We are all accustomed to the concept of TODO lists. You might have a shopping list in your pocket right now, or a piece of paper in the shed with a list of things that need to be done around the garden. Or when you go to work in the morning, you might have a morning meeting where your team decides who does what. Or, like some, you might consider every email you receive as a TODO item.
Life -- personal life and working life -- seems to be an immense, endless TODO list. Or, worse, two or three or four TODO lists, probably racing into your head.
The Internet gave us Facebook, the biggest time waster since the invention of the television. Can the Internet also provide us with tricks to manage time properly, rather than wasting it?
Welcome to the world of project management software, a world started by the guys at Basecamp (proprietary) and then continued by free software projects like Fengoffice and then revolutionised by Apollo.
A bit of history
Before 2006, "project management" was a science. It had its own terminology, chart types, and it was focussed on managing a list of resources, a calendar, and a list of inter-dependent tasks. It sounds complicated, for a reason: it was immensely complicated. Project managers spent more time doing data entry than actually managing the project. So, everything was based on raw data (dates, tasks, dependency between tasks, resources, available people, deadlines), rather than communication between team members.
This software was so complicated that people had to decide whether they would use it and spend ages doing data entry, or not use it and basically manage their projects using pen and paper.
As a result, most of projects were late. Very late. Or, more commonly, never completed.
The dawn of easy project management
Then 37signal, a small company marked by very skilled programmers, released Basecamp (http://www.basecamphq.com). Their philosophy was concentrated on the KISS concept: Keep It Simple, Stupid. They realised that project management was all about communication. They scrapped things like Gantt charts, dependency charts, resources, and... well, pretty much anything that was pivotal in the "classic" way of seeing project management.
While creating Basecamp, they also created Ruby On Rails (!), one of the most impressive development frameworks ever written. And yes, Ruby On Rails was free software.
Instead, they had tasklists, tasks, and people talking about those tasks. And, getting them done, instead of creating complicated, time-consuming charts on why a project wasn't moving forward.
They created a tool based on communication, instead of rationalisation.
And they won: they have thousands of customers who will give them a few dollars each month to use their software.
The evolution of project management software
For many years, Basecamp had basically no competition. They didn't advance Basecamp very much. Some say that they were faithful to the key KISS concept they cared so much about. However, things changed when a few dozens competitors tried to replicate Basecamp's miracle, by creating clones. 37signals suddenly decided to develop Basecamp further. Right now, they still have most of the market, but their competitors are definitely eroding.
Most competitors copied Basecamp outright. This was a safe bet -- Basecamp was doing so well after all. However, it also gave them very little competitive advantage. They generally failed to give people a reason to switch.
Amongst all competitors, some of them distinguished themselves. The free software community eventually came up with viable software like:
Fengoffice. Fengoffice is a clone of Basecamp, based on an older version of ActiveCollab. ActiveCollab started as free software. Quite a few people loved ActiveCollab, and contributed to it. Then, one day the creators decided to turn it into proprietary software, effectively betraying their community.
ProjectPier. Another derivative of ActiveCollab. It has taken a slightly different path than Fengoffice.
Amongst all online project management programs, only one of them broke away from the "usual" way of doing things:
Apollo. Apollo is different to the others: it includes contact management (that is, you can store people's information, write comments on them, or create tasks on them) and it looks and feels like a program rather than a web site (it's a so called one-page web application, heavily relying on AJAX technologies). This implies that you don't have to wait till the next page is reloaded while managing your projects.
While it's unlikely that Fengoffice and Projectpier will evolve to single page AJAX application, I personally hope that a new free software project starting from scratch works towards a single page Ajax application (like Apollo), rather than creating yet another page-reload clone.
An example of project management
So, say that you want to catch the bandwagon of this new way of project management. You would create an account on one of those online applications, and most likely create a project with a task list. In this task list, you would create a list of tasks. For example the project could be "Get the garden perfect". Then, the task list number one could be "Get the shed tidy". For this task list, you would have "Empty the shed completely", "Clean up everything", "Put in new shelves to keep things tidy", "Re-fill the shed tidily".
All of these tasks would me marked as "not done" (yet). Then, as you complete them, you would tick them, and therefore mark them as "done".
Assume that you are a male unable to put together a piece of furniture, or use any trade tools (yes, that would be me). So, just after "Clean up everything", you could create a task called "Put up the shelves", and assign it to your wife (who is probably much better than you at this task). Your wife will get an email about it: she needs to complete that task.
Here you are: you are managing the project "Get the garden perfect"; you have a first task list, and are working in your small team (you and your wife) to get it done. You are also effectively communicating with your team.
Why would you bother with project management?
In the example of the garden, I gave you an example of a very tiny team (you and your wife) working on a relatively simple project (the garden) with pretty basic tasks.
I have to admit that in this case maybe pen and paper would have worked quite well. However, if you have say 4 people, and are working on a project that has even two or three task lists, then delegating tasks and discussing them is an immense bonus. If you can then pull external users into your project, that's another huge bonus. If you can then share a list of contacts with your team, and write notes about them, things get pretty interesting: you end up with a group of people where everybody knows what they are meant to complete, and by what date.
And don't underestimate the fact that you can access your TODO list from anywhere: even from your mobile phone. This is particularly important for people who tend to work on the road, who travel a lot or for teams that are spread throughout the planet.
This is absolutely invaluable in a business: you don't have to spend time remembering what needs to be done. A task, however complex, becomes a box that needs to be ticked, preferably by a specific date.
Also, how many times do you end up with a thought, something that needs to be done "later"... only to forget about it? Project management helps you here as well: when you have an idea, or when you think of something, you can just add it to a task list and stop stressing about it.
The best thing to do is download and install Fengoffice or ProjectPier. Note that Fengoffice also offers hosted plans so that you don't have to install anything. This also sponsors Fengoffice's development.
Maybe, for once, you want to use the Internet in such a way that makes you more productive, and less stressed... which, for many, would be a fantastic change.
Articles on online project management