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Project management tools: How to choose the right one (and 4 we recommend)

Project Management Tools
What are project management tools and how do they boost productivity?
7 important qualities to look for in project management tools
4 of the best project management tools for increasing productivity
Final thoughts

Choosing a project management tool from the overwhelming breadth of what’s available is enough to make any business leader want to stick with what they’re used to.

Instead of simplifying your projects, a tool that doesn’t fit your organization’s needs could complicate workflows and slow productivity.

The right tool with the right features, however, can streamline your processes, improving efficiency and team morale while growing the bottom line.

In this article, you’ll learn how your business can benefit from the right project management tool and what to look for when comparing options. We’ll also explore some of the best project management tools available in 2022.

What are project management tools and how do they boost productivity?

Project management tools are programs that help businesses, teams and individuals organize and manage projects.

There are plenty of free tools and techniques for project management, although the extra capabilities of paid-for software (also known as software as a service, or SaaS) often justify the investment.

The main aim of a project management tool is to organize and streamline common project management processes, such as:

  • Scheduling activities. Organizing tasks, subtasks and dependencies into calendars and to-do lists so your team works efficiently and nothing gets missed.

  • Communicating and collaborating. Acting as a single place for the team to plan projects, share information, provide status updates and handle resource allocation.

  • Analyzing risks. Documenting the potential challenges associated with a project, often with a scoring system for ranking severity and likelihood.

  • Reporting on project progress. Turning project data into accessible dashboards and shareable reports, allowing managers and stakeholders to gauge performance.

  • Storing documentation. Allowing project leads to create and securely store project documents, such as project charters, feasibility studies, risk assessments, framework templates, approval letters and timesheets.

By centralizing all of these processes, project management software removes the need for teams to use multiple overlapping systems, such as:

  • Communication apps to facilitate team collaboration and project updates

  • Excel spreadsheets to store project data, track progress and forecast issues

  • Cloud storage to organize documentation and deliverables

  • Calendars for project scheduling with multiple tasks, sprints and milestones

Centralization allows for quicker processes (as staff no longer need to switch between programs or search different apps for information) and more consistent, standardized data.

Project managers and stakeholders can use the latter to quickly and accurately compare performance across different projects, addressing weaknesses as necessary.

Why project management tools aren’t just for project managers

Understandably, many people associate project and task management tools with project management professionals. However, their relevance is broadening as managers from other disciplines get more involved in project-based work.

In a Wellingtone survey of program and project management professionals, 47% said their companies’ projects were mostly or always led by professional project managers, meaning more than half are handled by people from other fields.

In some ways, project management tools are even more beneficial to these acting project leads – especially those who can’t afford to step away from day-to-day work.

With software organizing projects into easy-to-follow processes, automating admin tasks and providing quickly-accessible progress reports, managers can achieve their desired outcomes with minimal attention.

7 important qualities to look for in project management tools

There are plenty of project management tools available, each with pros, cons and differentiating features.

Start the research process by defining your company’s needs and project objectives, so you can pick a tool with useful project capabilities.

For the most accurate picture, collect team member and stakeholder opinions before you start looking at tools. Here’s what to focus on when collecting their views:

  • Team members. These are the people who’ll use your chosen tool every day. Ask what they find most challenging or time-consuming about project work in its current form and prioritize features that’ll address these issues. For example, if team members say they spend too much time updating colleagues, look for a tool with automatic status notifications.

  • Stakeholders. Find out what stakeholders want and aren’t getting from project work currently. If they expect more regular progress updates, a tool with automated reports and real-time performance dashboards will stop the project manager from having to deliver that information manually.

There are hundreds of variables separating each project management app from the next. Here are seven of the most broadly helpful features to look for when comparing tools.

1. Free trials (and new-user promotions)

Free trials allow you to stress-test different tools and their most relevant features without committing to buying.

Set up a dummy project to run tests so unfamiliar interfaces and software shortcomings don’t hinder real work. Make it simple and reflective of your company’s typical projects, so you can accurately assess effectiveness.

Using the same dummy project for all trials, you’ll also see how different tools handle identical processes, so you can compare them directly and prioritize the most useful outcomes.

Collect team members’ views to learn which software they find the easiest to use and most beneficial. Picking one that everyone clicks with should speed up the onboarding process.

2. Case studies, reviews and testimonials

You can learn a lot about a project management tool’s usefulness from a comparable business’s experience.

The easiest way to find case studies and testimonials is to visit a provider’s website. When reading this type of content, focus on quantitative data as this will be less biased than any narrative around it.

For example, in the case study below, we learn that Zoom saves “133 work weeks” per year using Asana’s automation features. If automation and time-saving are priorities for your business, this content suggests Asana could be a good choice.

