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Project management software gives you and your team a centralized dashboard to keep track of complex or long-term business projects.

Using project management software is one of the primary strategies that fast-moving and efficient companies use to get ahead of the competition. By completing long-term, high-stakes projects faster and more effectively, you can increase your revenue and decrease your costs.

Why use project management software?

Once a project reaches a certain level of complexity, it becomes increasingly inefficient to rely on ad-hoc methods like hand-scrawled Post-It Notes, informal meetings, or sporadic email chains. Whether you are launching a product, publishing a book, fixing flawed software, or renovating your storefront, projects have a tendency to exponentially increase in their complexity as their size or duration increases.

Human memory is pretty limited—people can only keep a handful of things in their working memory at a time, and once your project has more than a few moving parts, your team’s efficiency will slow down dramatically unless you implement a systematic and consistent approach to project management.

If you’ve ever had a team member spend hours fixing a problem, only to realize it had already been fixed, or had to convene yet another hour-long meeting just to get everyone on the same page about a project you haven’t looked at since last month, you know how much time can be wasted through poorly organized projects.

Today, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a top-performing company, big or small, that does not use project management software as part of its overall project management philosophy. Effective project management becomes increasingly important as company size increases, but even among teams of just two, three, or ten people, project management confers a huge advantage.

The difficulty of completing a project hinges both on the number of people and involved and the complexity of the problem to be solved. Since most business endeavors today involve tough, important problems, the need for project management software is more pressing than ever.

Project management software is also incredibly useful for cost management. Especially for service-based companies, it can be extremely difficult to predict project costs, and to identify the biggest cost (and time) sinks in your company’s services or projects.

Because project management software lets you set up a customized pipeline for your project, tracking tasks done at every step from inception to completion, it’s far easier to pinpoint what’s bogging down your projects, and what’s costing your company the most money.

Who uses project management software?

The most common users of project management software are—you guessed it—project managers, of course. Once a company reaches a certain size, it becomes necessary to hire people whose primary responsibility is making sure projects stay on track.

Despite the close connection between project managers and project management software, it’s a huge mistake to think that they’re the only ones who need to be trained in on your project management software.

Anyone who is responsible for helping to move projects through the pipeline needs to be able to use your company’s project management software as a starting point for their to-do list, and needs to be able to post updates to the status of a particular project or a particular task.

Employees that do just one thing probably don’t need to use project management software—but their direct superiors do. Task assignment (or delegation) and checkup on a delegated task is one of the core functions provided by any project management software system, which is why anybody in a management role that touches your projects needs to be clued in to use your project management system.

In many companies, project management is synonymous with time management. A well-scoped project that fails, or that gets behind and misses a deadline, is usually caused by poorly managed time: focusing too much on unimportant problems, or having employees with nothing to do because the project is stuck on a previous step.

Project management software tools like Gantt charts make these dependencies explicit, helping you anticipate issues and solve them before they derail your project.

Having half a dozen different strategies for project management is almost as bad as having no strategy at all: disorganized, poorly attended-to project management strategies can make a huge mess of any attempt to keep your projects on track.

That is why appropriate change management is essential for making the most of your project management software, so make sure your change management team is on board as well.

Features

Most modern project management software is cloud-based. Older project management systems used to be hosted locally, either on your company’s server or even on your own laptop or PC.

Today, with companies using project management software in a wider variety of settings and with teams dispersed around the world, cloud-based project management software (usually purchased from a software as a service, or SaaS, company) is the norm.

Cloud-based software is a natural choice for project management, because of its intrinsically collaborative nature. The vast majority of businesses will be adding more than one person to their project management software, so a cloud-based system is the most seamless way to encourage collaboration.

Unusually, this trait is shared both among good inexpensive or free project management software and more expensive project management suites: cloud-based access means you can keep track of your projects anytime and anywhere. You also don’t have to worry about the IT headaches that can come with hosting your own project management software.

There are a few exceptions, like Microsoft Project and Jive, but these tend to be oriented towards large organizations that have the IT chops to handle hosting project management software internally, as well as supporting any external connectivity (e.g. to mobile phones) that’s needed.

