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The best project management tool

I often get the question, “what project management tools do you like best?” My first answer is to employ my favorite pointer finger and tap the side of my head and say, “the best tool is your brain.” And I’m being totally serious.

Of course, most organizations are really asking, “which tool do I have to implement so that all of my project problems disappear forever?” Well, when you find it, do let us know! Projects will always be tough. And why is that? Because each one is unique (per the Project Management Institute definition). And unique means, in the history of the world, no one has ever done this thing before. In this time, in this place, with these people…something makes the effort truly unique. Hence, the “brain” answer. You cannot mindlessly be on autopilot in "projectland." And, if you have a fairly complex project, you start to realize that a real scheduling tool would be really helpful in planning it right and then keeping it on plan. Spreadsheets like Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets are great for many things, but scheduling isn’t one of them.

First, do you need a “real scheduling tool” at all? If your project is fairly simple, only a few weeks and has a few tight-knit folks working together in person, post-it notes on a wall may be a fine enabler. However, if your project has even one of the following attributes, you may need a real scheduling tool:

  • Complex – a strong indicator of complexity is that you can’t see the critical path using post-its

  • Fixed time – you can’t move the end date

  • High priority – you can’t afford to mess it up

  • Lots of linked tasks and handoffs – we call these predecessors

  • Resource-intensive – lots of resource needs, especially in a matrix environment

  • Risky – high likelihood of unexpected issues that could derail your plan

  • Tight timeline – you’re stressed that there isn’t enough time

  • Intuition – if you have a feeling it would be helpful, you’re probably right

In an organization where single projects benefit from a scheduling tool, at some point people start to realize that being able to take it up a level and see across projects would be really helpful. That’s where Project Portfolio Management (PPM) tools come in. But which one is best? Well, the answer is “it depends.” It depends, of course, on the problems you are trying to solve and some other organizational factors. Next are three common hurdles that PPM tools typically are brought in to an organization to solve.

1. Competing for Resources

Female Basketball Coach

Where there are a bunch of projects competing for the same human resources or equipment, timelines can easily get pushed out because each project makes their own assumption that resources will be available when they need them per their schedules. In a world running lean, that is rarely the case. We just don’t have the luxury of a bunch of superstars sitting on the bench eager to get called into the game and ready to jump up at the whistle. Perhaps you’ve wondered how to make sure that every project isn’t asking for SuperJane on the same day, because if they are, all but one of them will be impacted. Wouldn’t it be nice to prevent those collisions BEFORE every project manager is waiting in a line outside of Jane’s office wondering when she will be done with the task that is due that day, Jane gets all stressed out and we start to worry that our best resource will burn out and leave us? Oh, yes it would. We call this solution Resource Management.

2. Planning at the Organizational Level

Let’s say you are preparing for your organization’s joyous “budget season.” Wouldn’t it be nice to quickly see all of the projects in-progress and how far they are planned into the future, so that you can predict the financial and other resources (like skills and equipment) that may be needed to accomplish not only everything that is continuing into the next year, but also new things that you know you want to get done, and leave room for some things that may currently be unclear. To answer questions like, “how much funding should we ask for,” and “what MUST we get done next year” and “what do we need to do to give ourselves the best chance at success for the top priority projects,” the solution is Portfolio Management.

3. Driving Consistency & Confidence

A major benefit that Project Portfolio Management tools bring is creating a consistent experience regardless of the humans involved. And a major benefit of driving consistency is throughput. You can get more done with the same resources because everything goes more smoothly. When every sponsor and team member says, “I hear you. I get it. I’ve seen this before. I know what to do.” Then, because we no longer need to educate, motivate and cajole, everything goes so much more smoothly and even faster. And when industry best practices are followed, new staff are more quickly productive.

Yes, it really works. Once upon a time in the Fortune 500, there was a project manager who was an expert on SAP projects and brought into the PMO to formalize her project management skills. She was taking her team through the scheduling process, and one person on her team had been a real resister to planning. He just wanted to jump in and start doing work. She asked at the end of their Microsoft Project walkthrough meeting, “ok team, how do you all feel about this schedule. Have we covered everything you can think of right now?” He looked at her in disbelief and said, “if we follow this plan and do all of these things, we can’t lose!” What a great day that was! On the next project, no matter who the project manager was, that resister was already bought into the planning process. Boom.

Together we call them PPM. So, enterprise-level solutions commonly referred to as Project Portfolio Management (PPM) tools, can be great ENABLERS especially for not only project management, but also portfolio management and resource management. These are like three gears that work together. But just like every other tool implementation, without clarity around the business needs, the right thinking about what you need the tool to do (requirements) and the right training, incentives and demonstration of management support (change management), you could purchase a tool that doesn’t work, doesn’t work like you want it to or worse, becomes a DISABLER.

In our next post, we’ll explore these topics further with the help of the first person to ever say the words “project management” to me, Bill Gundrum. He and other PMOtigers have helped so many organizations evaluate tools and find the right one for them. Bill is also an absolute expert in Microsoft Project, Microsoft Project Server and Project Online, which is Microsoft’s newish cloud-based alternative to Server.


Build Your Scheduling Skills

If your projects don’t meet the “you need a scheduling tool” criteria discussed above, we have a mini-course focused on scheduling basics with hands-on practice using Trello and an exploration of the pros and cons of popular enablers, including Microsoft Project. This is a great session for the whole team, so they can appreciate the need to do some collaborative planning rather than immediately running in potentially different directions.

If you believe that your projects often do meet the "you need a real scheduling tool" criteria, we can help get everyone on the same page quickly. Whether you are already using or considering Microsoft Project or other scheduling tools, note that they are NOT intuitive like other Microsoft Office tools. So, we highly recommend our half-day hands-on workshop to cover the essentials followed by coaching and/or advanced training to harness the power of the tool, achieve consistency across your organization and feel confident in your ability to "plan the work and work the plan."

Schedule a call to discuss your organization's needs with one of our friendly PMOtigers today!


About the Author: Dawn Mahan, PMP, is the Founder & CEO of PMOtraining, LLC., and has used everything from post-it notes to Trello to Microsoft Project to high-powered Project Portfolio Management (PPM) tools, but her favorite tool is still "the brain." Now she's the author of the upcoming book, Accomplish More. Stress Less. The Practical Guide to Driving Successful Projects. Sign up for our mailing list to receive special announcements, offers and news about the book.

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