Asana Project Management

Look to business and technology media for more neutral takes on the best project management software. Established review sites know what their audiences (i.e. small businesses) value most and steer their content accordingly.

This TechRadar Pro review of Basecamp dives into pricing, pros and cons to help you make an informed buying decision.

TechRadar Evaluation

TechRadar’s review suggests Basecamp could be a good choice if you’re looking for free project management software with integrated chat features and mobile functionality. If file-sharing is your priority, you might keep searching or at least test this feature.

3. Integrations

While project management software centralizes project activities, optimal productivity comes from using a range of technologies that work well together.

Other tools your team might use for project work include email, messaging clients, internet browsers, business intelligence (BI) tools and customer relationship management (CRM) software.

Choose a project management solution that integrates with your existing tech stack so you can synchronize data across platforms.

For example, CRM data will provide valuable context to any customer-related tasks in your project management system. With the right integration, you won’t need to search for that data or manually copy it from one platform to the other.

As you’ll see below, Notion integrates with meeting tools, cloud storage apps and other project management platforms.

Notion Project Management

This flexibility allows a project management tool to scale with your business. For example, if you outgrow Notion’s file storage limits, you can integrate Google Drive, Dropbox or OneDrive to create more space for project documents and deliverables, minimizing disruption.

4. Flexibility and customization

No two businesses are the same, so an out-of-the-box project management tool is unlikely to deliver consistent results for every user.

Look for a solution you can tailor to your needs. As well as helping you get better outcomes now, customizable software can adapt to evolving requirements as your business grows

Valuable customization areas include:

  • Dashboards and reporting. A report is only useful if it contains the data you or your stakeholders need to make better project or business decisions. Make sure you can choose which metrics to include in progress and performance updates.

  • Workflows and status updates. Every step between “project start” and “project finish” is unique to your business. Adding custom stages and statuses will ensure all team members know what to work on (using task names rather than generic project management stages) and where their colleagues are up to.

  • Project views. Ensure team members can view projects in the most helpful ways, whether in calendar format, kanban boards or straightforward task lists. This’ll help everyone understand their responsibilities so that tasks aren’t missed or forgotten.

  • Project templates. Creating custom templates for regular projects can save time during the project planning stage. For example, in a content marketing project, you could reuse the same template to put different deliverables through strategizing, briefing, creation, proofing and editing steps.

Custom tagging is common enough that we don’t need to list it above, but don’t underestimate its usefulness. Tags work like keywords or labels and make it easy to find specific tasks, projects, messages and team members within a project management interface.

Devise a tag system that works for your team, using the same set of labels consistently so users can find information quickly. In our earlier content marketing example, useful tags could be output descriptions like “blog”, “news”, and “case study”.

5. Browser and mobile support

The ability to access project data in different locations is more important than ever.

According to a McKinsey survey, 58% of US workers report having the opportunity to work remotely at least once a week, while more than a third say they can do it every day.

The easier it is to use a project management tool outside the office, the more likely team members will track time and update tasks regularly. When that happens, you get the clearest and most accurate picture of a project’s progress.

Most modern project management tools are cloud-based, meaning the data you store is accessible anywhere with an internet connection. Connectivity with cloud apps, like Google Docs and Dropbox, will increase storage capacity so staff can share and collaborate on larger files.

The next step is to check browser compatibility. Chrome, Firefox and Safari are well-supported across online project management tools, but most won’t work on Internet Explorer or Opera and some don’t get on well with browser extensions. Desktop apps offer a way around this but ask your team members how they like to work before making a decision.

The most important factor in on-the-go project management is mobile support. Go further than checking advertised availability by trialing tools in different mobile environments (iOS and Android mobile apps on smartphones and tablets) to ensure they offer the functionality you need.

6. An intuitive interface for easy onboarding

Onboarding team members mid-way through a project, or even between projects, can be an overwhelming experience for all parties.

Having a supportive project management office (PMO) will help new hires get up to speed on company processes. Still, knowledge means little if your chosen project management software is difficult to use.

Find a balance between capability and simplicity. While some user training might be necessary, the best software makes sense with minimal context.

Trello’s a great example of user-friendliness. Its interactive project timelines, drag-and-drop functionality and professionally designed templates make project management more accessible to team members at all levels.

Trello Project Management

Simplicity, when not at the expense of functionality, will encourage team members to log in regularly, making them more likely to keep up with tasks. The result is a faster-moving, smoother project process.

7. A range of support options

Whichever project management tool you choose, and however intuitive it is, you will have questions at some point. Make sure you and your team can get answers quickly through various channels.