Higher-end systems offer more automation and customization, but at a greater cost and training time expense. As with many other types of business-oriented software suites, choosing project management software can involve a tradeoff between ease of use and advanced functionality. Higher-end project management software is doing a better job with making basic features, like Kanban boards and Gantt charts, usable with a minimum of training even while providing options for power users like automated reminders, auto-responses, and time tracking. Still, ultra-lean and simple systems like Trello have an edge when it comes to ease of use, because you can get a new user up and running extremely quickly. There’s less of a need for a long launch period or a “go-live” with lightweight project management software, but at the same time, you miss out on the cutting edge features.

If you need document tracking and file sharing, look for higher-end project management software. If your company does document-intensive work like contracts or logo design, or if your projects involve constantly tweaking and revising files (architecture, CAD modeling, etc.), you’ll want to opt for higher end project management software that has better integration for document tracking and revising.

While most project management software lets you attach files to projects, tasks, or cards, higher end software offers tighter version control, the ability to compare versions and manage version changes, and the ability to handle larger files.

Many good project management software systems today also support integration with other file versioning solutions like Dropbox and GitHub. These external tools could be a good alternative, particularly if you use them already (e.g. like a software company that already has Git set up to manage software versions).

Just make sure your project management team links up these external tools to your project management software, otherwise you run the risk of having two parallel management tools in use: one for file versioning, and one for project management. That can only lead to trouble.

Make sure the reporting features in your project management software lets you identify and report your key performance indicators (KPIs). Thanks to the advent of business and data analytics, companies are relying more than ever on specific metrics of success.

These key performance indicators, or KPIs, vary from company to company and industry to industry. These might be as simple as sales volume, or could be more complex or detailed metrics like inventory turnover, billable hours in specific areas, or time to market.

Since KPIs are so idiosyncratic to different industries and even different management and leadership styles, your KPI needs will differ from other companies, which may mean that the right choice for a project management software is different for your company even than a direct competitor.

Software and app companies may need application programming interface (API) integration in their project management software. While API usage in project management software is a niche need, it’s nevertheless incredibly useful for the set of businesses that lean heavily on apps and software systems they have already developed.

Project management software that can be interacted with via an API doesn’t tend to follow the same cost/feature breakdown as other features: for example, Trello, which is traditionally thought of as a simple and inexpensive project management software, offers great API functionality, while some of the very expensive high-end systems don’t offer APIs for your developers to use at all.

If APIs aren’t something you deal with on a regular basis, don’t worry about it: you probably don’t need advanced API functionality in your project management software.

FAQ

Q: What is a Kanban board in project management software?

A: A Kanban board is a project management tool that was created long before project management software: original Kanban boards were simple bulletin boards or whiteboards with discrete steps for a project, with time flowing from left to right.

Different tasks that needed to be completed were listed on individual cards, which could be moved around (e.g. from “In Development” to “Quality Testing”). A Kanban board provides a one-stop dashboard to visualize the current status of a project.

In project management software, Kanban boards can get supercharged with extra features, like attaching files to cards, triggering automated email alerts when a card moves into a new area, and assigning individual users to specific tasks.

Trello and Kanboard are the best-known example of Kanban style project management, but they’re far from the only ones. Many high quality project management software suites offer Kanban boards. Monday.com, Hive, and Wrike are just a few examples of project management software suites that offer Kanban boards.

Q: What is SaaS project management software?

A: SaaS stands for “software as a service,” which today is virtually synonymous with cloud-based software. Most project management software solutions today are SaaS project management software systems, though there are a few exceptions, like Microsoft Project and Jive.

SaaS project management tools are great because they offload the work of hosting and supporting the project management software, which makes SaaS an excellent choice for small and mid range companies.

Big companies with large IT teams can sometimes benefit from hosting their own project management software, but even large corporations are becoming more likely to outsource their project management system elsewhere to free up their internal IT resources.

Q: What do low end project management software tools have in common?

A: The defining features of lower end project management software tools are their limited number of advanced or customizable features, and more difficulties with scaling up to large numbers of users or very complex task pipelines.

Advanced features, mostly to do with automation (like automated invoicing for internal business, for example), are usually only available on higher end project management software. With lower end project management software, attaching files is more rudimentary, and it’s harder to manage different versions of the same file, and the system may struggle with files that are too big.

While low end project management tools can, in principle, handle large numbers of users, one of the ways these companies make money is by putting a substantial price hike on the monthly subscription fee once you pass a moderate number of users.

This means they can be fantastic choices for small businesses, but once your company starts to grow, they can become much more expensive per user than a midrange or even a high end project management software system.

