Having been a project manager in a past life, and still working day to day on projects, I watch with interest the deployment of a range of web based project management tools. In a lot of ways it’s like a dream come true. For most of us, Microsoft Project – the only real project management tool available beforehand – is possibly the most over featured piece of software in the world.
I’ve heard it said that most people only use about 5% of Microsoft Word’s functionality… I can’t imagine what a miniscule proportion of functionality most people use in Microsoft Project. And like MS Word but worse, often times that unused functionality would rear up and cause problems for users who didn’t understand it or weren’t aware of it.
Not only that, but it’s also prohibitively expensive. So unless you’re working in a company where they’ve got the finance and inclination to pay for your license fee – you’re unlikely to get access to it.
Then along comes 37 Signals with Basecamp, BackPack and TaDa Lists . Project managers everywhere were ecstatic (not to mention all those David Allen Getting Things Done disciples). With the ability to create and assign tasks, to post messages, to do simple scheduling and starting at the bargain price of free – 37 Signals and their products soon had a lot of evangelists wondering aloud how they ever managed without these web based project management tools.
Just last night I got my invitation to check out GoPlan. It’s been developed by the team at WeBreakStuff, so I had pretty high expectations. These guys think a lot about usability and user experience, so their work should be top notch. And, I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed.
GoPlan is a spunky looking piece of web application, and it has lots of great functionality.
You can create multiple projects with multiple users (users with varied permission to access content and functionality), there’s notes, a project blog, a calendar, a file upload.
GoPlan also has two similar but different sections called Tasks and Tickets. Tasks, I assume, are things you have to do in the course of the project. You can assign it to a category but not a person, and you can assign a deadline to it (although, strangely that doesn’t make it show up in the calendar). Tickets, I assume, are for bugs and variations. You can assign a priority, a severity (is it just me, or are these two *very* similar criteria… when is a critical severity ever a low priority? I guess there are exceptions… nevermind, tangent).
Oh, and there’s a cool inbuilt ‘chat’ so you can have your rapid fire online discussions AND keep a record of what you actually decided!
All good. All a lot like the 37 Signals offering. But all slightly disappointing to someone who’s managed some reasonably complex projects in her time.
I never thought I’d say it, but I miss the Gantt Chart.
I think it’s quite interesting that both 37 Signals and WeBreakStuff have not used any visualisation tools as a part of their project management offerings. (Well, ok GoPlan has a calendar… do we count that? I might if their task deadlines integrated with the calendar, so for now.. no).
One of the most recognisable features of Microsoft Project is the Gantt chart it generates. Back when I used to make lots of big MS Project files, I thought that I was really just making those charts for my clients (they’re pretty, they look seriously impressive – wow! that’s one complicated project!… this was before Getting Real, ok!)
Interestingly, if you take a look at 37 Sig’s Manifesto for BaseCamp, this is one of the first things you’ll read:
Projects don’t fail from of a lack of charts, graphs, reports, or statistics, they fail from a lack of communication.
Ah yes. But what I’ve come to notice is that charts, graphs, reports and statistics do more than just impress clients. And they can play an important role in communication, and motivation.
What is a Gantt Chart? Well, GanttChart.com (yeah, who knew!) says:
A Gantt chart is a graphical representation of the duration of tasks against the progression of time.
You can see why that might come in handy.
At a simplistic level – nothing focusses attention like a Gantt Chart with lots of red on it – indicating that you’re way behind schedule.
On a more practical level – when constructing project plans, I’ve come to realise how much I did actually rely on the Gantt Chart to help eliminate errors in my scheduling, and to quickly see the implications of alternate scheduling, risks and delays.
When reviewing a complex project plan to see if I’d made errors in scheduling, or understanding project relationships, or if I’d just missed lots of stuff out – it was the Gantt Chart that would most quickly let me know if I’d stuffed up. Breaks in the flow, a critical path that just stops (before the end of the project), tasks that just look too long or too short compared to the tasks around them – all rapid visual indicators that something’s not right.
It get’s really hard and boring to read through a long list of tasks, and even more difficult to understand the relationships between tasks in this format. This is where the Gantt Chart comes into it’s own. Relationships between tasks and groups of tasks are immediately apparent. Tasks that are on the critical path are obvious.
In retrospect, I’d have to say that Gantt Charts were really important in eliminating errors in project planning for me, back in the day.
So, the Gantt Chart is much more than just client eye candy. It also plays a real role in faciliating the detailed planning phase of the project. It also helps with rapid comprehension of project progress and task relationships as the project continues.
Gantt Charts allow you to understand how long your project is going to take, in what order tasks need to be undertaken (no, it’s not always self evident!), and what tasks are dependent on other tasks. This means that if you move tasks around, or some tasks get delayed, you can see what’s going to happen to your project as a result.
This is all really handy stuff to know if you’re managing a team and have a deadline. It helps you communicate within the team, and to your client, early and accurately. It helps everyone make decisions.
In both the 37 Signals products as in GoPlan, there seems to be no notion of a critical path, or dependencies between tasks. To me, that means that I either have to work a lot harder to keep my projects under control or to impose a structure of my own, or that these products are only intended for reasonably simple projects where, perhaps, the deadline is not such a big deal.
I’ve been using BackPack and BaseCamp for almost as long as they’ve been available, and I have to say that they’ve certainly been valuable to me. Particularly when I was freelancing and had to manage my own tasks on several projects. In these cases though, when I was working on big projects, I was a resource (information architect) and someone else was a project manager who had the biggest Gantt Chart you’ve ever seen in your life! (I needed a separate tool just to manage my tasks!)
I find it intriguing that both 37 Sigs and GoPlan seem to have taken such an anti-chart approach to their tools (and there’s much more than just the Gantt chart that they could have included). I suspect it’s to do with the lack of the critical path. Or perhaps, they’re not actually *project* management tools, but ‘sets of tasks’ tools.
Either way – if any one’s planning a web based PM tool that *does* include a critical path and some pretty pictures… I’d really love to see it!