The way how teams carry out their projects varies from company to company, depending on the type and scope of the project and the projectmanagement method used. However, what all those companies have in common is that they are looking for the right tools to help them improve their project management.
The market is full of solutions, which is why we have already compared the most popular providers of project management software. However, this article aims to show you what you need to pay attention to when choosing a suitable project management tool.
Why do you need project management tools after all?
In larger organizations a digital project management tool is already common practice. Cloud solutions are state of the art. In smaller companies, however, things are still different. Their projects are usually smaller and less complex. After all, conventional analog approaches still do the job, and new tools seem to only result in extra costs. This often raises the question: Do I really need a project management tool?
Basically it is true - the more extensive a project is and the more project members are involved, the more difficult it becomes to carry out the project without digital tools. Processes then become confusing and any news is quickly lost. If your team isn't able to store crucial information in one central place, employees spend more time gathering it from different sources or miss it altogether. In fact, projects fail in 30% of the cases due to a lack of communication and, as a result, due to collaboration problems.
This is exactly where a project management tool comes in. It is intended to map the progress of the project clearly for all members, identify bottlenecks, document the assignment of tasks and facilitate project communication. Is it often hard to get a clear picture of how busy the employees are and to understand who is in charge of what? Does your team have a hard time keeping track of deadlines and important milestones? This is where project management tools come in!
What project management tools will you need?
Goal setting and knowledge base with wiki pages
The cornerstone of a successful project is good preparation and planning. Key data about the project and goals must be accessible to all team members, as it is important to keep them in mind throughout the entire project in order to stay on track. Teams that lose sight of their goals, for example, tend to jeopardize the project by creating scope creeps, i.e. the uncontrolled addition of new requirements.
There is a very simple solution for this: Wiki pages where the project manager can summarize all requirements and goals and then share them with the team.
Moreover, these pages are perfect for storing any kind of information that people frequently need, such as price lists, standard texts or guidelines.
Task assignment with task cards and subtasks
The set of tasks that must be completed by the end of the project is not a one-man job. Projects require team work, because each team member has his or her own area of responsibility and is in charge of doing a certain amount of work.
A project management tool should make it easy to assign and schedule tasks so that everyone knows what tasks are assigned to whom and when the person assigned needs to do them.
This is usually done by creating task cards that specify the exact work instructions, date them and assign them to the employee(s) responsible. Good project management tools also allow you to add subtasks to the task cards, which in turn can be assigned to individual team members. This gives the team a better overview of the overall process.
Have a look at our task management 101, to learn more about the different types of tasks and how to manageme them.
Time management using a Gantt chart
Of course, it is only one part of a well-developed project plan to simply record requirements. In addition, the chronological framework is very important, because first and foremost the team wants to complete the project on time.
A Gantt chart shows exactly where the project should be at a certain point and where it actually is. This makes it easy to check whether the team is on track or whether it is necessary to adjust the plan. To do so, tasks need to be put in the right order, taking into account their duration and dependency on other tasks. If a task is delayed, it can be assumed that any dependent tasks will follow suit.
The more accurately you estimate the duration of tasks, the more accurately you can create the Gantt chart. It is helpful to know how much time certain tasks or deadlines will require, so you can constantly optimize and adjust the project. Also, as soon as you know the time required for certain types of tasks and where delays may occur you will have an easy job planning future projects.
A project management tool that also has a task-specific time tracking function as well as a project-related time evaluation function would serve this purpose.
Task views and workflows
While the Gantt chart provides information on how the whole project progresses, task status provides accurate information on the current processing status of each task. A project management tool should at least have an approval workflow to support both the delegation of tasks and the review of work results.
Even for projects of moderate complexity, it is often no longer sufficient to simply use a to-do list to guarantee transparency. However, the Kanban Board is a traditional and popular tool that visualizes the progress of individual tasks in the best possible way making it easy for the project team to move task via various status columns from the "to-do pile" to the "completed pile" – one after the other.
Find out more about the way Kanban Boards work and have a look at our comparison of 5 popular Kanban-Tools.
Collaborative file management
Word, Excel, PowerPoint, PDFs, jpg images...and many of them. This is the daily business of every project team member. Because there are many files involved, a proper file management is the least a project team should invest in. After all, only exchanging files via e-mail makes things very confusing.
