The 3 Essential Project Management Tools

You know, there are a few essential project management tools that will enhance your chances of success in delivering a project. I've used these tools consistently over my career as a project manager and I believe they will help you too.

The truth is, project management is a huge undertaking (especially for large projects) and you need systems and tools to support you from the back.

It's like steering a ship - you need to know there are dependable mechanisms and engines in the backroom which you can depend on no matter what kind of rough seas and weather you face.

Here are the three essential project management tools which I propose every project manager should have. Think of them as the secret “bag of tricks” that you can pull out whenever you're in need:

  • Project management software
  • Project management templates
  • Project management approaches

1. Project Management Software

First up, let's talk about project management software. In my opinion, there are various types of software that help the project manager succeed:

  • Project planning software - there are a LOT of them out there but three which come to mind include Microsoft Project, Basecamp and Wrike.

    Microsoft Project is a heavy duty piece of software that lends industrial strength to project planning. You can quickly and easily set up a project plan with tasks, start dates and end dates, dependencies, resources and Gantt charts.

    You can enter designated holidays and enter resource names, identify the critical path of a project and individually color code your project bars and customize reports. If you're savvy, you can even automate it so that tasks (e.g. Workstream 1 workshops, Workstream 2 workshops) and their durations are automatically calculated and inserted into the plan.

    As you recall, I'm a fan of simple project plans. I believe a large part of project management sits outside of the software project plan. So I create one that I need, with no frills and no fuss - and then focus on actually executing it.

  • Collaboration software - If you look on the Internet, there are all sorts of project management software programs popping up. These are not exactly project planning tools in the way Microsoft Project is - they are more online collaboration tools. Their strength is in their ability to host project data on the web - documents, discussions and issue tracking, with sexy reports to showcase project progress.

    Two good online project collaboration software programs I've seen are Basecamp and Wrike.

    I love Basecamp and its clean, “extremely Web 2.0” interface. It's very intuitive - just punch in some tasks and you're all set up to collaborate with project team members. I particularly like the “discussions” feature. You can essentially take an issue, post it into the online interface, and trigger discussions between your project team members, the client and the vendor.

    However, Basecamp is cloud-based so it might raise security concerns with some companies. But if you overlook that, it is an amazing piece of software - well suited for small to medium sized projects.

    Tip: You can try Basecamp for free for 45 days. But be careful about storing information on the cloud, especially if your end user organization is a bank. There are some restrictions about having client data, for example, being situated on an external cloud provider. Check your organisation's policies and procedures surrounding cloud-based storage if you're unsure.

    Wrike is another web-based project management software that I've tried before. Its functionality is very rich - offering online collaboration on issues posted by project members, as well as sexy tools for displaying project status. It also allows you to import Microsoft Project data and is also integrated with Microsoft Outlook.

  • Time management software - the third kind of software I think a project manager needs is time management software. Ok, we're talking about personal information managers (PIMs) and to-do list managers. There are literally thousands of these applications out there, so I'll highlight to you the ones I use.

    Toodledo is a great personal productivity tool. If you're a project manager, you'll appreciate the fact that you can very easily log in online, add a task, filter, sort and otherwise add categories and tags to any work item. If you subscribe to the pro version, you can also add subtasks - a very useful feature. The software also synchs up very nicely to the iPhone and iPad. There are also TONS of third-party applications that have also enabled synching to the ToodleDo application.

    The tool I use right now for time management is this nifty little app on my iPhone called Things. It's a neat little piece of software for managing to-dos in a Getting Things Done (GTD) way. You create projects, and under each project you have tasks to complete. You can add tags to each task and when you complete an task, you can just check it off. If you can't complete it, you can move it off to a “Someday” folder for future consideration. You can also very easily schedule a task to be done at a specific date and time.

2. Project Management Templates

Project templates are usually Microsoft Word or Excel documents that contain “placeholder” sections for content. All you do is to fill up that content and you'll have a working document that can be published to your stakeholders or team members.

Here are some examples of project management templates:

  • Project Charter
  • Stakeholder Register
  • Status Report
  • Risks, Assumptions, Dependencies and Issues
  • Change Request Form
  • Project Resource Request Form
  • Lessons Learnt Log
  • Project Financial Tracking Sheet
  • And many more …

Tip: Create your own “library” of project templates. I've been in almost 20 projects in my career as a project manager and business analyst. These things can be re-used and are tremendously useful in structuring a project.

However, do remember also that you should not be “template-based”. Many PMs I know are so caught up in their templates that they forget the more important things like stakeholder management, scope control and timeline.

And here's a sample of a Project Charter template. The power of having these templates is that they provide a checklist to point you in the correct direction whenever you start a project. You know which are the areas you have to look out for and document, without worrying you may have left out something important.

I've a lot of these templates of my own that I'd like to share with you - do browse through the other sections of my website to find out more.

3. Project Management Approaches

The next tool a project manager needs is a project management approach. For many software implementation projects, the traditional “waterfall” (or iterative) approach is usually used. So you go through business requirements, functional specifications, development and configuration, then testing and deployment. These are repeated as iterations for each subsequent phase of the project.

PRINCE2 is a project management approach that encompasses many elements of the traditional software development lifecycle. I've never been trained in PRINCE2, but its processes can be mapped to the PMI Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) process groups and PM fundamentals we discussed here.

A project management approach that is very different from the traditional approach is called “Agile project management”. This has been used more recently and comprises of small tasks done very quickly and shown to the user for concurrence.

In software development, I believe the Agile approach comprises more of “prototyping” steps so as to create small, incremental versions of the working product. This is good as it allows users to view the solution in the interim (and not wait till the testing stage). However, it is also more intensive as users need to be involved in validating the prototype almost throughout the whole development phase.

Wrapping Up ...

I hope the above has helped you understand the three essential tools that every project manager must have. Project management software, templates and knowledge of structured approaches are all very beneficial to a budding PM. Make use of them in your PM work, but never forget to also focus on critical, “big picture” items like stakeholder management, project timelines and financials, as well as work product sign-offs.

How To Start A Project Management Career

How To Start A Project Management Career Guidebook

Are you wondering how to break into a Project Management?

Would you like to understand how others have successfully switched to a PM career?

Or discover what skills, certifications and domain / industry knowledge are required to excel in a PM role?

I’ve written a practical, easy-to-read guidebook that will help you find your best path to Project Management – one that leverages your unique skills, experiences and career background to your advantage.

Click here to find out more.