivory-tower leadership is not the way to make a project management software switch go smoothly. If an implementation deadline isn’t feasible, the team should feel comfortable saying so. If there’s no way a certain system is going to work in practice, that should be communicated, too. Again, anonymous surveys are a good option if feedback could be taken the wrong way. The leadership team should thank everyone for their suggestions, even if they do not plan on moving forward with some of them.
5. Focusing on training
Training is critical to any project management software switch. Team members already have plenty to do: Expecting them to learn how to use a new software system on their own simply does not make sense. Block off a whole day for team-wide training. Yes, training days are costly for the company. But what’s more expensive is a team that wastes hours, day after day, figuring it out as they go. When in doubt, ask the project management software provider to give a teamwide demo. Then, ask everyone to give it a shot on their own. Most people learn by doing, and it’s a lot more productive for everyone to work through things together. This will help develop those important project management skills your team will benefit from.
6. Staying in touch with the provider
Speaking of the software provider, stay in touch. Remember, not every potential snag is going to show up during the training day. As people explore the software and use it for new types of projects, they’ll come up with new questions. Ask the project management software firm for a specific source of answers. In many cases, that will be an account manager, help docs, or webinars. Give her contact information to the wider team so they feel comfortable asking the “dumb” questions directly. Ask, too, for some form of a FAQ sheet so team members can answer as many of their own questions as possible. Choosing and implementing project management software is no small project. Know your needs, shop patiently, and think through the rollout. And if all else fails, get support from the project management software team itself. They know better than anyone what a big challenge it can be. Want to find out how much money a project management tool could save your business? Get a copy of the Total Economic Impact™ (TEI) report to learn more.