Project management software is for people with problems. What problems? Problems managing projects, of course! That means problems keeping track of assigned tasks, or of jobs that are under reviews. Or even problems remembering who you assigned a task to in the first place! If you run a small business, manage a team, or even freelance with numerous projects ongoing at once, you probably know the feeling of getting a little overwhelmed by all the details. Even if you’re not a business owner, but just a person in charge of a single project, it can be easy to lose track of what’s happening.
People have always had problems organizing projects, so most people have resorted to their own little methods to help out. You might be a post-it note person, always jotting notes and slapping pieces of paper on a whiteboard - or even all around the house. Or you might be a bit old-fashioned and prefer to make a list of projects with pen-and-paper.
Adding to the whole mess is the Internet itself. Managing details is not a new problem, but the Internet certainly highlights how hard it can be to keep track of everything. If you’ve run a project online, you’ll know full well how confusing the process can be. Emails get lost; contact numbers misplaced; workers on the same team neglecting to inform a different team; message replies getting sent to the wrong people; and of course, simply forgetting who was assigned what task.
That’s where project management software comes in.
Project management programs streamline everything. No more forgetting who you put in charge - just look at the assigned tasks and see. No missed deadlines; set deadlines and reminders for specific tasks and people. Project management software offers the best parts of all the old methods, from pen-and-paper to post-its.
We’ll discuss some of the best features of project management tools, along with the benefits they provide and the challenges they pose. We’ll also cover common features for project management software, including how they are typically priced, what problems they are intended to solve, and common ways that people misuse them.
Pricing and delivery
Today the majority of software companies have adopted what is known as the SaaS pricing model. SaaS stands for Software as a Service and refers to cloud-based software that is sold on a monthly license basis. The days of installing software on each of your company machines and needing an IT manager are long gone. Now you access the software you need via a normal web browser.
The software is updated automatically as part of your monthly license, and your data is stored safely in the cloud. Pricing models vary from each provider, depending on features and levels of service, but as a rule, one of the largest benefits of SaaS is that you only pay for what you use. Your software costs are directly in line with your team size.
You’ll find that most SaaS programs, like Wrike or Asana, offer a number of pricing plans. Some are aimed at solo users and entrepreneurs, while others will be targeted more for corporate accounts. The price range for these programs varies; if you want to manage your own personal project better, Trello offers a basic version for free, with no expiration. If you need group access for your small team or business, you have to move to a more expensive plan, but one with better collaborative support.
In a nutshell, that’s the basic PGMT SaaS model - not a one-size-fits-all idea, but software that comes in a variety of packages. That flexibility can be incredibly helpful for users just starting with a PGMT tool; you could actually try several PGMT options without a large initial adjustment. You can be confident that what you're going to discover here about project management tools is going to require an investment of your time, not money.
Problems to be solved
While no two project management solutions are the same, all of them are geared towards solving some of the same issues. Here are a few of the most crucial ones.
Capturing and organizing
The author David Allen describes a principle known as the GTD (Getting Things Done) Principle. He argues that the very first steps in increasing productivity are to capture and organize the tasks in our head.
Why is the capture-and-organize idea so important? Without it, our brains struggle to ever get an idea off the ground. Your mind simply bounces from pending task to pending task, unable to focus on anything fully until it has successfully captured a task and organized into a recognizable workflow.
The idea isn’t as complicated as it sounds. Anyone who has experienced their mind racing in bed at night, unable to “turn off,” has experienced something similar. That’s why many people keep a piece of paper and pen by the bed; they can capture those racing thoughts and organize them on the paper - and usually get back to sleep quickly afterward.
A good project management tool helps declutter your mind, but more importantly it helps organize your thoughts and turn them into action. Don’t use scattered notes around your desk, post-its on your monitor, or even emailing yourself messages with “DO THIS” in the subject line. Instead, use your project management software to organize everything.
Capturing ideas and arranging tasks isn’t something that only happens during office hours, so we also recommend software with a strong mobile app that works alongside the desktop version. Everyone’s “capture and organize” habits will work a little differently, so don’t be afraid to buy a waterproof phone for the shower if that works best for you!
After you’ve captured the ideas, organize them in one central location (the software you’ve chosen). How you organize them depends partly on you and partly on the project management software you choose.
Notice that some tools, like Asana and Trello, actually try to visually capture the “capture and organize” idea. Trello uses job boards that can be moved around and re-arranged, giving users an instant picture of where a project is at.
Now that you have a list of tasks all in one place and under a few headings, you can begin the process of adding due dates and owners to each of them. This can be time-consuming initially, and it may feel as if you are adding to your workflow, not improving it. But the time spent upfront on task management will be repaid later on with fewer emails, smoother meetings, and more frequent progress updates.
For most small business owners, the idea of a software-based approach to project management is completely foreign. They tend to rely on spreadsheets or email to get things done.