Project management tools take file collaboration to a completely different level: They help to store files neatly organized and accessible to everyone, they link them to related task cards, and they help to collaboratively work on them with specific markers and comments. A project management tool serves the purpose if all files and information related to a particular task are available centrally and if changes to files can be easily tracked (versioning of files and documents).
Often stressed, but rarely really noticed: a project fails with poor communication. This is important, so do not spoil the ship for a ha'porth of tar.
Communication solutions such as Slack, which enable real-time exchange regardless of location, are now commonplace in every company. A good approach, but still not enough for project management. Communication not only has to be simple, but also topic specific in order to function smoothly. That's why project management tools should have a communication component that maintains coherence. You should be able to comment on all elements, such as tasks, files, deadlines, etc., individually; with a team- or project-specific news stream, team members are immediately up to date on new comments and actions. Mentions, accurate annotations and links help to communicate systematically.
Within teams, where there is a lot of remote or external collaboration, videoconferencing and screen sharing is essential, because some things simply need to be discussed in more detail.
Project tracking and multi-project management tools
Every day that you move back the end date of your project results in additional costs. Add to this, it is not uncommon for several projects to run simultaneously, which is why the status of individual projects should be available even without precise data analysis and observation.
Individual project overviews, that evaluate progress using diagrams, and cross-organizational project portfolios providing the most important key data and quick access to the individual projects are a way better approach. If a project is going off track, the status within the overview will inform you immediately so you can react.
What else to look out for in project management tools
The best tool set is worthless if employees struggle to cope with it. In concrete terms, this means that user-friendliness is no less important than the variety of functions. Project management tools should be clear and intuitive, and click paths should be kept as short as possible. Otherwise, the tool would problably rather harm productivity than optimize it.
Many project management tools contain far more functions than those mentioned above. For teams that do not use all of them, it would be worth checking whether individual functions can be disabled. With this gimmick, the tool is only as complex as the team's work ultimately requires.
Don't buy a tool without having tested it extensively beforehand and bring employees from different areas on board. Does everyone get along with the tool? Wonderful!
First and foremost, European companies must be able to guarantee compliance with the GDPR and the protection of sensitive internal company information. This also requires a careful examination of the project management tools used with regard to their security standards.
In particular, you should find out more about the encryption of data as well as about the company and server location. Can sensitive data be protected by client-side end-to-end encryption rather than by mere SSL transport encryption? Is the provider GDPR compliant and truly not affected by the US Cloud Act? Is the choice of subcontractors limited to the European region? Can you answer these questions with YES? Wonderful!
Location-independent working also requires the ability to work with mobile devices without complications, but with comfort and security.
Does the provider provide you with Android, iOS and desktop applications? Can mobile and desktop notifications be restricted in terms of content for security reasons? Wonderful!
Project management tool: On-Prem or SaaS?
For companies with particularly high demands on data protection - e.g. laywers or innovators who need to keep new developments secret from the competition - on-premise is quite often first choice. In this case, the company hosts the project management tool on its own servers. However, the downside is that self-hosted project management tools are very costly and time-consuming for the company and updates are not or not instantly available.
The good news is, once you select a tool that uses a dedicated encryption method, a cloud solution is in no way inferior to an on-prem solution. A SaaS product has the following advantages:
- Location-independent access: The product can be used via the browser, so all that is required is an end device and a stable internet connection.
- Lower costs and less effort: The provider takes care of hosting, maintenance and updates.
- High IT security: Cloud solutions offer greater protection against data loss, as the provider stores the data in high-security data centers with security backups.
- Immediate availability: Cloud solutions are immediately ready for use because they do not have to be installed first.
- Flexibility: Cloud customers enjoy cost flexibility. They can upgrade or downgrade depending on their function and license requirements.
- Best support: Cloud users can benefit from expert know-how – provided by the providers themselves.
Isolated solutions, integration tool or all-rounder?
The demands that teams place on their project management tools vary greatly. Many providers therefore specialize on a specific functional area and try to position themselves as the optimal solution for this small business area. Trello, for example, focuses solely on task management by means of a Kanban Board.
You can find such isolated solutions in many companies. At the same time, you will find some collaboration problems in these cases. If each department decides to use its own project management tool, employees from different departments will find it difficult to work together. In addition, the use of several tools in a team inhibits productivity, because this approach forces the user to constantly switch between various tools that he or she must initially become familiar with.
