Chapter 5 - Essential Tools
What tools do you need to manage projects effectively?
Do you need an expensive popular software suite?
Do you need complex charting/graphing software?
Before we answer those questions, let’s take a glance back at the three key things you need to do as a project manager.
- Bring the project to successful completion
- Bring the project to completion efficiently
- Bring the project to completion predictably
Those are the three keys things you are doing.
That makes it easy to answer our tooling questions.
- No. You don’t need any expensive or popular software suites.
- No. You don’t need charting or graphing software.
What do you really need for tooling?
1. A communication tool
You need to know how the team is doing. It can be a tool you already use.
- Text messaging
- Any other communication app
Slack, Discord and Telegram are popular software communication applications. Slack is oriented more towards businesses. Discord is the communication tool of choice for many game developers and game development communities. Telegram is popular in privacy-oriented communities and in the open-source software world. If you don’t use any of these already, don’t worry about it.
You don’t need anything special. You definitely don’t need anything that is marketed as a project management specific tool. Most of those are worse than using something basic.
I know because I’ve used a ton of them. None of them offer any unique communication abilities.
Just use one single communication tool for your project, and prefer one that is already used on a daily basis by the people you work with, or the people in your community.
2. An issue tracker
You need to know how the project is progressing. What work is done? What work remains to be done? Anything that answers those two questions is as good as it gets.
- Todo List
- Sticky notes on a wall
- Kanban board
- Github Issues
- Color-coded spreadsheet rows
Again, you don’t need anything special. Do you need issue numbers? Story points? Custom tagging? Linked issues? Burndown charts? You don’t actually need any of those.
You may find that some features help you solve specific problems better. But, in my experience, the more features an issue tracker tool has, the more wasteful and inefficient it is to use on a daily basis. Simpler is better.
3. A reporting tool
You need to be able to communicate the project’s progress. You can do this with words or with a visual aid. Your stakeholders don’t care how they get updates if the project is healthy.
If the project is unhealthy, then stakeholders want more complex reports because they are losing faith. If you never get to this point, then you don’t need anything fancy.
Non-Visual Reporting Tools:
- Pen & paper
- Plain text paragraph summary
- Google Docs
Visual Reporting Tools:
- Google Spreadsheets
You don’t need anything special. What matters is the project and it getting delivered. You don’t get extra points for cool graphs. Graphs don’t make money unless you are in marketing, sales, or graphic design.
As a project manager, you will have the best results if you keep your tools dead simple and put all your energy into getting the project delivered.
At Our Company, We Have To Use X
You may be working at a company or with a client who insists that you use their favorite project management software tool. What should you do then?
Don’t sweat it. Use their tool. Learn how they use their tool and use it correctly, but minimally.
Your key job is to deliver a project. A problem isn’t better solved because of fancier project tracking. Customer needs aren’t better met because of fancier project tracking. Keep your usage of the tool as simple as possible. If it can auto-generate reports or charts for you, that may save you some reporting effort.
Focus on mastering the fundamentals. Learn about delivering projects, the three input dimensions, and managing the project’s variable dimensions. Don’t get caught up in tool wars.
What do I personally use the most?
For software projects, I typically use:
- Team-specific messaging app
- Github issues + Zube
For non-software projects, I typically use:
- Team-specific messaging app
The important difference is that Github is strongly integrated into my software development flow, and so managing issues automatically with code commits saves the team a LOT of time. Zube provides a Kanban board interface for visualizing the Github issues, which provides a much better visual experience.
What is a Kanban board? I’m glad you asked! I’ll be covering that in Chapter 7.
I use Trello, a Kanban board interface for non-software projects, since it’s a simple tool. I don’t need any of the code integration features that Github affords. Trello was recently acquired by Atlassian, and they are known for adding lots of bloat to their software tools. While Trello is still my tool of choice in early 2021, if it suffers from any “improvements,” I will quickly switch to a simpler tool like Google Sheets.
Simple Tooling Wins
The key things you need to be a successful project manager are strong fundamentals and a drive to succeed. You don’t need fancy tools.
Simple tools are your best friend since they prevent you from getting distracted and spending time on things other than delivering the project.
All you need are:
- A communication tool
- An issue tracker
- A reporting tool
Even if you are using a fancier or more complex project management software suite, these are the core functions it should provide. If it helps you communicate, track, and report better, then go for it.
Have you found a tool that works better than the simple ones I have described here? Tell me about your experience, either by email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Twitter (@SilasReinagel). I’m always open to evaluating new tools.
Chapter Review Questions
- What two primary activities should PM tools help you accomplish?
- What three types of tools are essential for managing a project?
- How do you know if a PM tool is a good choice for you?