by Laurianne McLaughlin

Project Collaboration: How One Company Got A Diverse Team on the Same Page

Aug 13, 20078 mins
Project Management Tools

Managing a complex project with multiple moving parts and deadlines being worked on by a diverse team can get downright nasty. Here's how one company solved the problem.

Project management programs often sound great in theory, but once IT hands them out to end users, complaints about ease of use and inscrutable interfaces start rolling in. Industrial-strength charting programs like Microsoft Visio please IT veterans, especially those who draw network diagrams for a living, but often prove frustrating for line-of-business execs. Sometimes, as Neal Benz, CTO of Healthwise, learned, you have to think differently to crack your company’s project management problem.


ABCs of Project Management

Understanding the Project Management Office

4 Project Management Tips

And, as Benz learned, you may find that a project management app today can do more for a business than keep projects running smoothly. The program that he chose, Mindjet’s MindManager, turned into a product development tool for his company as well. (The most recent version, MindManager Pro 7, lists at $349 with volume pricing available; the company offers a 21-day free trial if you want to gauge your reaction to the interface.) Healthwise, a nonprofit organization founded in 1975, works with managed care groups like Kaiser Permanente, consumer portals like WebMD and hundreds of hospitals to provide information that helps consumers make informed health decisions. The company calls it Information Therapy.

But when it came to managing their internal project information, including hundreds of pieces of health-related content that would be involved in an upcoming product line launch, the company realized about two years ago that it needed to do some surgery. Among the company’s 50 technology employees and 211 employees overall, a variety of project management tools were in use, including Microsoft Project and Microsoft Visio. At this time, the company began developing a complex new product line called the Ix HealthMastery Campaigns. This is a series of information programs that send a variety of e-mailed information, questionnaires and reminders to consumers on topics like asthma, back pain and smoking cessation, during the course of about a year. The project would require close communication by a diverse group of people.

“We had a team of people working on this project ranging from doctors to writers to project managers to technical people,” says Lisa O’Toole, a software engineer for Healthwise tasked with the HealthMastery launch. (O’Toole reports not to Benz but directly to the company vice president responsible for new product development.) “We needed a way to develop the ideas so that we could all see where we were going,” she says. The company briefly tried group meetings with sticky notes on a board, she adds, but while sticky notes can paint a picture of related ideas, they can’t, of course, organize the related electronic files.

As Benz notes, many companies actually end up running projects like Healthwise’s new product launch in Excel, simply because the user interface is one we all understand. But that’s a mistake, he adds. “Something like Word or Excel is linear, it can’t deal with the different legs of the campaign.”

Goodbye Lists, Hello Maps

Some people inside the company were using MindManager, an application from Mindjet that was born as a brainstorming tool but has since become more of an organizational and project management tool. MindManager lets users draw visual charts representing an idea or project, with all the related branches and pieces. “We saw that we could take MindManager to the next step, for product development,” Benz says.

Compared to traditional, heavy-duty project management applications like Microsoft Project, MindManager is an unusual application because of its emphasis on graphic charts or “maps.” Anyone can get going with MindManager by drawing a graphical map, which appeals to people who are not project management experts. Some project management programs force people to start with a list of project milestones, dates and team members, and this can make you feel like you’re filling out an endless spreadsheet.

The MindManager program presents little learning curve for business users, Benz decided. Plus, thanks to XML functionality, it lets users link out to the related project documents directly from the visual “map.” In Healthwise’s case, the links take users directly to all the documents for each of the 15 campaigns inside the HealthMastery line.

The development team for the new product line (ranging from doctors to IT people) used MindManager for design and authoring at first, then later for implementation and finally as a testing matrix, to make sure all the pieces of each campaign were lined up in the proper order.

Each HealthMastery campaign sends different messages, depending on patient responses to certain questions, for example, whether they’ve had a setback or a change in emotional health. So there’s a series of if/then branches and timing triggers on the visual maps. “People here refer to our maps as ‘the bible,'” O’Toole says.

The program’s visual look-and-feel won over the diverse group working on the project, O’Toole says. “I was surprised how quickly the users embraced it,” O’Toole says. “When you compare it to Microsoft Visio, which is a great tool, Visio is kind of hard to use. I did have one of our writers try to do something in Visio and she ran screaming from her office,” she says. “Some doctors still write everything down on paper.”

Some of the company’s IT staff still use Visio, but they don’t ask end users to do so, Benz and O’Toole note. IT staffers also use Microsoft Visual Studio Team System and Team Foundation Server to support the group’s agile development methodology.

IT also discovered that the MindManager application aids with quality assurance efforts. When one of the campaigns is ready for testing, Benz says, all you have to do is open the map. That’s because the map links to each piece of content that a consumer receives in the course of a campaign, on a topic like managing asthma. The map also links to the triggers and rules that govern which piece will be sent at what time.

“That made a great testing document,” he says. “You could look at every action and ask, Does it have the right question branches, the right questions, the right time-based triggers?” For example, a newly diagnosed asthma patient would be sent different materials, in a different order, than say, an asthma patient who became pregnant. Healthwise has to ensure its system sends the right material at the right moment in care.

Today, the company continues to develop new campaigns inside of HealthMastery and to use MindManager to do the work, from development to testing. At the start of the project, the group will often put a Mindjet map up on a flat panel display in a conference room, Benz says, to start the discussion. Each campaign takes 10 to 12 weeks to develop from start to finish, Benz says. “Without it (MindManager), every person on the team would be spending more time than they currently do to complete a campaign,” he says.

Implementation Tips

Healthwise CTO Neal Benz learned these lessons while implementing Mindjet’s MindManager for project management and new product design:

1. Bring the application into your organization in a gradual way, say, by first using it in cross-departmental brainstorming sessions.

2. Stress the user interface, since some project management apps center on complicated lists and this one centers on visual maps akin to flowcharts.

3. Customize the program using the terminology and vocabulary of your organization, to maximize adoption by your users. In Benz’s experience, this wasn’t hard.

4. Take advantage of the XML storage features to connect to other tools in your enterprise.

5. Investigate whether your visual maps might make a good set of quality assurance test cases for IT.

Looking ahead, the company will try to connect more of its internal data to the Mindjet maps and investigate whether those maps can be extended to consumers, to collect and present information in an even more structured way, O’Toole says.

What’s the next step that Healthwise would like to see vendors take with this type of technology? “Getting to an enterprise map server, where maps can be centrally served up and shared and updated by multiple users simultaneously, would be a tremendous step forward,” O’Toole says.

As for the bottom line, Healthwise’s Benz says IT execs should think about what this or any project management application can do beyond just tracking dates and milestones.

“MindManager can be a disruptive technology in your organization, needing little to no training, and being used in innovative ways by all levels of staff for product design, content authoring, implementation and QA,” he says.