6 Questions to Ask Before Choosing a Project Management Tool

The Information Revolution is subjecting today’s workforce to a structural change as significant as its 18th-century Industrialization counterpart. While that change was characterized by the organization of labor into factories, the 21st century is seeing the workforce decouple itself geographically from its employers.

This change is already upon us. 1 out of 4 Americans already work remotely, and Telework Research estimates that this number will double by 2020.

A remote team is simply one whose members work together, while physically apart. The last decade has seen significant investments in software solutions to help manage the transition to a globally distributed workforce.

This has lead to an explosion in cloud collaboration tools. While these tools have evolved rapidly, the field is very much in its infancy and companies are still learning how to select the best fit solution.

“Of all the difficulties facing NASA in its bid to send humans to the Moon in the Apollo program, management was perhaps the greatest challenge.” Roger Launius, NASA

Over the last few years, in my role as a marketing consultant, I have helped over 20 companies integrate the most appropriate Project Management Tool (I’ll just abbreviate it to PM from now on) for their needs. The applications have varied widely from Content Delivery to Campaign Management. In doing so, I’ve extensively used Asana, Jira, Trello, Podio, and Basecamp (five of the most established products in the market). I’ve learned the hard way that this is far from a ‘one size fits all’ situation.

A business needs to ask itself a specific set of questions before implementing a PM tool. Failure to do so can lead to adoption problems within the team, actually exacerbating the very problems the product is meant to fix.

At their core, all PM tools help provide a centralized location to manage your projects and the tasks, conversations, deadlines, documentation, and resources within them. But each product is grounded in a different philosophy. Understanding this is key to ensuring you select the most appropriate solution to match your team’s culture and requirements.

And that is precisely what the following questions are designed to do.


Does your team have much PM tool experience?

If your team has rarely worked within a cloud-based project management environment, there will be friction as they resist the change (it’s human nature!). Without the resources to invest in training, you should select a product with a gradual learning curve and fast built-in support.

There are two obvious choices here:

Trello, grounded in the Kanban style of project scheduling initially developed by Toyota, is the simplest interface to master. Think of it as digital Post-It notes on a whiteboard. Tasks are progressed by moving them into different buckets (also called lanes). The UI is tactile and serves as a great entry point for teams making the transition to online Project Management. This drag and drop interface also resonates with visually-oriented people like designers.

Asana uses another framework that will be familiar to most employees: the ‘To Do List’. Conversations and task documentation all sit within items that are checked off when complete. The customer support for Asana is comprehensive: from thought out tooltips to a help desk with same day email support.

On the other end of the scale, Podio’s interface is loaded with features and far less intuitive. This makes it a less appealing choice for an inexperienced team.

I’ve put together the scale below, displayed after each question, to help you visualize the relative merits of each PM tool.


Do you need your PM tool to integrate with other apps?

If you intend to integrate your chosen PM tool with other applications, such as time tracking or invoicing, then 3rd party support will be critical. Effective integration can save you moving between different tools to keep things synced. I’ve used Asana’s integration with Harvest to consolidate my time tracking and task management into one place.

Because we are focusing on the most established platforms, the level and quality of 3rd party app support is high across the board. Jira, Asana, and Podio lead the race with support for almost 50% of the most popular applications.That’s around 70 different integrations! Trello and Basecamp support 30% of the popular app ecosystem.


Will you be managing software releases in your PM tool?

Project Management tools have very broad applications across all industries. The tools discussed so far are suitable for most teams. If your primary need is software development, however, you will benefit from a tool that has integrated support for Scrum or Kanban boards.

As noted earlier, Trello uses the Kanban framework, which is perfectly suited for software development. Though it’s simplicity is appealing to small teams, larger teams will quickly outgrow it.

This is where Jira steps in. It is very well established and comes with the support and stability you expect from the Atlassian family of products. Jira’s Agile module has full support for the popular Scrum and Kanban methodologies.

While Asana, Basecamp, and Podio can be used for Software Development, you will find yourself using 3rd party apps or workarounds. Possible, but not ideal. It’s important to note that there are many smaller PM tools built specifically for software development. We will cover these in an upcoming article.


Do you need to collaborate with your clients?

As you grow more familiar with your project management tool, you will find that it’s not just co-workers you’ll want to collaborate with. Sharing projects with clients and other external stakeholders can be a great timesaver. But without the correct user permissions framework, it can also be a recipe for disaster.

Basecamp splits projects down the middle with a client section and a team section. This is a great way to bring client discussions into your PM tool while ensuring that the client doesn’t see anything you don’t want them to. This approach also makes the experience more manual, as you have to push specific information to the client. Asana, Jira and Podio operate on a similar principle, where guests only see what you explicitly share with them.

Trello’s ‘observer’ feature allows you to give read-only access to clients. It’s a less time-consuming approach – but it does expose all your team’s comments.


How complex is your task flow?

There is nothing more frustrating than not being able to correctly articulate a set of requests due to feature limitations. If you will be working with complex multi-level tasks then you need to pick the PM tool that will enable you.

Both Asana and Jira have been developed with complex tasks in mind. Sub-items can be easily created, managed and discussed.

Podio achieves the same objectives but in a less elegant fashion (that really is the Podio story in a nutshell).

Trello’s visual UI favors simple tasks – and it does this beautifully. While there is support for more advanced features, these clutter the overall experience. Basecamp has also opted to keep things simple and does not offer sub-tasks.


How scalable is the pricing model?

The investment you make in selecting the most appropriate PM tool is more than just monetary. Even once you have made your decision, you and your staff will invest time and resources into preparing and familiarising yourselves with the platform.

Trials, costs, and pricing models vary between each platform. Most platforms use a model that blends ‘Users’ and ‘Features’. This can make comparison and selection a difficult process.

Let’s consider the total cost for two teams:

  • a light usage 15 strong team that only uses basic features
  • another team of 30 members that requires the full feature set

Asana provides a very functional version of the product entirely free for up to 15 team members. The limitations of this free version are few. The prices for full access scale up from $4 to $8 per user, as team numbers grow.

  • Light access for a 15 member team would cost nothing!
  • Full access for a team of 30 would set you back $208 per month.

Trello was designed for smaller teams and individuals and it’s pricing model reflects this. Like Asana it offers a limited version of the product. Unlike Asana there is no user cap on this. You are only charged if you require access to the application integrations like Evernote or Salesforce.

  • Light access for 15 member team would cost nothing!
  • Full access for a team of 30 would cost $299 per month.

Basecamp updated their pricing to a flat rate of $99 a month. This makes it expensive for small team and very cheap for large teams…

  • Light access for a team of 15 would cost $99 per month
  • Full access for a team of 30 would cost $99 per month.

Podio packs a heavy set of features including workflow management and digital signature support. The full access price reflects this loaded feature set.

  • Light access for a team of 15 would cost $108 per month
  • Full access for a team of 30 would cost a hefty $570 per month.

Finally, Jira’s pricing is heavily customizable based on needs and, in my opinion, it is overly complex.

  • Light access for a team of 15 would cost $75 per month
  • Full access for a team of 30 would cost over $300 per month, depending on add-ons.

Ultimately, value for money comes down to your requirements and team size. Startups will probably find Asana and Basecamp as the more viable options here. Trello if you are bootstrapping your business!


In Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has given you a clearer picture of the relative strengths of each platform. When considering the leading products in any sector, the key to making the correct choice is often based on finding the best fit for your business culture and requirements. Rather than the best features.

Lists of features also become dated fast as new updates come out. However, the fundamental philosophy and framework for each one are pretty static.

What Project Management Tool do you use the most?