How to Choose the Best Project Management Software for You
Managing the entire life cycle of a project—from planning to completion—requires using processes and tools that help you deliver work on time and on budget. With this guide, learn more about project management software, it’s functions, differences between project management software and task management software, and how to pick the right software for your team.
What is project management software?
Project management software has the ability to reduce the complexity of workflow and ensure the highest levels of project efficiency and effectiveness when they help team members manage the stages of work through the entire project life cycle. Unfortunately, most software systems fail to take this end-to-end approach, focusing on only a few phases of the entire life cycle.
Project management tools are designed for the long game, giving you the ability to go the distance and track your team's progress on a project from start to finish.
How do you know which type of software is right for your team? Do you need to manage multiple projects with multiple teams, or are you just looking for a digital to-do list? Do you need CRM or financial/accounting tools? What about a platform that integrates with Agile and Waterfall methods? First let’s explore the differences between project management software and other software systems.
Project management software vs task management software
A quick Google search for "project management software" tells you that the online productivity world is overflowing with platforms that improve your workflow. After researching for a short amount of time, you realize that there is a distinction drawn between task management tools and project management tools. But what’s the difference?
To help you navigate the multifarious seas of today's productivity applications, we've outlined some basic pros and cons to help you determine which workflow solution is best for your team.
Project management software
In a nutshell, project management software is designed to provide an overview of the goals, resources, and processes for projects. It gives project managers the tools to organize large projects, break them down into tasks and subtasks, assign those tasks to individuals, and check them off as they're completed.
While no two applications are alike, they typically focus on three areas: project communication, creating Agile workflows, and aiding with specific project management methodologies like Agile or Waterfall.
Here is a breakdown of the pros and cons:
Many project management systems will give your team a place to communicate, collaborate, assign tasks, proof documents, manage assets, and report progress, all on one platform.
However, some project management software may fall short with one-off ad-hoc requests that aren't part of the scope of projects or with sharing project information in real time. If it's important to your team to manage work in one place and in real time, make sure you research a platform's capabilities thoroughly during the trial period.
The big picture
One of the biggest advantages of project management software is its ability to track projects from the time a team member submits a project request to the time the work is completed and reported. You're not just getting a daily rundown of the minutiae of your team's tasks—you're getting a 360-degree view of your projects from start to finish.
Seeing is believing
Want to know what your team is working on? Easy. Some of the more advanced cloud-based project management software out there now gives everyone access to the latest data and project status at any time.
If you've ever felt that your team is getting bogged down in the quagmire of emails, schedules, and spreadsheets, project management software can be a very useful tool. Some of the more progressive software solutions—especially those that make project information accessible to everyone—can help clear out inefficiencies and clutter, thereby streamlining the work process.
Project management software can help instill a sense of accountability in your team—so there are fewer missed deadlines, a lower risk of scope creep, and less stress for everyone.
This is a big one. If you choose a cloud-based project management tool, team members can easily access their projects at work or on the go. Many project management software programs also have their own apps for Apple and Android devices. It's ideal for distributed teams especially.
Some project management applications may have a steep learning curve.
Paying a price
It usually costs money to purchase quality software. Most project management companies are transparent about their costs—some are not.
It may take time to plan a project, define milestones, enter everything into some project management systems, and allocate tasks to team members in the very beginning.
Getting a complex. Some project management software may cause novice project managers to generate projects that are more complex than they should be.
Task management software
Task management software focuses on tasks as the smallest unit of work, fundamental to getting anything done. They typically encompass features such as task creation, visualization, and notification capabilities for individual projects as well as ongoing corporate task management.
Here is a breakdown of the pros and cons:
Easy to use
Because of their laser-like focus on the task, task management systems allow team members to get on board reasonably fast with little learning curve. That means they'll be checking off that to-do list with little or no down time.
Do you want a micro view of what your team members are working on at any given time? Task management systems typically allow for greater granular control of what people are working on.
It's the little things
Scenario: your boss asks you for a "quick favor"—like writing a blog post. Or another scenario: you have an ongoing work duty that has no beginning or end. Task management software can make tracking "the little things"—like those one-off ad-hoc job requests that aren't part of larger projects—easy.