Integration tools such as Microsoft Teams try to solve the problem through integrations. Users can still purchase different tools separately and integrate them into MS Teams using an interface. Unfortunately, this is not a good solution either, because integrations usually represent only a small functional area of the individual tool and they continue to operate separately from the systems of the integration platform. They are merely inserted, but not linked to the functions of the other project management tools. As a result, users have to copy elements, link them manually and always keep an overview of the various places where users store information. Not surprisingly, they lose sight of the bigger picture.
So there are many reasons for a company to turn to an all-rounder when looking for a suitable project management tool. Here, all information remains in one central location and the functions are linked to each other, which keeps correlations of any information and actions intact. Stackfield is a holistic project management tool that combines the really important project management, collaboration and communication functions, but with the option of disabling individual functions to keep the solution as lean as possible for departments with fewer functional requirements.
Find the right project management tool step by step
Step 1: Take a digital team on board. Who knows the processes in the individual business areas best?
Step 2: Analyze exactly how you are currently running projects. Where do you see room for improvement? How could a digital project management tool be used to improve processes? What tools should the solution at least include?
- Visualization: list views, Kanban Boards, Gantt Charts
- Collaboration: workflow management, file management, document management
- Communication: real-time chats, screen sharing, (group) calls
- Knowledge Management: Wiki Pages
- Multi project management: Project portfolios
- Project tracking: detailed project overviews, Gantt Charts, time tracking
- Compliance: detailed role and right systems and advanced security settings
- Data protection: server location, DPA and encryption mechanisms
Step 3: Check the technical requirements. What is the own IT infrastructure like? Should you opt for an on-premise or a cloud solution?
Step 4: Compare providers. Which provider offers the project management tools needed and meets all requirements regarding GDPR and IT security?
Step 5: Test the software together with your digital team. To which extent can you visualize the processes in the respective areas? Is the platform intuitive or does it require extensive coaching? How big is the effort to make this software available to the company? Cloud solutions are usually ready for immediate use. With On-Prem, it would be an advantage if the provider offered support.
Step 6: Make the solution ready for use: In the best case, the administrator makes all the important settings before making the tool available to employees. That way, there will be no confusion later.
Step 7: Ensure acceptance: The unfamiliar can also be frightening. Short training sessions, information sheets and basic assistance prevent this. Employees should have a person to contact if questions or uncertainties arise.
What makes Stackfield a great project management tool?
Stackfield is a German tool that exclusively relies on German server locations and subcontractors from the European region. Stackfield is therefore under German jurisdiction and must legally guarantee GDPR and BDSG conformity. Furthermore, users benefit from client-side end-to-end encryption, two-factor authentication (optional or mandatory), ISO 27001-certified data centers, the highest SSL standards and other security measures.
Holistic feature suite
Stackfield combines the essential functions needed in a project management team and links them together to maintain coherence and overview of all internal processes. This includes various functions for task and workflow visualization (lists, Kanban Boards, Gantt Charts), collaborative file and document management, wiki pages, global reporting functions and all common communication channels (room-independent private and group chats, room-specific team chats, audio and video telephony with screen sharing and conferencing).
Ease of use and support
The platform should remain intuitive, which is why every new function is carefully checked for its usability. During development, the focus is on short click paths and a clear and intuitive design.
Anyone who needs help or has questions can reach the support team by e-mail, live chat or phone, or else take a look at the Learning Center, where individual functions are described in detail. Help is offered in German and English in all cases.
Check up on this when considering project management tools from other providers
So far, US providers of project management tools have remained the undisputed leaders in Europe as well.
Asana, Teams or Trello? American providers are popular but are they safe? This is a question that companies all over Europe are concerned with, as they are obliged to guarantee data protection compliance in accordance with the strict requirements of the GDPR. Until July 2020, companies could still refer to the EU-US Privacy Shield Agreement, that was valid until then, when using Privacy Shield certified tools from US providers. However, now that the agreement is no longer valid, following the ECJ's "Schrems II" decision, it is no longer possible to confirm an adequate level of data protection through this agreement.
Why not show that European or German project management tools are by no means inferior to US tools? Quite the contrary: they offer legal security and support in your native language.