Teams that have to handle multiple projects can't rely on their memories to keep them all organized. And trying to keep everything together in email is a recipe for disaster. To deliver projects on time and within budget, information needs to be written down, deadlines plotted, and documents shared. Team members need to be in constant communication with one another. That's the kind of information that quickly outgrows email threads and spreadsheets. When your team needs to get serious about managing projects, the solution is to get project management software.
Project Management Tools
Project management apps are online systems for both working and collaborating on projects. These real-time workspaces let team members and outside partners keep an eye on every detail that brings a project to fruition. They typically provide an overview of all the projects in the pipeline, as well as the nitty-gritty details about the daily work being done to move the projects forward. The very best ones help teams handle common problems, such as slipped deadlines, by automatically rescheduling tasks that are affected by it. They generate reports that give managers insight into which team members have too much (or too little) work on their plates. Many track time spent on projects and integrate with invoicing and billing systems.
The most important thing to know about project management apps, as opposed to other kinds of work-management apps, is that they are for projects. It might sound tautological, but it's important. Projects are a specific type of work. Projects have a start date, an end date, and deliverables. Creating a new design for a website is a project. Maintaining that website, however, is ongoing work with no clear beginning and end date. Publishing a monthly magazine is a project that you complete once a month. Writing daily content for a blog is ongoing work. You could, theoretically, manage each blog post as its own project, but if the turnaround time is quick and only two or three people are involved, using a project management system could be more trouble than it's worth.
The kind of work that benefits from a project management app typically takes more than a few weeks to complete, and there are many steps and people involved. Is selling a house a project? It very well could be.
How Project Management Apps Work
Inside these apps, employees work together to break complex projects into component parts, namely milestones, tasks, and subtasks.
Every milestone, task, and subtask can be assigned to a specific person and given a deadline. Typically, all the other team members can see who is responsible for each task, whether that person is on track to complete it on time, and if there are any unanswered questions about the job.
Having visibility into every team member's task list is useful for understanding whether people are falling behind because they're overworked. When you can see that a colleague has six task assignments all due within the next 48 hours, it's easy to spot the problem and redistribute the work before deadlines slip. By looking at a Gantt chart, for example, which are pretty common in project management apps, a manager would be able to see clearly when employees have too much work on their plates, or not enough. It helps everyone use their resources more effectively.
Projects usually have assets, too, which range from a detailed description of the project and its parts to a visual mock-up. People on the project team all need access to these assets, and the project management becomes the central place where they live.
Many project management solutions come with some amount of storage space so that your team can upload files right into the workspace, where everyone on the team can see them and discuss them. It's also common for services to have an option to connect to online storage services, such as Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, or OneDrive, so that team members can link to or upload files to the project management system from the repositories they already use.
Free Project Management Tools
A few project management software systems have free versions, but they are generally quite limited. The primary limitation is usually the number of projects you can manage (think one or two), although sometimes you might be restricted on space or prevented from using certain features.
Almost all project management apps have at a minimum a two-week free trial. When a free trial has a time limit on it, I don't count it as having a free tier of service. To me, free means you get to use it forever with no charge.
While it's helpful to try out software for free while you're deciding whether to upgrade, most businesses, in the end, will want the features and space allotments that come with paid accounts. Still, it's often helpful to try a product for an unlimited amount of time before deciding whether it's right for you, your team, and the work you all do.
Which project management system has a free version? Zoho Projects, Teamwork Projects, Wrike, Volerro, and ProofHub all do. As you can see from the chart above, these free versions only allow you to manage one or two projects, except for Wrike. With Wrike, the limitations are that only five people can use the tool, you only get 2GB of space, and you don't get proofing and approval tools.
Free trials often come with other limitations, as well. These are listed in the Price section of the complete reviews, which are linked below.
Collaboration software is a little different than project management software. While you do "collaborate" in a project management app, project management software is something much more specific.
Collaboration software comprises so many different kinds of apps and services that handle everything from video conference calls to letting two people type on a document at the same time.
Modern project management services often roll communication and collaboration tools right into them. Or they let you connect to the collaboration apps that your team already uses, such as Slack, HipChat, or even Google Docs.
Whether you use communications tools included in the project management application or connect to an outside one, the idea is that your team can log into one workspace and have at hand everything they need to get work done, including a prioritized to-do list, all the necessary assets, notes from other colleagues, a calendar of deadlines and milestones, and a place to ask questions and find answers. Some project management apps even offer billing and expense tools, too.
Because collaboration and communication are so important, one of my favorite project management features is a built-in chat app. Having a chat app doesn't necessarily mean your team must use it, but it's nice to have the option. Zoho Projects, Volerro, and Clarizen all offer an included chat app.
Task Management Software
Task management software is slightly different from project management software. Project management apps will include task management features in them. But you can get standalone task management apps if that's the only piece you really need.
One of the clearest example of a task management app is Asana. Asana is also sometimes called a workflow management tool. With Asana, you can have tasks assigned to specific individuals, and those tasks can have descriptions, deadlines, and attached documents, but they aren't necessarily part of a larger project.
Another kind of workflow management software are kanban boards. Trello is one example. Kanban is also a style of working. It comes from Japan, and it was traditionally used in manufacturing for just-in-time delivery. These days, kanban apps are popular among software development teams. Kanban is particularly good at controlling how much new work a team takes on before the current batch of work in progress is complete. Some businesses do use kanban to manage projects, but kanban apps aren't really project management apps.