Since task management software covers one small part of work, team members may not be able to see the entire scope of a project from start to finish. If you desire or require a bird's-eye view of your projects, task management may not be the best choice.
Fooled by "free”
There are many task management systems that offer free versions—but don't be fooled. Many of their free versions are substantially less full-featured than their paid options. We hate to say it, but you get what you pay for…
Task management tools are rock stars when it comes to managing a team's day-to-day to-dos, but they're not necessarily optimized as a long-term solution.
Which software is best for you?
Choosing the right productivity software for your team is not a one-size-fits-all process. A platform that's perfect for one company may not be right for another. And if you're a growing enterprise, you may also realize that what worked for your team a year ago does not work for your team now.
When you first start your research, it's tempting to look for software that gets your team from point A to point B—but what if you could arrive at point Z with the same amount of effort and cost? There are times when your team needs a big picture, project-level view, and there are times when you need a granular look at ad-hoc work.
You might consider searching for a project management software that spans the whole project management process, combining the benefits of the long game and short game together. After all, it takes the mastery of both to have a successful end game.
Out-dated project management tools
Whether you realize it or not, you are probably already using some form of project management. Emails, status meetings, sticky notes, to-do lists, spreadsheets - they're all informal project management strategies.
While these simple approaches might seem helpful, they weren't designed for managing digital work, it's not always easy (or fast) to get the right information to the right people, at the right time.
Many tools promoted as comprehensive project management systems really only emphasize the execution phase of the project life cycle, with perhaps minor attention given to project coordination and reporting on project outcomes. This means you end up having to invest in an assortment of other tools to manage the full life cycle of your project. That might include a help ticket system to manage project requests.
You'll likely have to invest in a resource planning software to help with the planning or coordination phases. To get the level of project analytics or reporting that you actually need, you'll probably find yourself investing in yet another tool to augment your so-called comprehensive system. Before you know it, you've invested in a dozen or more different tools to help you manage your projects.
And even if your management tool of choice focuses primarily on execution, don't be surprised if it doesn't pay sufficient attention to one of the most critical aspects of project execution – project collaboration. In such cases, you might be tempted to simply fall back onto email, but be careful. In the project management realm, email tends to foster inefficiencies and thwart project accountability. Still, if you go the email route, you'll want to make sure you choose a PPM software that provides the level of email integration you need.
The requirement to invest in so many different tools and systems to successfully manage your projects from beginning to end has caused the term "project management systems" to become something of a misnomer. In response to the confusion created by so many vendors characterizing their less than comprehensive tools as complete project management systems, the terms "work management software" or "enterprise work management" have surfaced.
Modern processes incorporate digital project management tools to automate and streamline the different phases of work. Digital PM tools allow you to standardize your processes, optimize your resources, and improve reporting accuracy to increase project success rate.
Managing projects in the digital age
The idea is that project management systems will actually address the complete project management life cycle. Project management systems should represent everything that you really wanted and expected from the project management tool in the first place. The bottom line is that any search into true workload management tools should actually start with what the end-to-end capabilities of enterprise work management systems can do to facilitate the management of your entire project management lifecycle.
Effective project management begins with a well-thought-out intake process. You need to be able to manage requests in one place - no more work assignments delivered via email, sticky notes, or in meetings. Once you have the ability to see all the work that's coming in, you'll be able to accept the right work, prioritize and assign tasks correctly, and keep your team focused on the most important work.
No company's wallet or talent pool is infinite. At some point, you'll need a way of balancing project timelines and budget with limited resources. This requires you to be able to see what people are working on and quickly assess when they'll be able to take on more work. Evaluating projects and breaking them down into manageable pieces is the first step, but you also need real-time visibility into task turnaround times.
This will help you address the issues that cause gaps between planned vs actual hours. With this information, you'll be able to make smart resource management decisions that have a positive impact on your organization.
Organize tasks and portfolios
The modern enterprise needs more than a tool that just logs tickets. Project management software allows you to organize your work in a way that aligns to business goals. Building hierarchies like programs and portfolios gives you visibility into the status of work happening across your team, leaving you more time to deliver true value.
Project management with Workfront
The right project management software empowers you and your team to do your best work. Workfront's project management software helps you balance expectations with aggressive goals. Your team is able to get more done, without sacrificing quality or running themselves into the ground.
