What's the best way to keep track of all of your tasks at work? If you answered, "A spreadsheet," or "Good old-fashioned sticky notes," you're not alone. After all, what could be better than keeping a running checklist of your to-dos in Excel, Google Docs, or your trusty ol' Post-It Notes pad, right?
You may be a die-hard believer in the Getting Things Done method, but the truth is, there are many tools designed to help you track tasks and projects more efficiently. A quick Google search for "project management software" tells you that the online productivity world is overflowing with platforms that improve your workflow: there are well over 178 million search results. There are Basecamp sightings…and Wrike sightings…and perhaps you'll fall down the rabbit hole of a blog or two that tout the ABCs of the latest apps. After researching for a short amount of time, you realize that there is a distinction drawn between task management tools and project management tools. "What's the difference?" you wonder.
To put it in golfing terms, it's a question of the long game vs. the short game. Project management tools are designed for the long game, giving you the ability to go the distance and track your team's progress on a project from start to finish. Task management tools are the short game: they focus solely on tracking the individual tasks your team works on.
How do you know which type of software is right for your team? Do you need to manage multiple projects with multiple teams, or are you just looking for a digital to-do list? Do you need CRM or financial/accounting tools? What about a platform that integrates with Agile and Waterfall methods?
To help you navigate the multifarious seas of today's productivity applications, we've outlined some basic pros and cons to help you determine which workflow solution is best for your team.
Project Management Software
In a nutshell, project management software is designed to provide an overview of the goals, resources, and processes for projects. It gives project managers the tools to organize large projects, break them down into tasks and subtasks, assign those tasks to individuals, and check them off as they're completed. While no two applications are alike, they typically focus on three areas: project communication, creating workflows, and aiding with specific project management techniques like Agile or Waterfall.
Here is a breakdown of the pros and cons:
One-stop shop. Many project management systems will give your team a place to communicate, collaborate, assign tasks, proof documents, manage assets, and report progress, all on one platform. However, some project management solutions may fall short with one-off ad hoc requests that aren't part of the scope of larger projects or with sharing project information in real time. If it's important to your team to manage work in one place and in real time, make sure you research a platform's capabilities thoroughly during the trial period.
The big picture. Remember our long-game analogy? One of the biggest advantages of project management software is its ability to track projects from the time a team member submits a work request to the time the work is completed and reported. You're not just getting a daily rundown of the minutiae of your team's tasks—you're getting a 360-degree view of your projects from start to finish (although this may not apply to ad hoc work).
Seeing is believing. Want to know what your team is working on? Easy. Some of the more advanced cloud-based project management software out there now give everyone access to the latest data and project status at any time.
Cleaning house. If you've ever felt that your team is getting bogged down in the quagmire of emails, schedules, and spreadsheets, project management software can be a very useful tool. Some of the more progressive software solutions—especially those that make project information accessible to everyone—can help clear out inefficiencies and clutter, thereby streamlining the work process.
Creates accountability. Project management software can help instill a sense of accountability in your team—so there are fewer missed deadlines, a lower risk of scope creep, and less stress for everyone.
Anywhere, anytime. This is a big one. If you choose a cloud-based project management tool, team members can easily access their projects at work or on the go. Many project management software programs also have their own apps for Apple and Android devices. It's ideal for distributed teams especially.
Learning curve. Some project management applications may have a steep learning curve. (In fact, some project management systems are so complex that they can take years of certification programs to master!)
Paying a price. It usually costs money to purchase quality software. Some project management companies are transparent about their costs; some are not.
Down time. It may take time to plan a project, define milestones, enter everything into some project management systems, and allocate tasks to team members in the very beginning.
Getting a complex. Some project management software may cause novice project managers to generate projects that are more complex than they should be.
Task Management Software
Task management systems focus on tasks as the smallest unit of work, fundamental to getting anything done. They typically encompass features such as task creation, visualization, and notification capabilities for individual projects as well as ongoing corporate task management.
Here is a breakdown of the pros and cons:
Easy to use. Because of their laser-like focus on the task, task management systems allow team members to get on board reasonably fast with little learning curve. That means they'll be checking off that to-do list with little or no down time.
Granular control. Do you want a micro view of what your team members are working on at any given time? Task management systems typically allow for greater granular control of what people are working on.
It's the little things. Scenario: your boss asks you for a "quick favor"—like writing a blog post. Or another scenario: you have an ongoing work duty that has no beginning or end. Task management software can make tracking "the little things"—like those one-off ad hoc job requests that aren't part of larger projects—easy.
Limited view. Since task management software covers one small part of work, team members may not be able to see the entire scope of a project from start to finish. If you desire or require a bird's-eye view of your projects, task management may not be the best choice. It's the short game vs. the long game question again.
Fooled by "free." There are many task management systems that offer free versions—but don't be fooled. Many of their free versions are substantially less full-featured than their paid options. We hate to say it, but you get what you pay for…
Short-term gains. Task management tools are rock stars when it comes to managing a team's day-to-day to-dos, but they're not necessarily optimized as a long-term solution.
Choosing the right productivity software for your team is not a one-size-fits-all process. A platform that's perfect for one company may not be right for another. And if you're a growing enterprise, you may also realize that what worked for your team a year ago does not work for your team now.
When you first start your research, it's tempting to look for software that gets your team from point A to point B—but what if you could arrive at point Z with the same amount of effort and cost? There are times when your team needs a big picture, project-level view, and there are times when you need a granular look at ad hoc work. You might consider searching for a project management platform that spans the whole process, combining the benefits of the long game and short game together. After all, it takes the mastery of both to have a successful end game.
About the Author
Heather has enjoyed playing the game of marketing for the past 15 years, at the agency and corporate level, in both B2C and B2B companies. She's run PR campaigns that took her from the MTV Beach House to NASDAQ and many media outlets and content channels in between. She is currently the Corporate Marketing Director at Workfront.Follow on Twitter More Content by Heather Hurst