Project management today differs from project management in previous decades in that we have the added complexity of collaboration and social technologies built into the tools we use to complete our jobs. Hundreds of such tools currently exist, with everything from Microsoft Project to CentralDesktop claiming varying degrees of project capabilities. More important, many of them combat three common problems in project management:
- Complexity. The tools have many functions, and they are not easy to use or learn. They were originally created for professional (trained) project managers, which 99 percent of users are not today.
- Linear working. Generation Y is often said to be the multitasking generation and can parallel process several different projects at once. However, some project-management software often makes the assumption of a single track of tasks and resources, which is not the way we do business today.
- Poor project communication. There are often just email notifications of a change in status or a project object. No conversation, no buy-in on tasks and no real-time communication support. In fact, Ginger Levin, a project-management consultant and educator based in Lighthouse Point, Fla., who is DPA-, PMP-, PgMP- and OPM3-certified, says,“Ninety percent of a project manager’s time is spent communicating with stakeholders.”
Avoiding these pitfalls leads to smoother processes, more-productive workers and, ultimately, better business practices. This piece discusses each of the above issues in more detail, as well as analyzes how new tools and project management software are creating solutions to these problems. Current tools deal with today’s greater project complexity, parallelism and communications in a variety of new ways. Many projects are part of a community and are more team-oriented. And the tools are often much simpler and don’t require users to be certified by the Project Management Institute (PMI).
Project management has been around since the building of the pyramids, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that it entered its more modern phase and computers began to take over processes.
Project management itself formally started in 1956 with the U.S. Navy’s Polaris missile project, which was a very large-scale, onetime, nonroutine project contracted to Lockheed Martin in conjunction with Booz Allen Hamilton. This was the first use of the Program Evaluation and Review Technique (PERT), which quickly spread to many other industry segments.
Over time projects have become more complex and distributed, like software development today with extreme programming and scrum techniques, with the project team scattered all over the globe. More people of various skill sets have become involved in executing a project successfully, creating a labyrinth of communication, teams and deadlines to manage. Because of this, the chances of a project’s being “successful” (on time and within budget), even using traditional computer-based software, are dropping.
Tools like Microsoft Project, which is the market leader, according to Gartner, have a huge number of functions: critical path, task costs, time sheets and support of stage-gate models, to name a few. Many of these functions are for professional project managers. But as mentioned, the majority of those managing projects in today’s business world don’t have PMI training, and they would not know what the PMBOK guide (A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge) is without looking it up. And since the PMI can only train 4,300 new project managers each month and there are millions of projects in process, we can estimate that just a few percent of projects are run by trained project managers.
Many of the newer native Software-as-a-Service-based tools that are available today (not Microsoft Project, which has been migrated to the web) like Clarizen, Same-Page, LiquidPlanner and Project Bubble are based on this assumption. It’s what makes tools like 37 Signals’ Basecamp so popular (it currently has over 3 million users). Assigning tasks, sharing files and tracking progress are some of the main functions found in every project-management tool, but Basecamp has focused on these features and made sure the user experience is empowering. Other tools like PieMatrix focus on the workflow or process and the ability to create a template, or “pie slice,” that can be used to enforce the proper process and outcome. LiquidPlanner, meanwhile, makes it easier for projects to complete on time because of its estimation algorithm. Unlike Microsoft Project, which pins each task completion to a specific date, LiquidPlanner makes your estimate more accurate by using a range of dates.
In his book Leadership Principles for Project Success, Thomas Juli notes that traditional project-management tools are not equipped to handle today’s fast-paced and complex business environment. Today we multitask, and if your tool can’t support that, the project duration will be much longer. Not all tasks are based on the one before: Some tasks can be done in parallel.
Linear rather than parallel working assumes both dependencies and resource constraints. Dependencies center on the idea that task A needs to be complete before someone else starts task B. This is true in a building, where you can’t build the top floor before all the other floors below it are finished. But you could, for example, do all the wiring and plumbing for the building at the same time, which is best done before any of the floors are completed. Often when organizing production workflows (a series of tasks that is well-known), tasks for several projects can be grouped and worked on at the same time. So instead of doing the wiring and plumbing for one house and then moving on to the next, all the houses in a development are plumbed and wired at the same time.
Today’s agile method of project management views projects as a series of relatively small tasks conceived and executed as the situation demands in an adaptive manner rather than as a completely preplanned process. An agile software-development methodology has coders building in small increments, then testing the code; if it passes they go on to another portion of the code. This is often done in a “scrum,” which is a rugby term for restarting a rugby game by having a group of players come together over the ball in a huddle and trying to hook the ball back to their teammates. As it is used in software development, “scrum” is really an iterative and interactive methodology for agile software development.
Poor project communication
In most project-management programs, any change in a project object, status or conversation can trigger an email notification. While there’s nothing wrong with this, such notifications nonetheless create very limited (asynchronous) interactions. A notification email can sit in a critical person’s inbox for days, holding up everything else in the project.
Sometimes emails just disappear, and the right people might not receive them. And email is a slow form of communication, whereas today’s projects have much shorter task cycles. Waiting for an email can cancel out any time gained from real-time collaboration tools like SMS or texting. Generally project managment tools don’t support synchronous interactions.
Moving communications around tasks or projects into real time is a great way to decrease project duration. My definition of “real time” is an interaction that occurs among two or more people via the computer within five seconds. For example, using IM in real time and in the context of the project allows workers to communicate seamlessly and reduces wait times. IM itself is not new, nor is SMS or texting; what is new is the idea that this more-rapid communication occurs in the project context, so that it is part of the project record and does not require the reader to switch contexts to read, comment or reply to the project task message.