Good project management lets you track your tasks much more closely and accurately. You can track:
- Tasks with owners
- Tasks with due dates
- Recurring tasks
- Assignment (who has what tasks)
- Estimated time till completion
Not every project management SaaS will have all of that list, but these are all commonly-tracked features.
Collaboration (Remote Team) and Communication
It can be hard for two people to keep on the same page - let alone a team of two employees, three freelancers, and a consultant. With more people than ever working from home and working remotely, often even internationally, collaboration and communication are some of the toughest project management problems to solve.
Project management software addresses this problem by dividing the workflow for a particular project into discrete, bite-sized chunks. Rather than chase a project manager up to ask about the status of an entire project, you can message a freelancer about the page of content he needed to write. Each section is short, actionable, and therefore easier to collaborate on.
That raises one of the single greatest advantages of the SaaS project management model. Users all over the world can be given access to the same project, typically with an integrated messaging system. This reduces email significantly, but more importantly, moves the conversation into actionable chunks rather than complicated email threads with no accountability.
Coordinating asynchronous work
“Synchronous” communication is face-to-face or real-time communication. A conversation on the shop floor about a project is an example of synchronous work. But “asynchronous” work occurs when the people involved are communicating over email or some other delayed messaging service.
Asynchronous work relies on asynchronous communication, meaning that one or more parties are separated by time and space from the other. In today’s world, given the explosion of remote work, projects are more likely than ever to involve workers from all over the globe, working at all hours of the day and night.
Project management software lets you tie all that asynchronous work into one unified package. You can see what was done, by whom, and when, letting you know that your team in China isn’t falling behind, even when you never work on the project at the same time.
Project management software allows collaboration:
- Across time zones
- Between teams
- Between clients
- With contractors or freelancers
While every project manager faces problems of task management and communication, there’s another problem that can be a bit harder to grasp. Task management is just part of the overall workflow; visualizing and enabling that workflow is often the difference between a project’s success or failure.
Software that has strong functionality allows you to build out workflows and take them from your head onto the page. A lot of these are paid options but they are there ready for when you expand beyond the core functionality of the PMGT. The ability to conceive and visualize the flow of an entire project, from start to finish, helps to keep every other aspect on target.
Many business operators who work for themselves deliver projects to clients, customers, or even partners. Project management software allows users to deliver custom reports on each project, fantastic for demonstrating results to current clients - or potential ones.
The ability to see what’s going on with a given project, at any one point, also reduces the need for internal meetings. Status reports don’t need to be delivered verbally, one person at a time, in an interminable meeting; they can simply be viewed directly within the PGMT software.
Features to look for
What should the ideal project management SaaS offer? What features do you need to look for?
- Task management with dates
While the vast majority of these programs allows the user to track individual tasks, look for ones that let you assign specific due dates. The more detailed you can be when assigning tasks, the more control you’ll have over the entire process.
Recurring tasks is another feature that fits in here. The ability to automate key tasks can give your workflow a massive boost.
- Free version with no time limits
Look for software that has a free version, preferably without a short time limit. You may eventually upgrade to a paid version, but in the meantime you should start with a no-pressure free version. Note that “free” and “trial” versions aren’t always the same; most programs have trial versions that are free but short-lived. Some PGMT programs have limited-function free versions that last indefinitely, giving you more flexibility with your options.
- Usability and learning curve
Some programs are easier to learn than others. That doesn’t make any one program better than the others, but beware spending so much time trying to master a particularly complicated program that you actually reduce your productivity, rather than enhance it.
- Mobile app
Mobile app support should be a given. Projects often require travel and being on the go - your project management software needs to keep up.
Does a given PGMT software integrate with Slack? Email? Other apps? With the right support, PGMT apps can become the powerhouse that drives much of your business.
- Support and development
Look at the team behind the management software you choose. How often are updates rolled out? Is there an active community of users? These are both good indicators of the overall “health” of a particular SaaS.
Tips and tricks
Project management software can be complicated; that’s often a good thing, because it can indicate a good depth of usability and rich features. But don’t jump into a new program headlong; look for companies that offer good onboarding support to help you master your new tool quickly and efficiently.
Choose one member of your company, someone who will be using the new program regularly, to become the designated super-user. Their job will be to know all the ins and outs of the program; a sort of in-house master. They can also police the structure, ensuring that projects don’t get overwhelmed with endless lists of pointless tasks and drown out the ability to actually track any progress.
You need project management if you want increased productivity
Good PGMT software solves all the problems we listed earlier, from task management to workflow visualization. At the end of the day, it does what all PGMT techniques have always done, digitally or on paper; it increases productivity and decreases stress and inefficiency. The more streamlined your projects are, the more projects you’ll get done, and the more profit you’ll see.
Project Management Software
We've put together a comprehensive list of over 300 project management software companies designed to meet any need.
If you're pushed for time, here's a simple list of some of the most popular project management software companies of 2020 (clicking on the name will take you to a page with more information on each of them)