If your teams juggle deadlines, resources, and deliverables, you need a dedicated project management tool. We test and compare the best project management software for helping keep it all on track.
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What Is a Project Management Software?
Teams that have to handle multiple projects can’t simply rely on human memory to keep them all organized. Furthermore, trying to keep everything together via email is a recipe for productivity disaster. To deliver projects on time and within budget, teams must write down information, plot deadlines, and share documents. Individual members need to be in constant communication with one another. When your team needs to get serious about managing projects, the solution is to use project management software.
Project management services are online systems for working and collaborating on projects. These real-time workspaces let team members and outside partners keep an eye on every detail that brings a project to fruition. They typically provide an overview of all the projects in the pipeline, as well as the nitty-gritty details about the daily work being done to move the projects forward. Some contain tools for managing resources as well, whether those resources are workers, materials, or money.
The very best project management apps help teams handle common problems, such as slipped deadlines, by automatically rescheduling tasks that are affected by them. They generate reports that give managers insight into which team members have too much—or too little—work on their plates. Many track time spent on projects and integrate with invoicing and billing systems.
The most important thing to know about project management apps, as opposed to other kinds of work-management apps, is that they are for projects. That might sound like a tautology, but it’s important.
Projects are a specific type of work. Every project has a start date, end date, and deliverable. Building a house is a project. Launching a new website is a project. Maintaining a website, however, is ongoing work with no clear beginning or end date. Publishing a monthly magazine is a project that you complete once a month. Writing daily content for a blog is ongoing work. You could, theoretically, manage each blog post as its own project, but if the turnaround time is quick and only a few people are involved, using full-scale project management software is overkill.
How Project Management Apps Work
Many projects are managed by a dedicated project manager, and that’s true even with software equivalent. While a project manager might still be the person overseeing the project and helping to redirect resources as needed, she or he is not the only person touching the project management app.
All kinds of people involved with the project use the app to update their progress on assigned tasks. They check into the project management app to, for example, see their designated tasks and to enter how much time they spent on an assignment. Employees, contractors, and sometimes even clients can use the project management app to share documents, sign off on plans, and so forth.
In a best-case scenario, every milestone, task, and subtask is assigned to a specific person and given a deadline. Typically, other team members can see who is responsible for what, whether that person is on track to complete it on time, and if there are any unanswered questions about the job. That level of insight is important because it alerts people who are further down the planned chain of events of possible delays before they occur.
Having visibility into every team member’s task list is also useful for understanding whether people are falling behind because they’re overworked. When you can see that a colleague has six task assignments all due within the next 48 hours, it’s easy to spot the problem and redistribute the work before deadlines slip. By looking at a Gantt chart (a pretty common feature in project management apps), for example, a manager can see clearly who is doing what, and how various tasks are related, too. It helps everyone use available resources more effectively.
Task Management Software
Task management software is slightly different from project management software. Project management apps do include task management features in them, but you can get standalone task management apps if that’s the only piece you really need.
One of the clearest examples of a task management app is Asana, which, confusingly, is also a very clear example of a workflow management app, as mentioned above—one with kanban functionality, to boot. With Asana, you can assign tasks to specific individuals, and add descriptions, deadlines, and attached documents to each one, but they aren’t necessarily part of a larger project.
Task-management apps work pretty well for ongoing work. You can manage a project in Asana, but it takes a little more work on your part to do so. The best way to explain it is with an analogy.
Think of Asana (any kanban app) as a deck of cards. Now think of a project management app as a board game. Board games have with rules, and the game is usually the most fun when you play it as it was designed to be played. With a deck of cards, however, you can play a game someone else invented or you can make up your own game. Before you play cards, you have to make sure everyone at the table knows the rules and plays by the same rules, because they aren’t written down on a handy sheet of paper for you all to follow.
The same thing happens when you start using a task management app. You have to spend a lot of time figuring out how you’re going to use it. On the one hand, it’s very flexible. On the other hand, it can take considerable trial and error to get it right.
That’s not to imply that project management systems are inflexible. With a board game, you could certainly make up your own rules or create variations on the rules. But you buy a board game with an understanding that it works best when you use it for its intended purposes. You use a project management app with the understanding that you are going to manage projects by assigning tasks and deadlines, monitoring work, tracking billable hours, and so forth.