by Di Ellis
It's the dilemma we all face – do I really need to shell out hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of dollars for some project management software. Isn't there an easier way? Well – there is, but it depends on the size and complexity of your project.
In any project, there are 5 key documents that must be created (either individually or combined):
Lets look at each of these in turn and assess what software we need to create and manage these.
The Project Management Plan is simply a document which outlines, in detail, what needs to be done, by when, by whom, how much it will cost, and any other pertinent information (depending on the size and complexity of your project).
Now to create one of these, all you need is a word processor – and any one will do. So, no fancy software required here.
This is where you can spend the big bucks! A project schedule fundamentally shows, in a much greater level of detail, exactly what needs to be done, by when, and by whom, to achieve the project objectives.
Traditionally, tasks are broken down to a level of detail whereby no individual task is longer than 10 days, but, in my view, it's "horses for courses" – if you need a finer level of granularity – go for it. If you need less, or don't believe the tasks can be split any further, then that's fine too.
Now, theoretically, you can do this in a spreadsheet (with columns for task, assigned to, planned start and end dates, actual start and end dates, and so on), but if your project has a lot of interdependencies (one task must finish before another starts) or is long or complex – forget it!
The power of project planning (or scheduling) software is in its ability to let you define relationships between tasks (such as – one cannot start until starts or finishes, one needs this particular person).
The other great thing about planning software is that you can see the project schedule diagrammatically – and executives and senior managers love this! A lot of people's eyes just glaze over when they a spreadsheet full of letters and numbers, but show them a Gantt chart and their eyes light up!
If I was going to spend money anywhere on project management software – this is where I'd spend it.
By the way, there are a few "free" scheduling packages out there. Feel free to try them, but good luck with them – I've found you get what you pay for, and I have yet to find one that matches up to the big guns.
Now I know some project management software claims to manage budgets and cost reporting, but unless you work in a large company which tracks internal costs, in my view you are better off using a spreadsheet to keep track of real costs.
Setting up a budget spreadsheet is fairly easy – you just need one with your original budget estimates (never lose this – you will always be measured against what you said you would deliver), and then another to track costs during the life of the project. And, of course, your summary of actual versus budget costs.
Again, I'd just go for a spreadsheet or even a word document for this. Unless your project is hugely complex, the number of issues and risks you will be tracking should be manageable with a spreadsheet or word document.
The status report is usually a word document outlining progress in each of the key areas above – schedule, budget, risks and issues. Create yourself a word template and just use this.
If you generally work on fairly small and relatively straightforward projects, then you can probably get by with a good word processor and spreadsheet.
If you work on larger or more complex projects, I would definitely recommend investing in some quality project management software. You should be able to get away with less than $1000. Anything more than this is really aimed at the corporate market. So try out a few – most of the more popular ones offer a free trial, so download them now and start creating.
About the Author
Di Ellis is the owner of this site, and author of Manage That Project, a fantastically simple, easy to understand guide to project management. And with Manage That Project you get free templates for a Project Management Plan, Risks & Issues Log, and Status Report, as well as great information and tips on what to include in your Project Schedule and Project Budget.
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