Thursday, May 21, 2009

Project Management Tools: What Your Features Cost You

So, you're managing three people. Or a dozen. Or a hundred. You've gotten yourself some souped-up and studly project management tools that claim to do 90% of the work for you. And yet, you don't get to spend your time cooking up visionary new plans with your clients. You don't get to provide leadership, or high-level guidance.

Your project management tools fired you as project manager, and hired you back as a typist.

"How did my project management tools take over my life?

You have to hand it to the folks who develop project management tools. Something big like Teamcenter or MS Office Project Server has everything -- kitchen sink included. If you want to track something unusual, deal with complex resource allocation, crank out Gantt charts, standardize reporting, define metrics, contact stakeholders, and map out dependencies, you can do it.

The problem is, if you can do it, nobody wants to give you a system that doesn't force you to do it. Sure, you can produce awesome charts of your progress -- but only if you put that progress on hold in order to input all the data that necessary for those charts. What if you just want to get started? What if you don't know how many resources you'll need, or how you want people allocated? What if you're dealing with a dynamic competitive situation, and you need the flexibility to change course halfway through, repurpose resources and projects towards new goals, and respond to new threats.

In other words, what if all the assumptions that go into your project management tools have a nasty encounter with real life?

Changing the direction of a huge project is like trying to steer the Titanic (and the result is often the same: in the end, you sink it). The problem isn't projects, though: it's the fact that your average project management tool does more than it needs to instead of doing the same stuff better.

"How can I take control again?"

In the short term? You can't. Big project management tools impose a huge amount of overhead. You spend so much time filling out forms, pushing buttons, flipping switches, and fiddling with settings that you can't get your head above water long enough to invest in something new.

What you'd like to be able to do is start over with something small and simple, that gets the job done. You'd like to start over, defining small tasks and handing them off to people who can get them done, getting status reports when you can use them instead of when your software thinks you need them -- of feeling a sense of accomplishment when you get something done, not when your project management tools leave you alone.

Our little secret

You can't start over -- but you can start somewhere. Carve out a sub-project, give your people some autonomy, and (pssst!) don't tell your project management tools what you've done. The carve-out can start small, and grow from there. And when you start your next project, you'll know for sure whether you want the project management tools that can do everything, or the ones that can do one thing right.

Don't let project management tools demote you, especially if they're supposed to make you a more effective at your job. Don't fall for the promise that your software can do it all. 10% more features mean 100% more headaches. Pick the project management tools that treat you like an adult. You can't go wrong with Basecamp.