Q: What is issue tracking for project management software?

A: Issue tracking is a particular feature that crops up when a team is using project management software to track development of software, an app, or other product that customers will heavily interact with. Issues can crop up at any time from project inception to market deployment or after, and these issues (software bugs, incompatible sub-systems, broken features) can become sticking points anywhere along the project pipeline.

Project management software systems that have integrated issue tracking, like Jive and others, help you keep tabs on your issues and decide when to prioritize them. One problem some companies run into is trying to fix every issue immediately: this can bog down your entire project and distract you from bigger problems looming in the future.

In contrast, forgetting about issues raised earlier in the development process can also be disastrous. Project management software is perfectly suited for ensuring that issues are tracked and dealt with before they hold up anything else.

Q: Is a Gantt chart a project management software?

A: Gantt charts have been around for a lot longer than project management software, but their use has really taken off thanks to the ability to create dynamic, multi-level Gantt charts in project management software. Along with Kanban boards, Gantt charts are one of the key project management tools you’ll find in just about any project management software system.

In its simplest form, a Gantt chart lists out the various tasks that need to happen to complete a project, but critically, show their dependencies. So, if a product can’t go into production until the engineering team has approved the final blueprint, “start production” is listed chronologically after “engineering team approval of blueprint,” and is listed as a dependency of that task.

Gantt charts are a powerful way to visualize task dependencies and identify sticking points: urgent tasks that need to be taken care of before further steps of the project can move forward. When you are training your team on your project management software, make sure they learn how to use the Gantt chart tool to keep all of your projects running smoothly.

Q: Can you get project management software for free?

A: Many inexpensive options for project management software offer either a free trial or completely free usage of the software, with some restrictions. Typically, these restrictions have to do with the number of users, or the size and number of projects you can have active at once.

Trello, for example, has a free plan that limits you to 10 team boards at a time. Adding more users, adding more automated reminders, or adding more projects requires upgrading to a paid plan.

Project management software companies usually rely on these free trials or free limited-feature versions of their software to get you to upgrade to the paid version, so many of the best features, like automation and collaboration, are available but restricted in the free version.

Q: How do you get your team to learn to use project management software?

A: Getting your team to get on board with switching to a new project management software (or starting to work with one for the first time) can require some artful change management.

As fickle and limited as your team’s old methods were, people get quite attached to their habits, whether that means lists tacked to the wall or sprawling color-coded Excel spreadsheets. Instead of pointing out the flaws in your employees’ current project management tactics, it’s better to show examples of how the new project management system will make their work life easier.

File versioning, drag-and-drop task cards, and automated reminders are all features that are easy to use and offer huge productivity boosts compared to haphazard or old-fashioned project management tools. Get your team on board with these, and the change process will go much easier.

Q: What is the difference between low end and midrange project management software?

A: With low end project management software, you can typically get basic functions like Kanban (Trello-style) boards, Gantt charts, and automated reminders. It costs a bit more to scale up these project management tools to a larger base of employees, and you tend to have the same useful but limited set of tools at your disposal.

In contrast, a mid-range project management software suite tends to have better automation and more functionality for power users. Document tracking and file versioning is often another differentiating factor between the low end and the midrange of project management software.

If all you need is basic functionality, even a large company may benefit from a low end product as long as the core functions are good: one benefit of a simpler project management software system is that you have to do less training to learn how to use it effectively.

Q: How should small businesses use project management software?

A: When you have a small team working on each project, like most small businesses do, the most complex problems you need to address don’t generally have to do with people—instead, they tend to be rooted in the nature of the projects themselves.

The first challenge that faces small businesses is cutting down large, long-term projects into manageable pieces. The second is making sure each employee can juggle specific tasks from multiple long-term projects at once.

As a rule, the smaller the company, the more roles any one employee has to fill. This is exactly why project management software can be so useful for small businesses: by explicitly laying out the timelines and dependencies of all of your company’s projects, you won’t lose time when one project is tied up, and your team can always be spending their time in the most effective way possible.

Recap

If your business has complex, multifaceted projects that are difficult to get a handle on, you need project management software to keep your company’s projects running smoothly and efficiently.

At the end of the day, companies complete more projects, and do in less time with lower costs, are the ones that win out in a competitive market. Choosing the right project management software can help ensure that your company is among those that come out ahead.