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Project-ing Forward

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Project management systems should make running your business projects easier, not harder. So why doesn't it seem that way when you're left staring blankly at an unfeasible Gantt chart.

Ever since Microsoft Project first appeared most project management systems have followed a similar model. That's probably because it works: you set up a project with a name, deadline and other details; you create a bunch of tasks/steps to follow (these are sometimes know as "deliverables" but that's more jargon than we need right now); you arrange them in a logical order; you assign 'resources' to the steps; then you follow your plan through, updating as you go.

It's all fine in theory but it can easily turn into an ugly mess. There are are lot of reasons why this can happen: over-ambitious deadlines, poorly structured plans, no regular updating of the tasks. It's important that the initial project plan is logical and achievable, rather than created higgledy-piggledy in a panicked rush. But even when the plan is spot-on the project manager needs to realise that people are not machines, and that there are many other distractions in the workplace that may detract from their timely updating of the project manager's precious plan. So you have to make it easy for them.

The key is to make the plan highly interactive. There are ways of distributing MS Project so many users can collaborate on projects, but it wasn't really originally designed that way so it looks like it has been somewhat shoe-horned into the role of collaborative tool. The good news is that there are now a myriad decent project management systems available, both software and web-based. That's good news? Well, yes and no. There's now a good chance that the perfect project management system for your business is out there but, with all the choice available, it can be hard to choose the right candidate.

I've spent a good of time researching project management systems. Some are excellent but expensive; some are frustratingly close to being spot-on but missing some vital functionality; some seem to have been designed in such a counter-intuitive manner that even adding a simple update takes ages. I tend to look for "Swiss Army knife" type systems that can also handle other important stuff such as time-tracking, billing and workflow. It just seems to make sense that these other highly-related functions should be available in a good system; I don't want to have to log into umpteen different systems in order to get my work done.

All business activities have steps that must be undertaken in order to reach the goal. Project management is simply about breaking out the actual desired outcome and breaking down the path to it into achievable increments. It may not be fun but it's a lot easier, and a lot safer, than tackling a project without a plan.

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