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Tools That Can Help When There Is Too Much on Your
Published Date : 2011-06-01

We all feel a bit disorganized and even overwhelmed at times. You know the feeling — crucial tasks are slipping between the cracks, you’re not sure what needs to be done next, you’re missing deadlines, other people aren’t coming through with their pieces of the project. If you’re feeling that way more than occasionally, you may need help from project-management and other task-organizing tools. Just as financial-management services like Mint or QuickBooks can help you keep your house in order when it comes to money, project- and task-oriented tools can help you plan, manage and coordinate activities.

Task-organizing tools can be as simple as a to-do list (and I’ll be doing a separate post on those tools). Project-management tools, by contrast, are for bigger, more complex organizing jobs — but you don’t have to be building nuclear subs to benefit from them. Jill Bode, who runs a public relations agency called Designed Write in Franklin, Ind., uses an online service called AceProject (priced from zero to $99 a month, depending on the number of users, projects and tasks) to track various campaigns and efforts — currently 46 different projects for 18 clients. “I’m not a great multitasker,” Ms. Bode said. “I really like having a tracking mechanism for making sure that everything is moving forward, even if I’m not directly touching each of the projects.”

As do most project-management tools, AceProject has users type in the tasks that make up a given project, including who’s responsible for each one, when the tasks need to be started, when they have to be completed by, and what sort of time and effort is required to get each done. The process pushes Ms. Bode to think through the details of each project, she said, and then it keeps her posted on possible trouble spots. The service notifies her on login or even by e-mail when someone falls behind on a task, or when there simply isn’t enough time to get something done. “It gives me a 50,000-foot view,” she said, “and then I can zoom in to get whatever details I need to see what’s causing any problems.”

AceProject is one of several online or cloud-based services that do all this and more, including tracking budgets, expenses, billable time and invoicing. Others include Mavenlink (zero to $79 a month), Basecamp (free to $99), and Zoho (zero to $80). They all differ in interface, capabilities and emphasis, and each seems to have its advantages for different types of project-management challenges. But in playing around with some of them, it’s clear to me that any one of them can be invaluable in planning and executing projects, especially those that involve interrelated tasks. The tools become even more useful when a project is split among multiple employees, and even more so when responsibilities are divided between your company and your customer, and perhaps among partners, too.

Ms. Bode, for example, has teamed up with a gift-basket company to provide clients with campaigns that combine gifts with social-media-based publicity. What’s more, she doesn’t have any full-time employees — she relies at any one time on a half-dozen or so people scattered around the country who work for her on a project basis. “The social media parts have to be timed with when the gift baskets are delivered, so everyone needs to know what everyone else has done,” she explained. Ms. Bode, the people who work for her, and her partners can all sign in to see who needs be starting which task when, and even to call up or share any related documents or other information needed to complete a task. She could allow clients to sign in to monitor progress, too, but she prefers to keep clients apprised of progress herself.

Quantum Simulations, a 10-employee developer of sophisticated tutoring software in Murrysville, Pa., is a heavy-duty AceProject user. In addition to enlisting the service to track its software-development projects, it also uses it to coordinate projects with large partners ranging from publishers to government agencies. For example, Quantum develops tutoring software for some McGraw-Hill college textbooks and has to make sure its software is ready for distribution when McGraw-Hill brings out a biannual revision of a textbook. Quantum coordinates all of that with AceProject and also uses the service to keep the 25 or so people it employs on a contract basis on track.

Quantum co-founder Rebecca Renshaw said she found the service helpful for rooting out isolated jam-ups in demands on the company’s resources. “People can get overbooked, and when that happens we need to either move things around or bring in more contractors or a new hire,” she said. Ms. Renshaw also fires up the service every Monday morning at the company staff meeting so everyone can look at the big picture of what needs to be done in the coming week.

But Ms. Renshaw is quick to point out that while project management tools can lay out the gory details about planned tasks, it doesn’t take the place of a smart, experienced manager. “Everyone always looks like they’ve got too much on their plates when you look at their calendars,” she said. “Figuring out whether your people are really overburdened, or just very busy, is a matter of intuition and of sitting down with people and talking to them.”

She also cautions against going overboard with project-management tools by having everyone map out and update the tiniest little tasks. “You want enough detail to be able to manage projects,” she said, “but you want them spending their time thinking and being productive, not typing into a project management tool.”

Let us know what works for you.