Just about everyone who manages projects will agree that having a simple way to do so is a great idea. And there are many software systems out there that promise to do just that. Yet ask organizations about project management software adoption and many will complain about workers refusing or being hesitant to use the software or certain (often crucial) features. See also: best free project management software.
We asked dozens of project management professionals why project management software often fails to live up to expectations. Here are their top 10 tips for how to get the most out of your project management system -- and ensure teams are properly using it.
1. Find a project management system that's right for your organization (and budget). "There are hundreds of project management (PM) systems out there, and some of them are quite a bit more complicated than others," says Julie Titterington, project management reviewer and managing editor, Merchant Maverick, which reviews, rates and compares software. "If all you're looking for is a basic tool to manage tasks, streamline communication and share files, then steer clear from programs that offer lots of extras," she advises.
"Features like reporting and resource management may [seem] overwhelming to your team," she says. "And the more intimidated they feel, the less likely they will be to actually use the software. [So] find a [system] that meets your needs, but don't spend more than you need to on flashy and unnecessary features."
"Many companies stumble with adopting project management solutions because the software is intrinsically hard to use," says Scott Bales, director of Solutions Engineering at Replicon, a provider of timesheet management software. "Businesses should find a solution where workflow and configurability feel intuitive, and it has built-in intelligence that anticipates what you need to get your work done," he says. "The best software gives you a comprehensive set of functions that can be easily added to over time."
If you have a small or no budget, "define your goals and objectives and see if there are any free PM solutions which satisfy them," says Victoria Kartunova, marketing manager, Bitrix24, a social collaboration and communications platform. "Besides Bitrix24 there are, for instance, Trello, Asana, Freedcamp. For a thorough feature comparison, you can study this table on Wikipedia."
Whichever project management tool you decide to go with, "give your prospective system a thorough test drive to ensure that the solution is simple and requires minimal support from IT to make everyone's lives easier," says Bales.
2. Don't forget about mobility. "Choose a platform that is mobile optimized to allow your team to be more productive and efficient [wherever they are]," says Stuart Barr, COO, HighQ, an enterprise collaboration platform. "A mobile-optimized platform means employees can use their smartphones and tablets to access files and information and collaborate. They can be anywhere in the world, in any time zone and they will still be able to access the information they need," he explains. "This gives your team the flexibility to work remotely and boosts productivity by providing more opportunities to be able to get work done."
[ Related:9 Secrets to Project Management Success]
3. Make sure the software can integrate with other key applications (if applicable). "For most companies, capturing data in dedicated project management software is only part of a total solution," says Replicon's Bales. "Sharing that data with other apps completes the cycle. This can be critical for project costing and expense reimbursement, payroll and other processes," he says. Fortunately, "most cloud-based project tracking software includes out-of-the-box data sharing, typically supplied for applications such as Microsoft Project, QuickBooks and others."
4. Be realistic about expectations. "PM software should support and automate excellent project management processes, not replace them," argues Mike Fisher, managing consultant, Allegient, an IT consulting company. "Many times PM software is perceived to fail in delivery due to false expectations. PM software realistically provides three basic functions: data acquisition and management, decision support, and reporting and graphing."
5. Find someone to champion the software. "The most essential element for achieving high ROI of a project management system is complete adoption by the team," says Tom Treanor, director of marketing, Wrike, which provides project management and collaboration tools for the enterprise and SMBs.
"In order to achieve high levels of adoption, there has to be a strong champion in management who can make sure that team members have the necessary input into the tool selection and that they have access to training or other resources," he says. "The champion also needs to be able to enforce adoption and model the right behavior by using the tool for management reviews or meetings. Without strong adoption, the value of the system will be limited."
6. Do an incremental rollout -- and make sure people are properly trained. "After over 10 years of rolling out PMO software, one thing that we have learned is that rolling every capability out to every employee on day one is recipe for disaster," says John Glander, PMO specialist, Level 5 Partners, a provider of project management office solutions. "Incrementally roll out everything to small sets of users or roll out specific capabilities to all users. Never do a big bang deployment."
And as you roll out the software, make sure people are trained on at least the basic features -- and provide advanced training to those who need or desire it.
7. Define workflows upfront. "You have to spend some time in the beginning in order to set them properly, but [well defined] workflows will make all processes [straightforward] and spare you much time," says Kartunova.
8. Make sure all team members are using the PM software, not another system, to keep everyone informed. "If you intend to use a project management system as a communication hub, there's no room for holdouts," says Mark Nichols, the director of Content at Flow, a project management platform. The purpose of project management software is to "make things clear and eliminate miscommunications," he says. "And you cannot expect that to happen if certain people are managing tasks and timelines [outside the project management system]," he says. So "get your entire team on the system, and make it the home for everything that's important about your project."
9. Use your PM system to keep track of costs and productivity. "If the software you're using provides it, utilize built-in, real-time information and reports like status and margins," says Ray Grainger, founder & CEO, Mavenlink, a provider of online project management software. "Knowing how these metrics are tracking as you progress in a project makes it easy to make adjustments on the fly, and ensure profitable and on-time delivery."
10. Don't be afraid to ask for help. "Get tips on best practices or find out how other companies are using the same features by getting in touch with a support or success expert at your software vendor's company," Grainger says. "Many companies have dedicated teams built to help their customers use their product to its full potential. These teams often offer beneficial one-on-one training and incredible insight on how others are getting the most from the app."
You can also hire a third-party consultant who specializes in helping companies in your industry or niche customize the project management software.