Task-management apps work pretty well for ongoing work, the kind of work that generates task upon task with no end in sight. (Remember, projects have a start date, an end date, and a deliverable.) You can manage a project in Asana or Trello, but it takes a little more work on your part to do so. The best way to explain it is with an analogy.
Think of Asana or a kanban app as a deck of cards. Now think of a project management app as a board game. Board games come with rules, and the game is usually the most fun when you play it the way it was designed to be played. With a deck of cards, however, you can play a game someone else invented or you can make up your own game. Before you play cards, you have to make sure everyone at the table knows the rules and plays by the same rules, because they aren't written down on a nice little sheet of paper for you to follow.
The same thing happens when you start using a task management app. You have to spend a lot of time figuring out how you're going to use it. On the one hand, it's very flexible. On the other hand, it can take some trial and error to get it right.
That's not to imply that project management systems are inflexible. With a board game, you could certainly make up your own rules or create variations on the rules. But you buy a board game with an understanding that it works best when you use it for its intended purposes. You use a project management app with the understanding that you are going to manage projects by assigning tasks and deadlines, monitoring work, tracking billable hours, and so forth.
To Do List Software
Another kind of app that people sometimes confuse with project management apps are to-do apps. Some to-do apps are collaborative. They sometimes give you the ability to create "projects" within them. You can assign a person to a to-do, give it a deadline, and watch for when the task is complete. But they're not project management apps.
Similar to the issue with task management apps, to-do list software doesn't give you the whole range of tools and features for tracking a complex project through its completion. Collaborative to-do apps are good for lightweight work. They're also good for families and multi-person households. But they're incapable of giving you a Gantt chart or an estimation of how much work time is left before the next phase of a project can begin.
My favorite collaborative to-do app is Todoist Premium. Asana also works extremely well as a collaborative to-do app.
Project Management for Small Business
Many small businesses turn to project management software because they're overwhelmed by working in email. The right project management platform can help kill email, but know that it won't happen overnight. It takes time for employees to learn the software, and for your organization to figure out how best to use it for the projects you have.
Small business and enterprises have very different needs, however, and it's important to find the project management tool that best fits your business.
One tip-off as to whether a project management solution is better suited for small companies or large enterprises is how they charge. Project management platforms that can support enterprises typically have a per-user-per-month fee structure, while those that cater more to very small businesses often charge a flat monthly rate for a set number of licenses or for unlimited licenses. And it's not that a very small business can't or shouldn't use the same software that the big players use, but sometimes it's overkill, and who wants to get stuck paying for features they don't need?
Another differentiating factor is whether the project management platform has many permissions levels. Workfront, for instance, has different permissions levels for executives, portfolio managers, project managers, and team members. Having such hierarchical roles can ensure that each person in the organization has the right level of access. In a very small business, where each employee wears a lot of different hats, permission levels might not be as advantageous.
There are other differences, too, aspects you'll want to consider for your particular business, team structure, and style of working. The summaries below will guide you toward finding the right service for your organization. When you're ready to get the full story on a particular service, click through to read an in-depth review.
Featured Project Management Software Reviews
Zoho Projects Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Online project management service Zoho Projects has a clean and straightforward interface, an excellent array of features, and plenty of support for integrating other business tools. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% LiquidPlanner is a complex and impressive online tool for managing projects, work, workers, and their time. Though expensive, LiquidPlanner is one of the best work-management tools on the market. Read the full review
Teamwork Projects Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% With a wide range of plans at attractive prices, plus wonderful usability and features, Teamwork Projects is one of the best places to manage projects, especially for small teams. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Clarizen is an online work management and project management service best suited for enterprise organizations. Though it's easy to start using, it's a bit expensive and less slick than other options. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Igloo is a pre-built company intranet that takes mere moments to set up and start using. If your business needs a central place online to communicate and (lightly) manage work, Igloo offers a very good service for a fair price. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Exquisite and highly intuitive in its user experience, TeamGantt is an excellent project management platform for small businesses. It's a little weak at in-app communication and collaboration, however. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Volerro is a kanban-style project management app. It provides excellent tools for communicating, but comes up short on mobile apps and integration with other services. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Workfront goes beyond project management to offer enterprise-level businesses a highly customizable work management platform. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% When you need a project management and collaboration solution yesterday, turn to Wrike. It offers plenty of ways to integrate with other apps and services, and you can set it up in a hurry. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% AceProject puts function over form in its sturdy but basic project management solution. It's affordable, but not feature-rich. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Easy to learn and cleanly designed, project management app Celoxis offers a wide range of features for tracking tasks, financial resources, and time. It's not strong on collaboration or communication features, however. Read the full review
Comindware Project Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Comindware Project is a solid project management service. It doesn't have every feature your team might desire, but if it has everything you need, it's a good option at a competitive price. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Online project management platform Mavenlink could be a good fit for mid- to large-size organizations, but it can get expensive for small businesses. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Project management service ProofHub aims for simplicity in a well-organized interface. It's a capable online solution for managing projects, but other tools offer more. Read the full review
%displayPrice% at %seller% Trello is an online kanban tool that helps teams collaborate and manage work. It's a solid, flexible system, but it's less powerful than traditional project management software. Read the full review
eXo Platform Review
%displayPrice% at %seller% If your company is looking to implement a centralized intranet or social experience, eXo Platform can deliver it on the cheap, but without an impressive array of features. Read the full review