Tools for Project Management and Collaboration

Matthew Moran discusses his team's search and assessment for project-management, team-collaboration and communication tools.

cio mag smartsheet

Some of you may note that between Parts Two and Three there is a big lag.

No, it isn't due to a lack of time or information management. It is due to time and information management and the allocation of available bandwidth. And prioritization. And family.

In short…my mom has been moved into a new place, the old home is for sale, and a couple new clients are steaming full speed ahead with some projects. All good!

In the time between my last posts and now, the team at Pulse Infomatics has grown and we've been working through, and with, some project management, information management, and collaboration tools and systems.

In light of that, I'm going to hijack Parts Three and Four and consolidate them here. I think we can all admit, I've broken any semblance of continuity of a four-part blog post.

The upside is that you will:

  • Get introduced to some cool tools

  • Learn about what is important to us - and hopefully learn something about the difference between wants and needs

  • Get insight into how we are evaluating the tools

I'll bet, in some of this, you'll see yourself and the discussions or arguments that you face on the same topic.

The Needs and Wants

  • A daily process for individuals to follow

  • Consolidated shared list of projects and tasks

  • Shared and organized project details

  • Collaborative, organized/categorized, and LIVE communication

Daily Process for Individuals to Follow

Tools are great! We experiment, test, recommend, and implement tools frequently for clients. But, as you know, implementation and adoption can be two very different things. And even (or perhaps especially) with IT professionals, adoption can be a challenge.

Why? IT pros are smart and often feel that the way they do things is the "best" way. They have their tools, and they tend to like them. They are busy and don't want to be bothered adopting a new system or tool.

However, at some point, you are the boss. I like to provide leeway in the method, but I do need some standards. To that end, my team and I had several conversations where their input was requested and accepted.

I explained that I would take and adopt their suggestions where possible and reasonable. I also mandated that, if they wanted to suggest another tool or different direction, they could not suggest it based on theory alone. Instead, they needed to, on their own, take some time and check out the tool - test it - or invite me or someone else to it - and knock it around a bit.

This is important!

My time, and yours, is valuable. And because I know that no tool is perfect, I need to make a decision based on a fairly rapid assessment. I don't want endless possibilities.

Our current project and team collaboration toolkit looks like this:

SmartSheet

I was first introduced to SmartSheet a few years ago. I'd been brought into a company that was struggling to keep track of and manage software that was being developed offsite.

Admission!!! I find most CRMs and Project Management software to be confusing, overly-complicated, and woefully poor at collaboration.

Because of that, I was, as many companies are, using Excel and Google Sheets to keep track of specific tasks and share them across the team. But Google Sheets - which I LOVE - has some significant limitations, as well. In particular, one feature that is important to me is centralized discussions by topic. In short, get those conversations OUT of email and into an accessible threaded discussion of some type.

In my search I found SmartSheet. Simple, elegant, collaborative! Yep.

You create "Sheets," which are similar to any spreadsheet. But you have nested views or projects and you can delegate tasks to users. Each task or line, and the sheet in general, can have threaded discussions. You can also attach files (including Google Docs) to any line on a sheet or the sheet in general!

Filtering and sorting of tasks are all available.

You can create custom reports, workspaces for granular sharing, and more.

You can also send one or more lines of a sheet to someone via email for updates. This person does not need to have a Smartsheet account. When they update the lines you've sent them, they will not see the rest of the sheet… just the lines you sent them.

That's pretty cool!

Sign up for a 30-day trial! You’ll be glad you did.

Google Drive

Plain and simple. We create a shared folder structure using Google Drive similar to:

Our Company

..\Clients
.. ..\ABC Co
.. ..\XYZ Co
..\Company Docs (and procedures)
.. ..\Digital Best Practices

etc. etc. etc.

Each client folder has one or more folders under it, if needed. One of those is a folder we share with key members of the client.

I spoke about this in my prior blog post. It allows us to have transparent long form project documents that the client can view and edit when appropriate.

HipChat

We needed a centralized communication hub that worked on mobile, allowed real time chat (and video) but did not require that we be online via Skype, Google Hangouts (awful interface), or any other public chat.

We tried Slack and really liked it. We tried HipChat and really liked it! Both work well and allow us to have project or client specific chats - which can be archived and provide a great record for reviewing how ideas came about. Also HipChat offers one-to-one video conferencing capabilities; but Slack doesn't.

In the end, we chose HipChat. Slack is $8 per user, per month. HipChat is $2 per user, per month. Hmmm…

Added plus: When I posed the question on Twitter - Hipchat vs. Slack- HipChat responded to me within minutes and then we had a rapid online conversation about features. Their support has been very responsive via this channel. That matters to me!

Insightly

My least favorite - although perhaps most used - tool is Insightly. It does what is says it will do, but I find the interface to be too complicated (not difficult - there is a difference). Too many clicks are required to accomplish any given task. No drag and drop for simple items, and there should be by now.

But it does allow me to centralize our contacts, track emails to and from those contacts, and provides some basic project visibility.

Admission! I hate CRMs in general. They fail, often by trying to do too much and generally do not make the sales cycle easier.  Insightly fails similarly! As a company, we are about to develop our own...that is how bad every offering is.

But for now, it's cloud-based and easy enough to use. We'll stick with them!

What about Evernote?

I still use Evernote for gathering and sharing information. I am using it less for time and task management - although for individuals it does this very well. And the ability to grab and store articles, blog entries, images, video, audio, email, etc. is remarkable.

Don't overlook it as an option.

Team Collaboration Advice

Here is a summary of my advice, when working toward more streamlined team collaboration:

There is NO perfect system

I repeat this almost every time I speak or write about this topic. "The System" does not exist but "a system" is critical!

Beware of your desired feature list

Often, when I review the "needed" vs. "desired" feature list from a CIO or other exec, I can't decide whether I want to laugh or cry.

Stay simple and functional - particularly if you want adoption that works.

If you had to list all your features, in 10 bullet items, what would they be. Now remove two of those and you are ready to assess.

Don't write analysis, perform live tests instead

I'm writing this to one of my team members who submitted to me four or five paragraphs about why we might consider another tool for X. It doesn't matter what X was. I told him, rather than write five paragraphs, if you believe it may be valuable, sign up, invite me or someone else to test it, and let's bang on it for a few minutes.

You'll learn more about the product in 30 minutes of that type of "analysis" than you will reading the documentation or watching promo videos.

Implement one small thing quickly

One tool that can simplify even one aspect of team collaboration, may be more important than implementing a broad system - even a great one. Try HipChat for instance. You can implement across 10 people in about 30 minutes to an hour. There is a web console, a desktop app, and a mobile app. Quick, easy, ready to go.

If the team uses it and likes it - guess what, the next tool is that much easier to implement.

Now, go forth and collaborate!

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