Project Management

Project Management Tools and Software: Are They Necessary?

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By Mario Trentim

There's an old saying: "A fool with a tool is still a fool.” And I’ve heard many project management professionals say that best practices and good methodology are more important than project management tools and software.

Do you agree? By the end of this article, you might change your mind.

A Brief Story of a Failed Methodology

I've been working as a project manager since 2001. In my early days, as an engineer, I was responsible for the technical and managerial aspects of projects. In 2010, as I moved up the ladder in my organization (the Air Force), I was assigned to implement and operate a Project Management Office (PMO). Considering that we didn't want to make large investments up front, my focus was on creating a methodology, developing templates and designing and delivering training. To my surprise, only a few of my recommendations were implemented, even though abiding by the PMO guidelines was mandatory.

I started investigating the reasons. It turned out that it was not that people didn't know the methodology, nor that they did not want to follow it. It was just too much work.

You know the drill: A project manager is assigned to a project, searches the intranet, finds the PMO site, then reads the "project management manual" and any other supporting documents for the methodology. Finally, the project manager copies and pastes files from a shared folder, and starts filling in all the templates (scattered in different files and different formats).

Truth be told, the project managers usually started on the right foot. The problems appeared as the project progressed, because it was a huge effort to keep all files updated and integrated in a coherent fashion.

Although I am talking about experiences from 2010 to 2014, many organizations unfortunately still find themselves in a similar situation today.

Productivity goes down. Project failure rates go up. And as the organization demands more training, it creates more controlling processes, auditing and extra reports—resulting in even more work.

The Solution

When I first came across Project Portfolio Management (PPM) and Enterprise Project Management (EPM) software in 2003, I didn't think it would be a big deal. By 2010, I was convinced that you cannot increase portfolio and project management maturity without software.

To be able to implement a standard toolset across projects, the PMO usually starts with paper-based or Excel-based approaches. The risk is that they settle for less by not evolving into using enterprise-level business applications.

Is adopting a particular tool or software a requirement to project management success? No. But the use of project management tools increases maturity.

People often say that they will acquire a corporate project management tool once their organization is "mature enough." Going back to the beginning of this article, I am very aware of the fact that a tool is useless if you don't know how to use it. However, once you already have basic knowledge and processes, a tool can speed up the learning process—skyrocketing productivity.

As an analogy, imagine that you already have basic knowledge in math and finance. When should you buy a financial calculator, such as HP-12C? Only after five years of calculation amortization by hand? I doubt this would be the smartest choice. After all, you don’t have to become an expert bike runner before you can buy a bicycle.

In project management, some of the foundational concepts can be taught by using flip-charts, sticky notes and simple Excel spreadsheets. But you cannot teach people how to create a solid and realistic schedule and cost baselines without project management software. It is just not feasible. It is not that it is impossible. Actually, in the 1960s and 1970s, the Polaris and Apollo projects were planned without the help of software tools (nonexistent at the time). But planning for those projects took a long time.

Today, we live in a modern world in which the project life cycle is shorter. We manage multiple projects at the same time, and there is more volatility and uncertainty. Project managers have to evolve as well.

How to Implement PPM and EPM Tools

Project Portfolio Management or Enterprise Project Management is a corporate platform to manage portfolios, programs, projects and resources enterprise-wide. The PMO is ideally positioned to lead project management tool selection because it understands the big picture from different project managers, team members and business units. When assessing specific project management tools, take into consideration:

  1. Functions and features
  2. Implementation requirements and interfaces
  3. Application maintenance, support and upgrades
  4. Availability of vendors
  5. Cost (including customization, licenses and more)

Depending on the size of the organization, you might prefer to execute a pilot before rolling out the tool to the entire organization. It is important to keep stakeholders engaged and informed by sharing:

  • Advance announcements
  • Senior management sponsorship and endorsement
  • The implementation schedule
  • User training

A word of caution: Do not underestimate the effort needed to implement a project management tool enterprise-wide.

In the meantime, please leave your comments and questions below.

Posted by Mario Trentim on: February 27, 2020 02:14 AM | Permalink

Comments (7)

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Thank you, Mario. Absolutely. The amount of effort required to successfully implement and adopt a tool across the enterprise is monstrous. The level of business readiness, e.g. change management is higher than what is initially expected. Additionally, those readiness activities tend to start too late.

I have to agree. Although I've seen some organizations obsess way too long about which tool they'll use (there's a degree of Parkinson's Law to that), there's little excuse for not having some tool; there are so many options available today. Not having one is like using postal delivery because you haven't decided which chat software to use.

A very thoughtful read I must say. Thank you Mario!

As important as the tool is having a common process - if not more important. This needs to be well articulated and shared - the tool helps with this but cannot replace not having clear and simple guidance.

Thanks for sharing.

Thanks, Mario. I agree - software becomes extremely neccessary the more involved things get in a project. There's some folks that still use excel for example but it's really difficult with a large ongoing project.

Thanks for posting!

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