To kick off our series of articles about project management here at Online Project Management Software Reviews, we thought it would be a great idea to let an industry expert have the first word. Jennifer Whitt is Project Director for ProjectManager.com, and author of “Optimize Your Thinking: How to Unlock Your Performance Potential“. She is currently also working on PDUs2GO, which is offering courses for project managers, as a founder and Certified Performance Coach. There's a bunch of other interesting things to tell about Jennifer, but we're just going to let you go ahead and read her article on how to choose the best project management software.
Are you an accidental project manager? Now, don’t get me wrong… there’s nothing wrong with being an accidental project manager. An accidental project manager is someone who started off in one profession and then inadvertently and seemingly accidentally found themselves in the profession of managing projects.
The career path looks something like this. You may have been in marketing, accounting, engineering or some other line of work. You displayed a natural set of skills related to organization, leadership, and the ability to get things done. Those around you took notice and asked you to head a small project that needed more than the usual attention. You viewed it as a challenge and jumped at the opportunity.
The project went extremely well and smoother than anything else that had been done up to this point. Your peers directly attribute this to the fact that you were organizing activity and keeping everyone on track. They ask you to do another bigger project. Then another project, this time integrated with another department. Then another project, this time pulling in a few departments and even interaction with the client.
Voila’! You are now an accidental project manager! This means you have been thrust into this exciting line of work and you look forward to learning more about this great profession. However, in the meantime you probably don’t have the best project management software available to you. That’s OK. In the early days of figuring out the craft of project management, you can cobble together bits and pieces of project management functionality from stand alone software packages not specifically designed as project management software. The following list of applications will get you started:
Spreadsheet programs and project management go hand-in-hand. There is nothing like the potential that a blank spreadsheet holds out for a new project manager. You can start with something as easy as a list of activities that need to be done on a project. This can then expand to including columns for dates, assigning ownership, and even status such as Closed, Open, or In Progress. While not ideal for showing dependencies and how tasks relate to each other in project management software package, a spreadsheet is a great place to start for getting things organized.
Another strength of a spreadsheet is the ability to track open issues and their status. Regardless of the industry, every project is going to have a “punch-list” of open items that must be closed out prior to the project being considered complete. A spreadsheet is a perfect tool to document this list. In addition to dates, ownership, and status listed above, you can also include a column that shows the date opened and closed as well as the severity of each open item. For example, a severity 1 would mean that this is a show-stopper with no workaround, and a severity of 5 would mean that it’s simply a cosmetic fix. This will help prioritize those items that need to be worked on first.
A spreadsheet can be considered a project manager’s best friend. However, using a spreadsheet as an exclusive project management software tool can have a tendency to get complicated and hard to follow. This requires the reader-friendly word processor to come into play for the accidental project manager. The word processor will allow for status reports, updates, meeting minutes and lists of action items that become clear to follow. They allow the project manager to interpret and explain some of the patterns that are emerging or risks that are surfacing from the spreadsheet that is being used to monitor project progress.
Another powerful tool that allows a project manager to tell the story of the project at hand is presentation software. There are many stories that must be told during the project life cycle. There’s the kickoff store that brings the entire team together to explain the big picture of the project, who is responsible for what, why this project is important and when things must be done. Then, there’s the story of digging into the details of an unusually thorny problem that has come up during the lifetime of the project. Another story may surface about how the project is running a bit behind, or a little over budget, but that there is a plan in place to pull things together and back on track.
Presentation software is a great tool to use to make sure the audience quickly understands and grasps each of these concepts and knows what they need to do next. Be sure to complement what you are saying as the presenter and don’t get caught in the less than desirable rut of just reading off the text that is one each slide.
As far as a multi-purpose, workhorse application to use for project management, email has to be at the top of the list. E-Mail programs have taken exponential leaps and bounds from where they started. Meetings can be scheduled, polls can be taken, to-do-lists can be compiled, messages can be sorted and retrieved, and yes, you can send and receive email. This tool is critical when it comes to tying together the work that has been produced from spreadsheets, word processors and presentation software.
The short list above is a great place to start when it comes to early project management software. But, where do you go next when you are ready to implement a project management software solution? Below are some of the things you should look for when making that decision. At a minimum, a typical project management software tool should allow you to do the following:
- Create an Interdependent List of Activities – A large aspect of project management is the ability to break complicated components of a project down into unique activities and link them together in logical manner.
- Serve as a Repository of Key Information – You should have the ability to associate key documents, plans, approvals, and collateral with their related activities. This makes it easy for project resources to ensure they are working off the latest versions of project documentation.
- Display a Schedule in Gantt-Chart and/or Table Formats – The ability to show complicated project schedules in various formats makes it easier to communicate progress and define what is yet to be done on the project.
- Ability to Assign Resources – Assigning resources to be able to get the project done is an essential part of project management software. Additionally, it’s important for the software to have the ability to allocate resources at a certain percentage of their time available to make the most accurate schedule.
- Determine the Effect of Change to Schedules and Resources – You will always want to know what happens to the project if the schedule changes (either expands or contracts) or what would happen if you added resources to a particular activity to get more work done in less time.
- Monitor Key Performance Metrics – There are a handful of performance metrics that every project management software package should show a project manager. At the very least, these are numbers that are associated with budget, cost, schedules, and resources. There are hosts of other metrics that can prove helpful as well and most software allows you to dig into whatever level of granularity you need.
While the above is certainly not an exhaustive list of features, it is certainly a good place to start when choosing the best project management software. In the meantime, if you have stumbled into the position of accidental project manager…congratulations! You can use the majority of your existing applications to get the job done while you make the choice for what you want to use on a more permanent basis.
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