Using Project Management Tools For Process

Written by Ian James, Nov 27, 2012

Why do project management tools - even 'best of breed' ones like Basecamp, not work well for business process management?

toolbox marked process with various tools

I once had a client who loved a project management tool called Basecamp. I like it myself. I have used it with great success a number of times. (If you want to check it out, here it is).  My client’s team was struggling with their volume of email. They really had no other workflow at all. They made do with reams of paper and email. Sometimes, they would print out emails just to be on the safe side. I figure my client was justifying my modest fee based on the money she would save on paper and toner.

When she suggested using Basecamp, I went along with idea. I would like to be able to say that I was reluctant. But that would not be true. Was it possible to corral transactions in a PM application and not have to rely on email? I had had a few experiments with Basecamp elsewhere but I felt it had not been put to test properly. So I was enthusiastic. This turned out to be a mistake.  So what did we learn?

First, it was nothing to do with the application itself. Basecamp is very lightweight and easy to use. It has its detractors but the competition is pretty meager in it’s chosen market. It has many of the features you would want to see if you were managing transactions within processes. It has a first rate list feature with easy re-ordering.  It allows you to collect comments and emails into a coherent history. You can attach documents so you avoid having multiple excel spreadsheets scattered over many email inboxes. It allows some access control so when you want to keep some things private, you can.

So it was not like we chose the wrong project management tool.  In fact, I would say it was best of breed. So why didn’t it work?

Well it did, sort of. But, the first issue was the sheer effort of taking a task from an email and creating a project to handle it.  We found that there is quite bit of overhead in raising a project. You have to go through a number of steps including inviting individuals to each project. That got boring quickly.

The next thing we discovered was the sheer number of projects we needed. It is always surprising how many balls there are in the air, even in a small department or group. And we were essentially creating a project for each ball.  Basecamp is great for say 7 or 8 projects. But not 56. Your mileage may vary but we soon could not see the task woods for the project trees.

There were also a few features we did not need. Calendaring was one. Coordinating things by date is essential in PM. But the moment you think you need to put a date down, you are into planning.

And therein lies the issue. With a project management tool you are imposing structure. That’s what PM is all about.

Unstructured processes need to flow freely. Let the user decide. They need to be able to swiftly re-route in the light of information and events as they unfold. Something unstructured does not lend itself to is the imposition of structure.

We did make progress in the end but not using Basecamp or any other project management tool.

Update:

A new crop of tools is available that go a long way in conquering the email dragon. Look at using the Asana, Trello and Podio productivity apps for process improvement.

And as for making process maps, yEd is a great free alternative to Visio for process mapping.

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