Manually handling repeatable workflows such as routing, reporting, documenting approvals, updating work, and enforcing compliance processes slows you down. Automate project steps and processes, including online proofing, with a tool that allows you to build custom templates and assign work based on role, availability, or skill set.
Collaboration is the cornerstone of innovation, but in many ways, being truly collaborative can slow work down. Sending emails back and forth, scheduling meetings or conference calls, and relying on instant messages make it feel impossible to keep everyone in the loop and keep projects moving forward.
Your project management software needs to have built-in collaboration tools, so your team can have discussions, make decisions, and track progress in a single location—all within the context of work.
Deliver reports and insights
To remain competitive and prove your team’s value, you need to be able to quickly analyze performance and make improvements. You’ll never be able to streamline processes if you don’t have accurate information about your projects, portfolios, and resources. Keep stakeholders in the loop and make sure you’re able to demonstrate your successes or make corrections where projects might be going off-track.
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What is the best project management software for you?
There is no objective "best" project management software solution that will work for every individual, department, or team. But it is possible to find a project management software that is capable of addressing your team's specific needs.
There are some enterprise project management tools that are best for enterprise-level creative teams who blend Agile and Waterfall methodologies. There are other tools that are best for startup tech companies with a total of 5 employees spread across 3 different states.
Here are three unconventional tips that will help you narrow down the literally hundreds of project management software options and find a perfectly suitable choice for your business.
1. Become a better decision maker
What makes a choice hard is the way the alternatives relate. In any easy choice, one alternative is better than the other. In a hard choice, one alternative is better in some ways, the other alternative is better in other ways, and neither is better than the other overall.
In the absence of a clear, obvious choice, you get to say:
We want to work with a company based in our home state
We want the project management solution chosen by tech brands we trust, like Adobe and Cisco
We want to work with a firm that's privately owned-or not
We like the company with the lion logo
We'll make our choice based on who has the most knowledgeable—and least pushy—sales rep
2. Be a satisficer vs. a maximizer
The tide of new software options probably won't recede anytime soon, and it's not going to get any easier to choose the best project management software for your business out of 400+ possibilities.
The answer? Don't decide from a pool of 400+ options. Choose from a pool of 5 options. Don't be a 'maximizer' and seek THE BEST tool. Be a 'satisficer' and test a few likely candidates and choose the best of those.
To find the five solutions you'll evaluate for your business, there are a couple of directions you can go, beyond a simple Google search:
Ask for recommendations from friends who work in similar industries on similar-sized teams
Ask project management experts you are connected to socially
Consult websites that specialize in helping businesses find the right software solutions
3. Weigh simplicity against features
One easy way to narrow down the list of options is to look at the age and size of your team and compare it to the age and size of the potential software solution.
If you're working with a small, startup team, you may find all the features you need in a small, startup project management tool. The newer the tool, the more likely it is to be very simple and intuitive right out of the gate, and to include the latest design and user-experience features. These tools seem sleek, new, cool and easy to use—because they probably are. It's easy to be simple and streamlined when the features are limited.
However, if you are working with a large, complex team, you will likely have needs that extend far beyond what the newest software on the block can offer. Look for an enterprise-level work management tool that has been around for a decade or more, so the vendor has had time to refine their product, build in specialized features and customize it for different needs.
Yes, there will be a greater learning curve and increased complexity with this kind of tool, but the added power and features you'll have at your fingertips will be well worth the time spent getting up to speed.
Forget about finding "The Best"
In a space where there are more choices than anyone could ever wrap their brain around, these three unconventional tips can help you find a perfectly suitable project management software for your business.
First, realize that hard choices are hard because there is no objective best option. Pro-con lists won't always do the trick. So own your team's destiny as you choose your own reasons and decide based on those reasons.
Second, narrow down the possibilities to a manageable number (5 for example), before doing an in-depth evaluation. You'll find that acting like a satisficer instead of a maximizer will make you just as happy with your choice in the long run—maybe even happier.
And third, be sure to weigh simplicity against functionality, depending on the size and scope of the work you do, as you narrow down your options and make your final choice.
Even if you don't end up with the very best project management software known to all humankind, if it adequately addresses your needs and makes your work life easier, then that's all that matters.
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