Support has little value if the typical response time is measured in days and not minutes. If a key feature doesn’t work as intended, or a team member needs urgent guidance, you lose a day of productivity.

Email, phone and FAQs are all base-level support options, and are often less useful (or just slower) than the following:

  • Live chat. Ideal for fast solutions to simple-but-urgent problems, or escalating bigger issues, as users can keep working while they wait for a response. Live chat is even more efficient if you can use a chat platform you’re already familiar with, like Slack.

  • Forums and community pages. There’s a good chance another user has experienced your problem and will have had time to overcome it. Use forums to find existing solutions based on real-world scenarios or pose your question to the community.

  • Online courses. Courses and tutorials allow you to focus training on the features that matter most to your business. Team members can master the entire platform at their own pace, or dip in to brush up on a specific area.

Asana’s support options help users find solutions in ways that suit them. Extra value comes from a “Developer’s Guide” which advises development teams and other advanced users on customization features.

Asana Support Options

The best support options go beyond problem-solving to provide inspiration on managing projects. Look for use cases and topical blogs to get ideas for your own project work.

4 of the best project management tools for increasing productivity

While there’s no end to the list of tools and techniques for project management, some applications consistently get great reviews and have the trust of millions of users.

In no particular order, here are four great tools to consider.

1. For out-of-the-box accessibility: Trello

Trello is known for its straightforward collaboration features and accessible approach to work management. It has a digital dashboard where users can create, organize and prioritize activities using “cards”.

There are different viewing options, too, so team members can see projects from various perspectives. These include the classic project board, map, timeline, calendar and table views.

Lightweight and simple to use, Trello is well suited to individuals and small teams that manage one or a few simple projects at a time. A lack of native reporting features makes it less useful for performance tracking or updating stakeholders.

If you like the look of Trello but need some extra capabilities, the platform’s “Power-Ups” library might be useful. In it, you’ll find apps for time tracking, resource management, invoicing and more.

Trello pricing: Trello has a generous free plan, although its paid plans offer additional features like automation, integrations and priority support. Paid plans range from $6 to $17.50 per user, per month (accurate as of September 2022).

2. For big-project collaboration and accountability: Asana

Asana is a little harder than Trello to get used to, but its vast capabilities help teams working on complex projects achieve more in the long run.

The interface is easy to navigate once you know what each feature does. Projects, Workspaces and Reports are where project managers will spend the most time, while team members track responsibilities in straightforward timelines and to-do lists.

Asana’s message threads and comments sections make it an effective collaboration tool. Users can tag one another to grab attention and filter their inboxes to see the most relevant updates.

Asana pricing: There’s a free plan targeting individuals and teams new to project management and more feature-rich paid plans ranging from $13.49 to $30.49 per user per month (accurate as of September 2022).

3. For centralizing business and project knowledge: Notion

Notion is as much an advanced note-taking app as it is a project management tool. You can use it to assign tasks, set due dates, create to-do lists and view project tracking boards but the platform is most valuable as a space to centralize business and project information.

Due to its text-heavy, Wiki-like structure, Notion can be daunting at first. It’s certainly not as visually intuitive as Asana or Trello. However, its unlimited free storage, near-endless customizability and comprehensive note-taking features will help you get more organized once you’re on board.

Consider using Notion as digital headquarters for your project team, or a web-based PMO: a place for staff (especially in remote teams) to quickly find valuable insight on projects and processes.

Notion pricing: Notion also has a generous free plan. Its paid plans are cheaper than others on this list (ranging from $4 to $8 per user per month, accurate as of September 2022), but you may need to supplement it with more traditional project management software.

4. For managing sales and marketing projects: Pipedrive

Pipedrive is primarily a sales tool. However, its ability to provide both a clear overview of CRM data and more detailed project information when required makes it a perfect project management solution for many organizations.

Features like task scheduling, agile project filtering options, automated workflows and custom pipelines mean project managers, especially those in sales and marketing, can easily set up and track project progress.

Pipedrive’s value in project management is growing, too. A new project management feature, Projects by Pipedrive, is currently in beta for a closed group of users and is due for release soon. Stay updated with the latest news in our community.

Pipedrive pricing: Pipedrive has four tiers to suit different needs. Try Pipedrive with a free 14-day trial.

Final thoughts

Google “tools for project management” and you’ll get hundreds of providers, all claiming to offer the best solution for your project needs. The perfect tool is the one with capabilities that help you, and your unique business or team, work faster and achieve better outcomes.

Use your objectives to build a list of important qualities, shortlist the most suitable options and use free trials to gauge effectiveness. Once you find the right tool, you’ll wonder how you managed without it.

Driving business growth