The problem of project management tools

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I do a lot of freelance these days, and as such, I’m often working within different project management tools. Each client I get might prefer something a little bit different. There’s Basecamp, there’s Slack, there’s Trello, there’s Asana, there’s good old Google and Microsoft Online. The list goes on and on. Project management tools are everywhere. By some measure, the market for project management tools will be worth about $4.3 billion in 2020.

There are darlings among the project management tools world, of course: Slack got to a $1 billion valuation in about two years — and did so without a CMO. Trello is now being used to organize entire businesses. Basecamp can supposedly turn you into a “data genius.”

This is all well and good about project management tools, but here’s the deal. They don’t often work in the way people and organizations expect. And there’s one key reason why that happens.

Project management tools: Technology will save us all

There’s kind of been this belief among harried, Temple of Busy-slugging managers for years. If you throw technology at some problem in your business, that problem will be solved instantly. We did this with recruiting. We did it with employee engagement. We did it with ideation. We did it with the entirety of our company’s digital strategy.

Here’s the thing: technology is only part of the equation. Technology gives you the tools and (maybe) the processes. But for now, people are still working with the technology. They’re still uploading the files. They’re still managing the permissions. They’re still advancing the projects. Technology has changed tons of things about work and society, but it hasn’t — yet — stripped people from the day-to-day operations side.

In short, the belief is that throwing technology at a problem solves it. The reality is often much different.

Project management tools: Let’s communicate, baby

IMHO, one of the reasons project management tools cropped up is twofold. First, people don’t really want to collaborate. They’re often forced into it by how organizations are structured — and then we still go and promote individuals. Very odd. Secondly: people don’t really want to communicate with others at work. Most people honestly want to do their own thing and hit their own targets.

If you throw technology and boards and group chats at work, these two problems should be helped. You can claim to collaborate but it’s less intrusive than constant meetings and e-mails. And you can ‘communicate’ but still be lazy and mostly do your own thing.

Here’s the issue: most projects at work require communication because they need context. What’s the backstory? Who’s involved? Who owns what? Who else is on the project? What are the deliverables?

You can communicate this via project management tools, of course. But most people I’ve worked with are absolutely terrible at it. “Hey, I added you to a Trello board.” Me: “What’s it about?” (** Crickets **)

Again: humans are still (as of now) doing the work and advancing the projects. And humans require some degree of context and communication. This can easily get lost in project management tools.

Project management tools: Let’s not replace core human ideas, OK?

Almost every problem at work could be solved if people got up and talked to each other, or (in the case of remote/international teams) picked up the phone and communicated. E-mail made us lazy, in part because it reinforces the hierarchy. (Bosses love that.) Project management tools are supposedly saving us from e-mail and meetings, but they’re also making us lazy.

As opposed to “Hey, give me a little bit of clarity on this project,” we’ve now got “It’s in Basecamp. You’ll figure it out.”

Even though we probably secretly don’t want to collaborate, we’re still social animals. We need context and background and connection, not just nice places to practice our version control and exchange pithy comments with product marketing managers. There’s a reason it’s powerful to have friends at work. If most of that interaction is shifting from IRL to Asana, that’s not super good.

Project management tools: Do they confuse people?

In the case of digital natives, you’d hope not. But right now we’ve got three generations in the workplace. At every place I’ve ever worked, the project management tools in place have confused the hell out of at least 3–5 in 10 people.

At my last gig, we had a combo of Sharepoint, Yammer, and Microsoft Online. It was silo’ed to the hilt and different people were using different systems, etc. One team I was on used Google Drive. Another used Slack, another used Basecamp, etc. People never knew where the assets they needed were. This specific case is probably an example of bad management, but I’ve seen companies where everyone is on Google Drive and some older employees (and some younger!) still have no idea what’s going on.

Maybe that’s just certain people being idiots — not everyone is Steve Jobs, no — but for me, project management tools should be helping you easily hit business targets. If they’re confusing half your staff, well, that’s less than stellar.

Project management tools, of course, have a lot of benefits

Version control. Storage. Access. Chats. Holistic views of projects. I get it. They can be useful.

But in answer to my headline here, project management tools can only work if …

they’re clear and intuitive, and people still communicate with each other about the projects.

Would you agree/disagree? Do you think project management tools are a bunch of hype, or the legitimate future of work?

My name’s Ted Bauer; I blog here regularly and you can learn about hiring me for freelance and contract gigs as well. You can also subscribe to my newsletter.

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