What I have found in working with a variety of clients is that communicating about a task often takes much more time than the task itself. Synchronous, or real-time, communications linked to project objects help avoid this situation and keep communication durations to a minimum, making projects more efficient. Today’s tools include both synchronous (real time) and asynchronous interactions (which people flow into and out of all day long) and are a more natural way for people to work. Today’s tools can include online community tools (for a project community) and social networks (presence detection), and often these tools do intelligent aggregation of your networks and can find those you have to work with immediately.
Let’s look at a common use case. You have been assigned a task with another person. A question on how to do the task comes up, and you IM or text your task partner. In the ensuing discussion you determine neither one of you can come to a conclusion on how to do the task. But with one click of a button you can detect the presence of the person who assigned you the task, and by clicking on her you can upgrade the interaction into a threeway conference call, or even a video or web conference. The critical piece here is keeping the context of both the task and the question about it. In this call, after some discussion, the ambiguity of the task is resolved, and you and your task partner go off to do the task.
With Web 2.0, there are now communities and social networks that can be focused on projects. The level of communication, interaction and conversation around project tasks can not only include more people but also can happen more quickly than with traditional project-management tools.
Most project-management tools do a great job of keeping track of time, people and other resources, but they do a poor job of involving the team member. Microsoft Project, the market leader, is known for this deficiency, and many newer distributed project-management (DPM) vendors (listed above) are taking advantage of this in their tools. Project tasks are mostly assigned by the project manager, and the team member rarely (if ever) gets to discuss deliverables and deadlines. Project managers often are looking at dashboards, which may aggregate a lot of different kinds of project information, but they really don’t tell the story of what is happening with the project. While the project manager is looking at the dashboard, she is not communicating with the project team members and is not getting the latest project data and status. She is not part of the conversations among team members (they may be on a different tool than the project manager is using), and because this status information is old, the project manager cannot react to changes in real time. So the project falls further and further behind. Although many DPM tools today claim to have real-time task reporting, this information is not always rolled up into a dashboard for the project manager to see.
In today’s ultraconnected world, we are used to seeing Facebook-like activity streams all over our daily lives, and tools that combine social networking and project management are now starting to come to market. AtTask, for example, introduced TeamHome with Stream in Feb. 2012 (see Figure 1). In AtTask, the activity stream is called a “work list,” and everyone can update its status. Rather than being assigned a task, the team member can have a discussion about a task with the project manager. In this way team members are able to take a greater amount of ownership not only in the task but also in the success of the project. The same tool supports team members working with one another, as well as discussions about how best to complete a task, so transparency and other team members’ experience can be leveraged.
Figure 1: AtTask’s TeamHome with Stream
Team members can volunteer for specific tasks if they have special skills or the desire, and they can make commitments to completing tasks, which now are transparent, so everyone on the team can see and track them. You can make a comment or start a discussion on any project object. These tools also take into account team behavioral dynamics. No one wants to be called out in front of the whole team for not completing her task on time. In other words, project bottlenecks become clear to everyone much more quickly.
The dashboard called the Real Story (see Figure 2) combines both qualitative and quantitative information to not only give a better context for the task and its status but also to support more-effective decision making. Those projects with a green icon are on target (i.e., expected to complete on time and on budget), while yellow-icon projects, which are based on a proprietary algorithm, estimate that the projects may be late (i.e., they are “at risk”). Red icons mean the project is far behind the expected dates and is “in trouble,” and some kind of drastic intervention is needed to get the project back on track.
Figure 2: AtTask’s Real Story dashboard
Another new tool that comes from the design world is called Moxie. IDEO built the tool in order to coordinate different teams on different design projects. Moxie sees itself as “social networking for the enterprise” and works at socializing your intranet (see Figure 3). True DPM tools build collaboration right into the software so they can keep the task or project in context, rather than just focusing on the project data and artifacts.
Moxie supports rich profiles and allows you to list specific skills, expertise and experience. All of this information is searchable, enabling the right resources to be connected to the right team and project. It is this focus on people, as simple as it seems, that is the real innovation of social project-management tools.
Figure 3: Moxie software employee engagement space
It’s all about the people
As Bob Larrivee, a director and industry advisor at AIIM (the leading nonprofit organization focused on helping users to understand the challenges associated with managing documents, content, records and business processes), notes, the “effective use of collaboration [and social media] tools requires a cultural mindset and managerial support that fosters one to be open and share information and knowledge.” This means organizations must first take the time to understand what project collaboration and community mean to them in terms of how their projects and organizations plan to use it.
Social networks and communities are often organized to allow people to take on tasks they are comfortable with, and they support a more natural kind of interaction than the more formalized project-management tools. It is this more-informal communication that supports ideation and new ways of doing things. People need to feel they are part of something important. They have a need for social interactions, and if those social interactions can be done within the context of work (on projects), you can kill two birds with one stone.
In other words, the three cardinal sins of project management perpetuated by most project management tools are not cutting it in terms of project completion and project budgets. Instead, a more social and people-oriented approach to project management will help wash away many of these sins. Complexity, linear working and poor project communication are artifacts of early project management tools, and they are giving way to a new class of superior social project-management tools I call distributed project-management (DPM) tools. These DPM tools imply a distributed team, maybe not even from the same company, working on a task or project together where the tools provide not only a common context but also various methods of communication.
As the world becomes flatter and we start to move into the era of the networked organization, I see a core group in the company (maybe a few hundred people) with many functions outsourced (IT, HR, supply chain, support) to groups that have expertise in these areas and long-term relationships with the core company group. To have this distributed network function, collaboration is critical. The world no longer has time for email; today work is done in real time, as the pace of business is ever quickening.